Quick post about last night’s Channel 4 News No Go Britain debate.
On the one hand it was positive to see a disabled MP debating disability issues with a disabled audience for a sizeable chunk of a primetime news programme. The debate didn’t shirk from the issues of greatest concern: welfare reform, the implementation gap on anti discrimination and accessibility and so on.
My Twitter feed lit up with people excitedly announcing that disabled people were giving one to the government:
‘watch disabled people NOW on Channel 4 News make a joke of the government’s representatives who talk crap…..Great to see the truth told by disabled people to the powers that be who should be shamed’
Robert Halfon MP trotted out the usual government lines about ‘spending £50 billion a year on disabled people’ and ‘having to make difficult decisions’, while ADASS Chair David Pearson spoke of how the aims of the Care Act were being undermined by local government spending cuts. Their replies were undoubtedly weak. They did not look comfortable.
The audience became more and more frustrated with their replies, the interventions angrier and angrier:
‘Your policy is designed to remove benefits from disabled people, designed to kill, to make people homeless. Your government has blood on its hands.’
Problem after problem was highlighted (with few if anyone venturing any solutions). Channel 4 News will probably regard this as having made good TV – there is a reason Jeremy Kyle is such a popular programme.
But I’m afraid for disabled people this was very likely not a successful broadcast.
As the Frameworks Institute has established through extensive research, tone matters hugely in terms of how audiences respond:
‘A reasonable tone activates a community response and a can do attitude. When people are presented with a reasonable discussion of the problem, its causes and potential solutions, they are much better at processing and understanding new information. Your audience begins to think about how to solve the problems rather than how to identify the agendas of the messengers.
An argumentative tone is one that is opinionated, highly charged and ideological. When social problems are communicated in this tone, the audience tends to respond with skepticism regarding the messengers motives, hear that it is about politics and factionalising and are less likely to be open to new information and solutions-based thinking’
Many (but not all) of the participants adopted the argumentative tone. The tweets surrounding the programme, such as those above, encapsulate that tone. One particularly notable exception was the mother campaigning for Changing Places who was reasonable, explained the problem clearly and advanced an easy to grasp solution that many parents of non-disabled children would empathise with.
And therein lies the problem. The opportunity of such a programme is not for disabled people in a studio to shout at a disabled MP, or to excite their existing supporters watching at home. It is to reach the wider viewing public – concerned about their own lives, such as the income and council tax they pay, whether the council is going to fix potholes, their and their children’s future job opportunities and the state of the economy – and to enlist their support, not to alienate them.
Halfon and Pearson may have lacked credibility with those already angry about government policy and inaction around disability rights. But what both did was frame their responses in terms of trying to solve the difficult problem of providing services while reining in spending – a problem which much of the country sympathises with. Moreover, both enjoyed the underserved benefit of sounding credible and that’s principally because they both came across as calm and reasonable in the face of anger and hostility.
Messages, messengers and tone matter whether we like it or not.