A useful, media-integrated debate

Most of my readership will know I value a good debate and am interested in any opportunity to engage in sustained discussion and exploration of ideas on often controversial issues. I have learned perhaps, from my experiences as a campaigner for Daylight Saving in South-East Queensland, as well as for my roles behind the scenes for a number of public interest campaigns, to be careful about how I articulate a vision, and not to respond merely to the simple barbs of some combatants. It is vital, for instance, to focus on the realistic consequences of a policy change, and not to be too wrapped in idealism.

This is why I have been rather frustrated by the attempts at social debate made by the BBC program, ‘The Big Questions‘ aired on Sunday mornings. Yesterday’s program involved exploration for some of the program on whether prosititution should be made ‘illegal’. Not only was the question misunderstood by some of the speakers present (there is a distinct difference between criminalisation of soliciting and criminalisation of prosititution more generally), but there was also a blindness among advocates for the rights of women, in believing that criminalisation of prostitution would in fact improve the rights of women, and reduce cases of abuse and sexual slavery (both of which are already illegal). I applaud the BBC for engaging in these difficult questions, but I wonder whether the invited audience format for debate is useful? At least, if such a format is to be employed, should not there be substantial opportunity for the public to engage in the debate electronically, either before or after the event (preferably before, as the public are remarkably better informed than most programmers would have you believe)? Also, the program is very short and explores far too many questions at once. This leaves the audience both in the studio and in home lounge rooms feeling more frustrated than informed about the issues at hand. Public debate needs to be more considered than these snapshots of difficult issues. And technology can help there.

No don’t get me wrong – I’m in many ways an idealist about new technologies. But once upon a time, under the direction of my old mentor, Trevor Barr, I faced the prospect of defining myself under his now-famous ‘Schools of Thought’ theory, as someone who believes in the potential of the technologies to improve human communication as well as business opportunities, so long as there are distinct ground rules for ensuring access to the infrastructure for participation.

In the case of ‘The Big Questions’ there is a limited opportunity for the public to engage in debate, based on the community that has been built around the program online (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/programmes/thebigquestions/), but perhaps because of its positioning as a Religion and Ethics program, or because of its fairly simplistic and under emphasised Message Board, the debate online is dominated by a few main voices, with at times over-simplified commentary.

I think this kind of program deserves the profile and style of engagement favoured by the Guardian’s Comment is Free site. It would be simple enough to invite the public to submit extended, and thoughtful pieces related to each ‘Big Question’, such that a more sustained and proactive outcome can be achieved by engaging with these ideas. Further, if the televised version could follow up on questions raised, I think the value of the programme would be greatly enhanced. The method I propose is more truly a collaboration between audiences and content developers, rather than a website as an add-on to an existing programme.

If reality television has taught us anything, it is that audiences like to be heard and to have influence over what they see after they get their ‘vote’. Programmes like ‘The Big Questions’ need to ensure that they are more considered in their articulation of an issue, and the role they play in bringing about change.

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