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Sunday, March 21, 2021

Free speech #4 - how free is free speech?


A free press is one of the cornerstones of democracy. It allows for the free exchange of views in a public arena, in newspapers, on radio or TV, which can be accessed by anyone, and so ensures a full and open discussion of important issues. Dictatorships and tyrannies censor the press, which shows how important it is.

The problem with this idea is that the free press … isn’t really free.

It costs a lot of money to produce a newspaper or to run a radio or TV channel. Who pays? Often it is companies who advertise in the newspaper or on the radio or TV channel. Will that newspaper or radio or TV channel be willing to run stories critical of any of the companies who provide them with their income? Unlikely.

And don’t forget that newspapers and radio and TV channels are themselves commercial enterprises, which can be bought and sold. It is perfectly possible (and very common) for a wealthy person to buy a newspaper or broadcasting organisation and then instruct the editors to broadcast news and commentary with a bias which favours the owner’s interests. If the editors protest, they can be fired and new ones hired who will do what they are told. If one person is rich enough, they can buy up almost all the news outlets in a country and ensure that only one way of seeing the world is ever heard. Governments may find it difficult to prevent this from happening, as they may face an unanswered storm of criticism from the news outlets if they do.

One solution to this problem is to have public broadcasting organisations which are not owned by private individuals, and which are instructed to be politically neutral. In the UK, the BBC operates in this way. However, this arrangement is not without its own issues.

The BBC is obliged to give both sides of any question that is discussed. But what if one side is manifestly wrong? For many years, the BBC gave equal time to people who were concerned about climate change, and to people who denied that climate change existed. It has now changed that policy, but not until a lot of airtime had been given to positions that flew in the face of facts and evidence, and which encouraged complacency in the face of an emergency. This is called false equivalence.

Another issue is that if the government provides the funding for a national broadcasting organisation, it has a lot of power over that organisation. In the UK, the BBC is funded by a licence fee, which everyone who owns a TV set or who accesses BBC content online is obliged by law to pay, with very few exceptions. But the government gets to choose the level that fee is set at. Even if the government of the day does not issue direct threats to the BBC, this might make editors and journalists think twice before being too critical of the government.

A further solution to this problem could be the internet, and social media in particular. It costs next to nothing to publish content online. This should surely liberate everyone; now we don’t need wealthy backers to enable us to say what needs to be said. However, there are issues with this form of debate and discussion.

One is that the freedom of the internet can be misused to threaten and abuse people, or to spread dangerous misinformation. Another is that, while anyone can set up a blog or Twitter or Facebook account for free, there are much more sophisticated ways of using the internet to propagate your views, involving the acquisition and exploitation of data on an industrial scale. This can be used to manipulate elections and referendums, often in a way that can be much harder to detect than overt bias in newspapers or broadcasters. Acting on this scale costs a lot of money, so we are back with the problem that the private ownership of print and broadcast outlets presents.

So, free speech isn’t really free; it costs money to spread your views, and this gives ownership of speech to those who already have wealth and power. Taking speech into government ownership curtails the power of wealthy individuals; but it also runs the risk of giving the government excessive power over speech.

Motions that go with this topic:

  • This house would require all broadcasters to be politically neutral
  • This house would forbid any individual to own more than 25% of news outlets
  • This house would privatise the BBC
  • This house would ban political advertisements on social media

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Bad Arguments #8 - introducing irrelevant issues (whataboutery)

‘Hannah, tidy up your bedroom.’
‘Because it’s so untidy you can’t find anything in it.’
‘Maybe, but you forgot to pick me up from hockey practice last Tuesday and I had to take the bus home in the dark and Mum had a go at you about how dangerous it was for me to come home in the dark so why should I listen to you going on about my bedroom?’

Hannah’s criticism of her Dad’s failure to remember his chauffeuring duties is well supported and powerful. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with the issue at hand; the tidiness of her bedroom. She hasn’t addressed her Dad’s argument in favour of tidying up her bedroom, instead moving the debate on to a completely irrelevant issue. By avoiding the central issue, she has lost the debate.

This bad argument is sometimes known as ‘Whataboutery’. This is because debaters who use it often begin with that phrase. To give some examples:

‘The use of homophobic language should be made illegal because it legitimises violence against gay people.’

‘What about racist language? Shouldn’t that be made illegal?’

‘GCSEs should be abolished because they create excessive stress for teenagers.’

‘What about the stress caused by competitive posting on social media? Why aren’t you addressing that?’

‘Meat should be taxed because the production of meat contributes to climate change.’

‘What about air travel? Why not tax that?’

How should you respond to ‘whataboutery’? One problem is that the issues raised (like Hannah’s Dad’s life-threatening forgetfulness) are often very real and important ones. However, you need to recall that they are not the issue that the debate is about. So, agree (briefly) that racism, bodyshaming on Whats App, air travel and not picking up your daughter from hockey practice are bad things, but then remind your opponent that they are not what the debate is about.

To sum up:

  • Only introduce issues that are relevant to the motion
  • If your opponent introduces irrelevant issues, don’t engage with those issues; simply point out that they are not relevant to the debate in hand, and then return to the central issues of the debate in hand.

Monday, March 8, 2021

How to debate #15 - using the media


When I was at school, there were three TV channels and not many more radio stations. Television started in the afternoon and stopped at 11 pm (with the national anthem). News came from bulletins scheduled at fixed times in the day, and from hard copy newspapers printed overnight and delivered in the morning. If something really exceptional happened, programmes might be interrupted for a ‘News Flash’. This happened about once every five years.

It’s different now. It’s a bit like food. In the early twentieth century, many people in Britain were made ill by not having enough food to eat. In the early twenty-first century, almost nobody in Britain does not have enough food to eat, but many people are made ill by only having bad food to eat. Rickets doesn’t kill people any more; obesity related illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes do. So with information. There’s no shortage of it, but it isn’t all good, and if you consume the wrong sort it can damage the health of your understanding. So you need to be discriminating.

Social media is a wonderful invention for certain things. It is a superb tool for connecting people with like minded interests, for organising people, and for disseminating information. I’m not convinced that it is very useful for informing yourself about the world. There is a natural tendency for it to form into bubbles of like minded people who simply reinforce one another’s prejudices without being challenged. The brevity of the medium also means that it is very hard to develop arguments with the length and complexity necessary to understand them properly. The anonymity of the medium means that anyone can post anything, without having to take responsibility for its accuracy or fairness. Moreover, there is substantial evidence (for example, from the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election in 2016, and now with anti-vaccine propaganda) that social media can be manipulated in a very sophisticated way to distort the outcomes of popular votes or to spread malicious and false conspiracy theories.

The advantage of what is sometimes dismissively referred to as ‘the mainstream media’ is that it is more accountable, and more controlled. Anything printed in a newspaper or broadcast on a mainstream TV or radio channel will have been fact checked and edited. That does not mean, however, that they will be free of bias; part of being a good debater is being able to detect and take into account that bias.

TV and Radio

The BBC has consistently been criticised from both left and right for being biased, which I think is a very good sign. It is not without its flaws, but I still believe it is up there with the NHS as one of the institutions of which British people should be proud. It is mandated by law (unlike other media outlets) to be free of bias. The accuracy and impartiality of its journalism is generally of a very high standard. The Today programme on BBC Radio 4 and Newsnight on BBC 2 can both be highly recommended. Its website offers a lot of longer articles; its ‘explainers’ are great sources for researching debates.  Sky News is very good for deeper analysis, as is Channel 4 News.

Newspapers and magazines


The GuardianThe Independent (online only), The Times and The Daily Telegraph  are the ‘serious’ newspapers. They will give you facts about what is happening in the world, though each with their own bias in the way they are presented. The Guardian and The Independent lean to the left, and the Times and the Telegraph to the right. In many ways the most useful part of these papers is the opinion and editorial section (known as op-ed for short) which will feature columns expressing opinions about issues in the news. The best of these are superb examples of how to build an argument persuasively - very useful for debaters. The Financial Times is the best researched and most accurate daily newspaper, but (as its name implies) focuses heavily on financial and business news.

Weekly magazines give a longer and more considered view, their writers having had more time to reflect on events. The Economist is phenomenally well researched, and covers not just Britain but the whole world. It doesn’t have any gossip or celebrity stories, or any sport (unless it’s about the economic impact of sport) but there is no better guide to the world; read it every week and you will be very well informed. The New Statesman and the Spectator offer a lot of thoughtful analysis, the Statesman from the left and the Spectator from the right. The Week offers a very useful selection from the major news stories and opinion pieces, providing a helpful summary of the issues. Prospect and Standpoint are both published monthly, so can take an even longer view, in more detailed, thoughtful essays, often deeply researched.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

How to think about politics #6 - inequality


Harry and Helena are having dinner with their Dad.

They’re having sausages. Both children like sausages.

There are five sausages left.

Dad gives Harry three sausages, and Helena two sausages.

Helena says, ‘That’s not fair!’

Is Helena right? It depends on the reason for the unequal allocation of sausages.

Let’s look at some possible reasons for Dad’s decision.

1. Helena is three, and Harry is thirteen.

2. Dad thinks boys are more important than girls.

3. Helena is fourteen, and Harry is thirteen, but Harry emptied the dishwasher, swept the kitchen floor, peeled the potatoes and took out the rubbish before dinner, while Helena lay on the sofa watching Netflix.

4. If Harry doesn’t get more sausages than his sister, Dad knows, from long experience, that he will pick up his plate and throw it on the floor, shout and swear all afternoon, and generally make everyone’s lives a misery.

5. Both children have just got their school exam results. Harry got all As, and Helena got all Cs.

What has this got to do with debating?

The story of Harry and Helena is a way of illustrating a fundamental issue that comes up in a lot of debates: inequality. How much inequality is fair? How much inequality is too much?

The historical fact is that there has never, for any length of time, been a completely equal society. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that the early Christians ‘had everything in common’, in an attempt to live out their faith that all people were created equal in the sight of God; in due course the church acquired immense wealth and power, which was not equally shared. In the very early days of both the Russian and the Chinese communist revolutions, people shared communal living spaces with virtually no private possessions in an attempt to enact Karl Marx’s dictum ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs’; before too long an elite of party members with access to the best houses, schools and jobs developed.

Is that because inequality is inherent in human nature? Should we just accept it? Or is it possible - is it desirable - to make a society that is at least more equal, even if it isn’t 100% equal? Or, on the other hand, might inequality actually be a good thing? Might it be a way of recognising that we are all different? Or a way of encouraging us to work hard and aspire to improve ourselves?

Let’s go back to Harry, Helena, and different reasons for the unequal sausage allocation.

1. Helena is three, and Harry is thirteen.

In this case, Harry simply needs more food than his sister, because he has the body of a teenage boy, and she has the body of a toddler. Similarly, in wider society, some people have greater needs than others.

Let’s imagine two women, Anna and Bella. They both work in a call centre for a bank. They sit next to each other. They do the same job, for the same pay. They like to chat to each other in the breaks, and as they do, they realise that they have very different lives. Anna has six children. The father of those children (having forced Anna into having them) now has nothing to do with them, or with her, and cannot be found. Anna also has a recently widowed father, who is disabled, who lives with her, and for whom she cares. Bella, on the other hand, is single (and is happy to be so) and has no dependants.

Although Anna and Bella earn the same amount, Anna needs more money than Bella. She needs a big house for her children and her father to live in, and she has to buy food for them to eat. She could work work extra hours to generate more income, but then she would not have time to look after her family. Her life is hard. Meanwhile, Bella has money and time to spare. Her life is easy.

Is it fair that Anna’s life is harder than Bella’s? How is their situation going to affect their relationship? Are they more or less likely to be friends? What if the state gave people an income in proportion to the number of children they had? Would this be a good idea? Or would it just encourage people to have more children? People can, to a degree, control how many children they have; none the less, once the children are there, they need supporting. Is it right that some children, who have not chosen their family situation, should grow up with less? Isn’t it fair that people should be given what they need? Or should people take responsibility for themselves and their families?

2. Dad thinks boys are more important than girls.

Dad is wrong, of course. But there are endless examples throughout history and around the world of people being economically excluded, earning less, for reasons which are beyond their control and have nothing to do with their inherent merit. It might be because of their skin colour; their gender; their religion. Sometimes this discrimination is openly enshrined in the law, as in the legislation banning black people from certain jobs in apartheid South Africa, or in the requirement for women to resign from certain jobs on marriage in early twentieth century Britain. Sometimes it is not in the law but is none the less present in the structures of society, as in Northern Ireland in the twentieth century, where the best paying jobs and the best housing were only available to Protestants; in theory Catholics could apply for a better job or or put in an offer for a better house, but everyone knew their application would go straight in the bin. Sometimes the discrimination is so subtle and deeply embedded that even those practising it are not aware that they are doing so, as in the unconscious bias that leads black people in the UK more likely to be excluded from school, more likely to end up in prison, less likely to be appointed or promoted to well paying jobs.

We all know treating people unequally on the grounds of their race, gender or religion is wrong; that’s beyond debate. What’s more, in the UK it’s against the law. The Equalities Act of 2010 makes it illegal to discriminate against people on the grounds of age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, marriage, civil partnership, pregnancy or maternity. Is having that law enough? Or do we need to impose quotas to ensure that the representation of different types of people in different professions reflects their representation in society as a whole? Or will that be counter-productive, causing women and people of colour to be seen as only having got their jobs because they are the ‘diversity hire’? Will it undermine the achievements of those who have got to the top by their own efforts?

3. Helena is fourteen, and Harry is thirteen, but Harry emptied the dishwasher, swept the kitchen floor, peeled the potatoes and took out the rubbish before dinner, while Helena lay on the sofa watching Netflix.

Now this looks fair. Harry works harder and does more for the family than Helena (at least today) so of course he deserves more. This is one of most fundamental arguments in favour of economic inequality. People who do more demanding or more worthwhile jobs should be paid more: partly because that’s fair, and partly because otherwise no one will want to do them.

But does what people earn really reflect the value of their jobs to society? The Covid-19 pandemic has made us all think again about this. When the rest of society was locked down, shelf stackers, bus drivers, hospital cleaners and rubbish collectors all carried on going out to work, often at great risk to their health. Why? Because, while everything else could come to a stop for a while, society could not function without these ‘key workers’. Every Thursday night we all stood outside our houses applauding them. And yet their jobs - essential jobs without which we could not survive - are amongst the worst paid. Thanks for the applause, many said, but could we also have more money?

Or what if it’s not Helena’s fault that she has had what looks like a lazy day? Maybe she has been lying on the sofa because she is recovering from a serious illness. Maybe she is suffering from depression. Maybe she is disabled and it is physically impossible for her to do what her brother is doing. She might feel intensely frustrated and jealous of her brother for being able to make a contribution to the family and being recognised for it. What do we do about people who are not able to work? Do we let them starve?

4. If Harry doesn’t get more sausages than his sister, Dad knows, from long experience, that he will pick up his plate and throw it on the floor, shout and swear all afternoon, and generally make everyone’s lives a misery.

Often, people get more, not because they deserve it, but because they have power. They might be high up in a powerful institution within a society, like the Church in medieval England, or the Communist Party in the Soviet Union; as a result, they get the best of everything. Or they might already be wealthy, and use that wealth to keep their wealth by buying newspapers or TV stations and thus exerting influence through the media, or by making large donations to political parties, to ensure that no policies are enacted that threaten their wealth. Or, more subtly and perhaps more insidiously, they might exercise influence through cultivating relationships with powerful people they were at school or university with, or who are in their social group, which enable them to get the highest paid jobs.

Say Jesus wouldn’t have lived in a big palace like the bishop’s while people starved? You’re a heretic who’s going to Hell. Point out that being driven everywhere in a limousine isn’t very Communist? Off to the Gulag for you as a counter-revolutionary. Just won an election and want to raise taxes on the very wealthy? All of a sudden a best selling newspaper has dug up an embarrassing love affair from your past and is going to splash it on the front page if you don’t change your mind. Want that promotion? I know you worked hard for it, but the man who ends up getting it shared a dorm with the boss at prep school, so he knows he’s a good chap.

This kind of unfairness is less obvious, but in a way more damaging, than discrimination on the grounds of race, gender or religion. What makes it harder to tackle is that those who have an unfair share of the goodies can use their power to make it seem as if that state of affairs is simply a law of nature that can never be altered. It is God’s will that the bishop should live in a palace; the Party is on the right side of history; everyone knows higher taxes will wreck the economy because all the newspapers and all the TV stations say so; we always appoint people from that school because they get such a good education. Harry never actually has to throw his plate on the floor to get his extra sausages; he knows by now that he will get them. What’s more, he gets what he wants so often that his sister grows up believing that it is part of the natural state of affairs for boys to get more than girls. Very likely she will end up marrying a man who pushes her around like her brother did, and she will think this is normal too, and perhaps her daughter will too, and her granddaughter, and so on, until one of them sees that another way of doing things is possible.

5. Both children have just got their school exam results. Harry got all As, and Helena got all Cs.

Like example no 3, this looks fair. Harry must have worked harder, so of course he deserves a reward. It’s certainly replicated in real life; people’s earning capacity is very highly correlated to their level of academic qualification. But it may not be as simple as it looks. What if Harry was always allowed the computer to do his homework on? What if Harry and Helena’s parents paid for a tutor for Harry, but not for Helena? What if they sent Harry to a better school than Helena? What if Helena has no confidence because her Dad has always let her know that he favours boys over girls? What if Helena is just less academic than Harry, but is much better at lots of other things - say fixing bikes, or baking cakes, or telling jokes, or just being kind to her family and friends - any one of which might be more useful than memorising a lot of stuff for a test? Exams look like a level playing field, but in fact all kinds of other factors come into play which have little or nothing to do with academic ability.


The more you think about it, the more complex an issue inequality becomes. Like all the best issues.

Motions that go with this topic

1. This house would introduce a universal basic income.
2. This house would increase benefits.
3. This house would increase the minimum wage.
4. This house would introduce a maximum wage.
5. This house would ban schools from selecting on the grounds of academic ability.
6. This house would oblige all news outlets to observe impartiality.
7. This house would make it compulsory for 50% of members of company boards to be female.
8. This house would make universities offer places to BAME students in proportion to their distribution in society.
9. This house believes economic inequality is bad for society.