EU Referendum TV Debates: All Heat, No Light

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One of the major lessons to emerge from last night's Sky News EU referendum interview and Q and A had nothing to do with the issue at hand.

While hoping to hear reasoned arguments on behalf of the Leave campaign, represented by Justice Secretary Michael Gove, it struck me that what we were presented with instead was an instructional video on how not to run a political debate. 

Interviewer Faisal Islam,  while perhaps operating from commendably enthusiastic motives, mostly  treated us to a prolonged exercise in badgering as distinct from probing for the truth. 

Seemingly unable to be quiet long enough to allow us -  much less the interviewee -  time to assimilate what was going on,  the host appeared to confuse nagging with Paxman-like persistence. 

I suspect that more than a few TV viewers would have found themselves,  like me,  more annoyed by the interviewer's condescending style than Mr Gove's analysis, even when, at times, that analysis was highly questionable.

In the audience question session that followed, seasoned host Kay Burley appeared firm but gracious, at least allowing the guest to get his answers out - without once allowing what I call pollie-waffle.

A couple of times, I found myself hoping that perhaps the programme was being seen by one or two of the five EU presidents Mr Gove (rightly) said the public would struggle to name. Were the EU to attempt greater transparency and a more humble engagement with the public, it might make friends more easily - and not just in Britain. 

At one point,  Michael Gove spoke of the "invincible arrogance of the EU".  I suspect that even some of his opponents in the Remain camp will secretly agree with his selection of phrase.

Only around 38 per cent of British voters participate in EU elections and the European average is just over 40 per cent. Yet some leading EU apparatchiks behave as if they carry not only a vast popular mandate, but a divine right to rule. This is especially vexing in relation to Eurocrats who are never even subjected to a public vote, including the President of the European Commission. 

The highest official in the EU set-up, the Commission President is elected by the European Parliament made up of elected MEPs - who themselves are voted in by a small percentage of voters. The President is not elected directly by the citizens of Europe and most of them will likely know very little about him or her.

The current office-bearer, Jean-Claude Juncker,  is the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg, a country with a population not much different to that of Glasgow. Yet despite having no popular mandate and the miniature size of the state he once ruled, he feels free to warn Brits that Europeans will consider them traitorous if they vote to leave the EU. He did not use the word traitorous, but his meaning was clear.

I consider myself a Europhile at heart, having lived for a decade in Denmark before moving to the UK in 2004. My work has seen me shuttling across the EU since the early 1990s. I recognise the enormous opportunities that the EU affords, especially in terms of innovation and trade.

Yet I feel - and I'm far from alone in this - that the EU needs a good lesson in public relations. Its top bureaucrats often play up to their public image of being aloof and condescending.  

People who'd like to defend the EU find it difficult enough, without having to overcome preceptions focused on untouchable snobbery. If the recent debacle surrounding Fifa taught us nothing, it showed what happens when officials start to believe that they are above the normal rules of public behaviour. 

At another point in last night's proceedings, Mr Gove posited that a British departure might fairly quickly result in a friendly and neighbourly accommodation with the EU. That stretches credulity more than a little. Neighbourly relationships require a cordial attitude from two parties.

The tone of statements from Mr Juncker and some of his colleagues suggests that, post-divorce, the EU institution might be in no mood to remain "just good friends" with the UK. 

At the end of the last night's broadcast, one would be hard pressed to identify any clinching argument put forward by the Leave camp. The same can be said of the previous night's appearance by David Cameron for the Remain camp.

For all the claims and counter-claims about Brexit ushering in either total economic meltdown or a multicultural nirvana in which migration is tightly controlled, the fact remains that no politician or economist can definitively predict what will happen on the other side of June 23.

One thing that could be said about last night's programme is that Michael Gove came across as relatively likeable and, if not totally assured, at least at times disarmingly honest.  He did,  after all, admit to disagreements with figures on his own side.  

Meanwhile Kay Burley appeared gracious, and efficient. Faisal Islam,  who is undoubtedly a fine reporter and perhaps potentially a very good interviewer, came across as belligerent. 

We don't want to see British news programmes become the shout fests we watch on American cable networks. 

On this, the most significant national decision we will make in a generation, we have politicians speaking at each other rather than to their constituents. 

We don't need TV people shouting above the din. We need provocative but thoughtful debates to take us beyond the shouting of our politicos and the hubris of EU leaders. Please, give us less heat and more light.


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