So. After two years of slowly building itself in the wilderness, crafting press releases that media outlets file carefully in the bin, organising speeches, events, and awareness campaigns, and spreading the libertarian word to individuals bit by bit (from giving party cards to shopkeepers to chatting with taxi drivers and barmen), the LPUK has finally appeared on the national scene, doing two television appearances in one week. It never rains but it pours, eh?
Publicity bite number one came this past Sunday, when LPUK leader Chris Mounsey was invited to debate the question, ‘Should the drink-driving limit be dropped from 80mgs to 50?’ on The Big Questions.
As a matter of fact, he was not being asked to form part of the panel – a detail which the producers failed to mention until he actually walked onto the set for the live broadcast. In reality, he was to present a single point of view, in company with a doctor from the BMA, a grieving mother whose son was killed by a driver over the 80mgs limit, and a representative of an auto association. He also discovered when he walked on set that the question was not, ‘Should the drink-driving limit be dropped from 80mgs to 50?’ but rather ‘Should drivers drink?’
Now, it is not for a political actor to complain that the media do not play fair; when he realised his carefully researched data were going to be useless in context, Chris manned up and did his level best to demonstrate that there is no statistical benefit to prohibiting drivers from drinking at all. Unfortunately, he ran straight into:
Maxim 1 of Political ‘Debate': Your opponent will always lie.
The doctor from the BMA had come armed with her own ‘data’ to prove that, hey, a tiny bit of alcohol slows reaction times by 12.5%, and with 80mgs of drink in the blood reaction times are 10 times slower than with 50. Subsequent research has shown these claims to be rather dubious.
Furthermore, he encountered:
Maxim 2 of Political ‘Debate': The victim (or his mother) is always right.
Never mind that only a tiny proportion of people are killed in drink-driving accidents; never mind that only a tiny proportion of drink-driving journeys result in accidents at all. Anyone who does not utterly oppose the conjunction of alcohol and driving, however limited, is essentially an advocate of manslaughter – and, incidentally, a total monster for making a grieving mother cry.
That said, he did at least have the opportunity to say one or two things about libertarianism, and it was encouraging to find the audience applauding rather less enthusiastically for the bansturbators than they had done earlier for those guests who averred that priests abusing children was a disgrace. If banning drivers from all alcohol consumption was such an obvious no-brainer, surely the audience would have given it the same acclamation they gave to the many other no-brainer statements made on the programme that day.
Publicity bite number two occurred this very morning. Again, LPUK leader Chris Mounsey was invited to speak about the party, this time on The Daily Politics. The producers contacted him to say the interview would be part of a segment on the ‘small parties’ and their policies – as if to suggest that, alone of all media outlets, The Daily Politics was responsible and engaged enough to tell its viewers that there actually are more than three political parties in the United Kingdom. Again, Chris agreed to appear.
And again, he found himself wrong-footed. The ‘interview’ would turn out to be a two-and-a-half minute segment during which Andrew Neil actually did most of the talking. Outliers of all types have to be kept in the liminal spaces, of course, and with small parties, there is a distinct danger that if the media actually report their actual views in any kind of detail, those parties might cease to be quite so small.
Andrew Neil obviously entered the ‘interview’ with that in mind, and ensured that every one of his questions reinforced that marginalisation. He asked not one single question about the party’s policies, manifesto or activities during the course of its two-year existence; instead, he asked, ‘Why are you so small?’ and ‘Why are you standing only one candidate?’ These are not invalid questions, per se, but they have as much relevance to what the party advocates as why they chose blue and gold for the party colours, or a gryphon for its logo.
Maxim 3 of Political ‘Debate': If your position is generally perceived to be marginal, your opponent will focus solely on marginalising you.
During a general election when the media is prepared to demand ridiculous levels of detail about main-party policies, they are certainly not going to waste valuable time asking what is the general goal, outlook, or most prominent policy of any small party. It might suck up the time they’d rather spend reporting on Sarah Brown’s wonky toe.
But fair enough. Chris was there to answer Andrew’s questions, and he did a good job. He explained that the party is young and not well enough funded to pay deposits for many candidates, but that the membership is growing steadily.
Then, perhaps unsurprisingly, Andrew asked about Chris’s blog. And thereby made a colossal tactical error. First, Andrew named the blog, breaking:
Maxim 4 of Political ‘Debate': Never give your opponent free advertising.
Then, he repeated several times that he was not permitted to articulate the blog’s content on television! He made it forbidden fruit, thus also breaking:
Maxim 5 of Political ‘Debate': Never make your opponent’s position look attractive or intriguing.
Unfortunately, Chris was not prepared for a fuck-up of this magnitude on Andrew’s part, and found himself rather at a loss. Should he apologise for the unrepeatable content, or should he remain unrepentant (and thus raise his danger appeal even more)? In the end, because he is a gentleman, he plumped for an non-committal statement of regret. One wonders whether he regretted writing ‘inappropriate’ remarks about public figures, or whether it was simply that he regretted Andrew felt the blog was at all relevant to the LPUK manifesto.
The LPUK, and libertarians in general, have now learned some valuable lessons.
First, Chris was right to go and speak on these programmes. Most of the speaking engagements we libertarians do tend to be in front of other libertarians, which is great but is also preaching to the choir. Although these appearances will not have enlightened anybody about libertarian views, they have nevertheless made a lot of people aware of the existence of a libertarian party. We on the series of tubes lose sight of this sometimes (pace Boaty & D), but there are lots of libertarians out there who aren’t bloggers or blog readers, but who do watch television. Now some of them will know there is a substantial, organised community of libertarians out there that they can be part of.
Second, our assumptions about the media have all been true. They are not interested in reporting, nor are they in any way responsible holders-to-account of public actors. They are a business, and like all businesses they exist to sell their product. Consumers of news media enjoy both outrage and scandal, which unfortunately run-of-the-mill public figures do not provide in great supply. Liminal public actors, therefore, must take up the slack by submitting themselves not to questions designed to elucidate, but to statements designed to confront and incite. There is nothing necessarily wrong in this, but it does require the we liminal types adjust our own strategy accordingly. If the media want shocking interviews, we must shock unapologetically. If the media want to focus on what makes us marginal, we must learn to wear those marginal views with pride. After all, we have nothing to be ashamed of. Pity and guilt have no place among libertarians.
We often wish that public figures did more straight speaking during interviews – the constant diet of pabulum fed to us by the news outlets is so wearying. This criticism still applies to print news, of course, but I think we can all recognise now that live interviews are very different. Whether you’re a shady MP or a total nub, your interviewer’s goal is the same: to ask you only questions that put you on the back foot. I guess that’s why MPs have obfuscation techniques drummed into them from the second they join the party. We, at least, don’t have to obfuscate, so I suggest a different strategy. Instead of assuming that such questions are meant to draw us into a discussion, we should realise their purpose is to back-foot. And instead of stepping neatly into this trap, we should refuse to play – by answering the question, and nothing more.
So that when Andrew Neil says, ‘So you’re a five-man band?’ we don’t explain. We simply say ‘No’ and wait courteously for the next question. So that when he says ‘Do you think this kind of unrepeatable language is appropriate?’ we don’t qualify. We simply say ‘Yes.’ Because that’s the honest answer. And if Andrew Neil wants to call us unmitigated monsters, then the only appropriate response to such idiocy is an insolent shrug. That’s the only response it deserves.
Finally, we know that preparation is pointless. For a twenty-minute speech to other libertarians, we come armed with facts. In such company, we expect to be asked to justify our views with reference to reality. Well, plainly facts and reality are not wanted by media hosts and audiences – and even if they are wanted, the host will negate any you’ve gathered by changing the question at the last moment. So no more data, no more evidence, no more statistics. Why bother? Even when people do listen, they have no idea whether or not you’re telling the truth. If our integrity is such that we can’t permit ourselves to lie outright, then we simply emphasise over and over whichever single statistic most powerfully proves (or supports) our point. Otherwise, extemporise. Then we’ll be flexible enough to respond to the questions we actually end up facing.
After his appearance this morning, Chris offered his resignation to the party. The LPUK refused to accept it. Libertarians, we are who we are. Chris’s only mistake was assuming his hosts actually wanted a calm, logical defence of libertarianism. He was nevertheless magnificent. And the LPUK were right to refuse his resignation. What they need is a leader who is fearless, unapologetic, and completely certain of the rightness of his position. As we all know that’s exactly what the Devil’s Kitchen is, Chris Mounsey need only be himself to succeed.
On the other hand, if self-congratulatory I-told-you-sos are more to your taste, go here. With what horrific vocabulary is the Devil’s Kitchen accused of crimes against decency! Bad Conscience is tearing into first place in this contest of the vapours: ‘Highly offensive’ – ‘frequently deliberately outrageous’ – ‘heinously and wilfully offensive’ – ‘personalised, pornographic, narcissistic, grievously offensive invective and vitriol’ – ‘heinously offensive [again]’ – ‘disturbing’ – ‘nasty vitriolic crap.’
Please, dude. Don’t make yourself such a Victorian lady. I bet you’re the first to proclaim what a magnificent satire of the selfish Thatcher-and-Reagan era is Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. And the Devil’s Kitchen has nothing on him.