The BBC have a certain amount of post-debate coverage on their news website today. Much of it is very timid and tentative in tone, and it’s painfully obvious that no-one can really say anything concrete, because the judgement of how the leaders did will be made by opinion polls, and the earliest of those won’t be published until tomorrow. In an attempt to lighten the tone a little, in addition to looking at the substance of the debate, the BBC also publish a piece in which they invite experts to look at other aspects of the debate. So we have:
- A Dr Max Atkinson analysing the language used by the three candidates;
- A Mr Jason Vit analysing their respective debating techniques;
- A Dr Harry Witchel analysing the body language of the three participants;
- A Ms Ceril Campbell analysing hair, make-up and wardrobe;
- A Ms Anila Baig commenting on set design and general ‘entertainment value’
So, notice anything there? Perhaps some quotations from the experts’ respective analyses will help clarify things.
Mr Clegg built on his success of the previous week by again trying to use phrases laden with imagery such as his line about things collapsing into a game of “political ping pong”.
Clegg’s style was far more aggressive in terms of debating tactics. He was up for going toe-to-toe. There was always a risk the audience would be put off by the new aggressive Clegg.
David Cameron has improved – he was less anxious. His legs were together. His posture was not leaning back. His head was not tilted back. Anything moving away from the audience is disengaging. Judging by his shoulders Cameron was much more confident.
Cameron had a purple tie. Purple is always quite regal. Maybe it was a good call.
I was more prepared this time, put the kettle on before the debate started, and settled down for the duration. Then came the dramatic music and the set. It was altogether a more serious affair even though it did more closely resemble X Factor with Adam Boulton the lone judge in front of the three performers.
Some extracts from the BBC’s biographies of the five experts will perhaps help to make things even plainer.
Dr Max Atkinson is a former fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford and visiting professor at the Henley Management College. […] He has run workshops for presidential speech-writers in the White House.
For the last two years Jason has worked for the English Speaking Union (an educational charity) first as the competitions officer and currently as head of speech and debate.
Dr. Harry Witchel is a body language expert, trainer and psycho-biologist researching at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School. He has consulted for multinationals including Honda, Nike, DHL and Nokia
Ceril has a degree in Fashion, Merchandising and Design […]. Ceril now runs “Discover the New You” masterclasses where she helps to make women and men to look and feel their best through personal coaching.
Anila Baig […] studied English at university, trained as a teacher and then joined a newspaper training scheme. […] She joined the Sun […] as a feature writer, and also presented a documentary about Islam in Britain. She has written columns, general features and was also a TV previewer for the paper.
So, there we have it.
- A panel of five experts, three men and two women.
- The men are invited to tackle the serious subjects, the stuff that, although it is less important than policy content, might still form part of an intellectual assessment of the relative merits of the three leaders.
- The women are invited to tackle the frivolous, fluffy stuff that should be irrelevant to any serious voter.
- Stylistically, the men are serious, precise, authoritative.
- The women’s contributions are jocular, uncertain, provisional.
- The biographies of the men make it clear that they are high-powered intellectuals, with impressive credentials marking them out as acknowledged experts in the areas they have been invited to comment on.
- The women’s biographies stress that they are less highly educated than the men, and emphasise that the individuals concerned are generalists, having no special claim to expertise in the area they are commenting on.
To summarise: the men are acknowledged experts, writing soberly about things that matter; the women are generalists, writing light-heartedly about trivia and minutiae.
Bear in mind, also, that all three candidates are men. The presenters of all three debates – Alistair Stewart, Adam Boulton, David Dimbleby – were and will be men. The net effect of all of this is to strongly reinforce the idea that the serious business of politics and government is something done by men, coordinated by men, and analysed by men. Women, when they feature in the debates at all, are granted permission by a man to ask questions of other men, and subsequently to analyse those parts of the debates that are most trivial, least important. In general, the election coverage – as in every previous election – will tackle the big topics (the economy, crime, immigration, political reform), and will then turn aside for a brief few minutes to discuss ‘what matters to women in this election’, implying that all the other topics are ‘men only’.
Let me stress that I intend no disrespect to Ms Baig and Ms Campbell. They were hired to do particular jobs – to discuss fashion, to be light-hearted and ‘fun’ – and they do those things professionally, and with considerable skill. No particular blame attaches to them. The blame attaches partly to the editors and producers who decided to hire men for the serious stuff and women for the trivia, and partly to the wider media culture which endlessly transmits and re-transmits the idea that men do serious, women do trivial, to the extent that the blatant sexism hardly even registers.