Conduct of Debate in Public Life - Motion to Regret

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:43 pm on 9th May 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Prashar Baroness Prashar Crossbench 3:43 pm, 9th May 2019

My Lords, it is a real pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam. I agree with what he has said. My profound thanks go to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for securing this important debate on a subject which goes to the very heart of our democracy. It impinges on the right to free speech, the right to challenge decision makers and freedom of association, and concerns issues such as treating people with respect, no matter what their views, and conducting public discourse in a civil manner.

In a democracy we need plurality of voices, but, critically, we also need skills, experience and knowledge to gauge the veracity of those voices. However, the conduct of public debate has become aggressive and uncivil. Healthy, open debate is thwarted by intolerance and lack of respect for differing views. The tone of bitterness and aggression that has entered our public debate is very worrying. The scale and intensity of intimidation shaping our public life is a matter of serious concern. We are all aware of the worst incidents, ranging from verbal abuse, intimidation and death threats sent to MPs for the way they voted, to the most horrendous murder of Jo Cox in 2016. Nothing appears to be off limits with the Wild West, cavalier attitude that we find in public life these days.

There are a number of contributing factors to this toxic environment. One area of great concern that has already been mentioned is social media. It has become a fertile ground for attacking those in public life, especially women and the LGBT and BAME communities. Emboldened by the mask of anonymity, people feel free to say what they like, no matter how harmful or distressing. Furthermore, the echo chambers of social media leave people unprepared to deal with views other than their own. The result is a political culture that is unable to accommodate differing opinions or form broad alliances. While the internet has brought many freedoms and an unprecedented ability to communicate, it also carries the insidious ability to distort, mislead and produce hatred and instability.

The Government’s global initiative to tackle online harms and address the negative consequences of social media is really welcome. We must use technology for positive purposes—to free our minds—and use regulation to restore accountability. Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google not only dominate market positions but exercise control over public debate, which undermines both economic competition and democracy. An effective regulatory regime is therefore much needed, as is digital literacy. The Government’s strong emphasis on digital literacy and their assertion that it should be a fourth pillar of education, alongside reading, writing and maths, is truly welcome. It is also encouraging that the Government are taking an international lead: we need to ensure that other countries are with us, so that perpetrators are not able to hide behind other jurisdictions.

This toxic atmosphere is discouraging people from getting involved in public life. If no action is taken, this will further diminish the quality of our politics and have dire consequences for our democracy. It is right that the Government are taking this issue seriously and looking at ways of dealing with these problems. However, trust in the Government and in politicians is at an all-time low. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer 2019, the trust deficit in our core institutions has never been bigger, and there has been a steady decline over several decades. More and more people feel disfranchised and not listened to. A decade of financial disruption, austerity and weakening civic ties have left many feeling dispossessed and insecure. The consequences of this have been poignantly unmasked by Brexit.

The National Centre for Social Research points out that, between 1986 and 2013, the proportion of those who trusted the Government to place the needs of the nation above those of the party nearly halved, from 38% to 18%. These feelings found expression in the Brexit debate and have fuelled populism, which we have all seen being manipulated. All this feeds cynicism and destroys trust. These divisions and the lack of trust in politics create an environment where intimidation in public life is more likely. Collective effort is needed to address the divisions in society. Everyone must take responsibility for turning this around; business, civil society and government. We all need to uphold ethical standards, so that we do not undermine the institutions we are part of: it cannot be only a government-led solution.

There are organisations that can help. I was pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, mention Germany, because I have recently become a chairman of Cumberland Lodge, an educational charity set up 71 years ago by Amy Buller, who wrote the book Darkness Over Germany. I see that organisation as a laboratory that teaches children how to disagree well and how to develop critical thinking, and such initiatives need to be scaled up, along with efforts to promote digital literacy.

We also need to look at ourselves and ask whether our behaviour and the way we conduct ourselves set the standard that we expect from others, or whether our behaviour is contributing to the very toxic atmosphere we are debating today. How to conduct respectful debate, how to disagree well and how to treat others and listen to differing views with respect are fundamental to a vibrant democracy. We need to hold a mirror to ourselves.

Recently, both Houses have had to strengthen their codes of conduct. In my view, it is a very sad reflection that this had to happen. Yes, we need to regulate; yes, we need better digital literacy and better education; but we also need to improve the culture of our institutions and model the behaviour we expect of others. We live in very troubled times. A sense of anger and bewilderment is spreading. Fractious behaviour is on the increase, both within and without. It is high time for us to come together and work to nurture fraternity, not fractiousness.