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The adversarial style of Vincent Browne is not for some. Photocall Ireland
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Column Why I don't watch Vincent Browne

… or Prime Time, for that matter, Ciarán Mc Mahon writes.

THE RETURN OF Vincent Browne to the red desk at TV3 recently was heralded across Ireland’s new media with the type of sentiment with which holidaying schoolchildren greet the postman.

But the gnarly return gave me little cause for excitement as I seldom engender enough enthusiasm within myself to log on to that garish website and wait for the paid messages to subside.

It’s not that I bear any ill will towards #VinB, it’s quite simply that I value my peace of mind and good night’s sleep. I know I’m not the only one.

What irks me most, and ires me greatly about such programmes is that, while purporting to be informative about current affairs, I find myself seldom more, and occasionally less informed about that topic having watched one of them.

Quite simply they generate more heat than light, and often another word, which rhymes with the latter, comes to mind. An hour of haranguing, a handful of ad breaks and a whole lot of hectoring does not an educating spectacle make.

But what is it about these programmes that makes them so infuriating? It’s quite simply the format.

Whether it’s Vincent Browne or Pat Kenny, Miriam O’Callaghan or Richard Crowley, the set-up is always the same: bring a bunch of people on and start a row. Of course, that’s not the intention, but that’s what it often looks like, and that’s what apparently garners ratings.

What exactly is wrong with this format? It’s simple, but not obvious. News broadcasting all across the free world is hamstrung by ideas like balance and objectivity.

‘Entirely adversarial’

This necessarily means that current affairs panels should at least appear to have an unbiased chair, and for every person presenting one side of a debate or issue, at least one doing the opposite. That’s the general idea, and that’s what we expect to see. Throw in an ‘independent expert’ or media-friendly head and you’re done.

There’s a fundamental problem with this format and it’s why we all get wound up watching them and come away from them feeling somewhat short-changed. These shows are entirely adversarial – two sides fighting each other – and are roughly based on a courtroom scenario. That’s the whole idea of having a presenter – to be an impartial judge, maintaining order in the proceedings.

We viewers given the illusion of being the jury, passing verdict on the presented evidence (‘you can text the studio…’, ‘tweet using the hashtag’). It would probably be more honest if we admitted that we are simply the members of the public, passively watching via video link.

Don’t forget, of course, that you needn’t rise as they enter your TV screen, but do remember that both Browne and O’Callaghan are from legal backgrounds.

What’s the problem with the adversarial format? Quite simply, we are not prosecuting crimes. In a courtroom it works because the accused is innocent until proven guilty, and the prosecution have to convince the jury – beyond all reasonable doubt – that they committed the crime.

In other words, the onus isn’t on you to show that you’re a good guy – it’s on your opponents to show that you’re a bad guy: prosecution has to be watertight, defence simply has to pick holes.

But the things which are debated on television are not crimes – it’s usually Enda Kenny, being tried, in absentia, for making some decision or other. How does the ‘presumption of innocence until guilty’ work where the act in question is not a crime? and is actually something which the government believe is a good thing?

‘It’s not informing, it’s confusing’

The burden is reversed entirely and this is why the adversarial format doesn’t work. Instead of in a courtroom, where the person accused of a crime is assumed to be innocent until proven guilty, on a current affairs programme, the politician who has made the headlines is assumed to have done something wrong, and must defend their actions.

This is a remarkably ineffective assumption to make from the outset before interviewing a person and unlikely to persuade them to relinquish any new information or admit to any wrongdoing.

Besides, the blustering, bully-boy interviewing techniques being used have all the sophistication of a shotgun and whose intentions are so obvious a dog could predict the response. ‘Government defends actions’, well holy God.

Consequently, it’s no surprise that politicians avoid these shows for as long as they can, where they are baited into an ambush and where the worst is assumed of them and their profession.

It’s not informing, it’s confusing: and really only reinforces the viewer’s existing opinions. The only small surprise in any of these programmes is when a politician lets something slip, makes a mistake or embarrasses themselves: seldom does anything enlightening emerge.

Here’s a small suggestion to the producers of such risible infotainment – instead of trying to spark ‘debate’, how about asking participants what they agree on? What about trying to find consensus, instead of discord?

Current affairs should be a court of arbitration, not argumentation: while repeated spectacles of nit-picking and point-scoring do nothing to advance our society, a single outbreak of compromise in these tough times might help us all sleep easier.

Dr Ciarán Mc Mahon is a psychologist and researcher in politics and social media. He blogs both at candidate.ie and ciaranmcmahon.ie and can be followed @cjamcmahon

Read: He’s back: Vincent Browne returns to our screens tonight

Read: 9 videos that sum-up Ireland’s banking and economic collapse

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