The Big Debate: Too much of a shouting match

Rhoda Kadalie says that while the idea behind the programme is good, the execution is bad

In a fairly young democracy like SA we should welcome the plethora of talk shows and television debates, more so because Parliament is virtually dead. Elected officials care less and less about their constituencies. So attempts to promote national dialogue, especially for those who feel excluded from society, should be encouraged.

On Tuesday I watched The Big Debate on eNCA with great interest, the topic was directed at our country's youth in politics. Representatives from all major political parties sparred with each other. The not-so-young Marius Fransman also participated but God alone knows why he was included. Using TV as a party platform, he stayed, at least, true to being his obnoxious self.

Two worrying issues emerged from this gladiatorial shouting match. Gathering a diverse group of people with diverse interests into one space, needs an expert referee, otherwise the debate is directionless and a free for all. Groupies clearly followed their leaders into the studio and applauded them vociferously, while they shouted down others regardless of the drivel spewed in abundance. The same people cheered contradictory points of view demonstrating the mindless populism saturating our airwaves.

Secondly, if The Big Debate continues in this format, I hope the producers realise that this show will become completely counter-productive. It encourages division rather than debate. For example, some EFF supporters, sitting behind the DA representative, whom they obviously abhorred, gesticulated wildly that he should be shut up by making the "slit your throat sign" at some point when he tried to make a point. The cameras unwittingly caught this hate fest.

By comparison this show was unlike a platform I hosted recently in partnership with Liberty Foundation where 15 youth leaders from 12 NGOs addressed the vexed question "whether their education adequately fulfilled their career ambitions." Black, coloured and Indian youth from disadvantaged backgrounds, who all "made it", despite poor schooling spoke passionately about how these NGOs rescued them from a life of failure and apathy by providing post-school mentorship and life skills training related to the performing arts, youth diversion and vocational programmes. 

These young people were inspirational, ambitious, and gave the most ruthless, cogent and honest critique of SA's dysfunctional education system, stating upfront what they would have wanted from school. "Our schools and teachers are intolerant of kids who are artistic, creative and entrepreneurial", they complained. "Teachers feel threatened by kids who questioned the conventional wisdom of the day". Without briefing these young people beforehand, they conversed with each other, built on each other's arguments, and gave a trenchant critique about the failures of adults to rescue them from a deleterious education system.

Although the idea behind The Big Debate is good, its execution is bad. If the intention is to stimulate debate, educate and create social cohesion, then it is failing dismally. Increasing the viewership, does not translate into increased communication and understanding.

The Big Debate would do well to take a leaf from the BBC's Intelligence Squared debate, where the audience votes on a topic before and after the debate to see whether the debate has changed the minds of participants and whether have learnt anything new or not. Structured as learning platforms rather than shouting matches, the BBC strives to educate by appointing a moderator who tries to bring the best out of the audience and presenters.

Scott Pelley CBS News Anchor cautions: "Never before in human history has more information been available to more people; never before in human history has so much bad information been available to more people (my emphasis)."

The Big Debate has great potential to educate the public, not add to the bad!

This article first appeared in Die Burger.

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