Politics with the depth of a puddle

A month of politically-minded podcasts has reached its exhausting apogee

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This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

One of the selling points of podcasts, as a media format, is the promise of depth. In TV or radio, journalists and commentators have producers breathing down their necks, insisting that they make a point as quickly as possible. In podcasts, they have time to develop their thoughts and go “behind the headlines”.

That’s the idea at least.

The News Agents promises “expert analysis” from “three of the UK’s top journalists”: Emily Maitlis, Jon Sopel and Lewis Goodall. The trio are “not just here to tell you what’s happening, but why”.

Excellent! Has everybody got their thought goggles on? We’re swimming into deep political waters here.

Actually, The News Agents has the depth of a puddle. I’ve listened to episode after episode, waiting for insight like a man sitting in the desert, longing for an ice cream. A recent episode about George Galloway’s success in the Rochdale by-election suggested that this was bad for Keir Starmer (you’re kidding me!) and that Galloway is a good orator (get out of here!).

The podcast epitomises the superficiality of the media class — fixated on process and not its moral and material foundations. It’s not digging up the roots of our political dilemmas; it’s scratching in the soil.

Goodall mentions that Keir Starmer’s support amongst Muslims is far lower than Jeremy Corbyn’s. Okay, here’s the moment he could be asking why. Here’s the moment he could be analysing the significance of such novel demographic phenomena in British life. But he’s moved on, like a frog jumping between lily pads yet never gazing into the waters beneath them.

Electoral Dysfunction, from Sky News’ Beth Rigby, Labour’s Jess Phillips MP and the former Scottish Conservative leader Baroness Davidson, pledges to “unravel the spin and explain what’s really going on in Westminster and beyond”. BOOM. This is not your grandfather’s politics podcast! “All my knobs are in order,” Rigby snorts. “That’s quite funny when it’s ‘Electoral Dysfunction’, isn’t it?”

Yes, we got the pun, Beth. Jess Phillips chimes in to say she knows a local pub called “The King’s Head” that gets called “The Knob”. At this point I already needed a drink.

I have to give one thing to the trio — they sound like genuine friends. This is great for their target audience. Podcasts have a parasocial element to their appeal. Hosts unknowingly become our companions. So, if you’re the sort of person who likes chatty banter between straight-talking women, you might enjoy the congenial atmosphere of Electoral Dysfunction.

The politicians best the journalists when it comes to analysis, perhaps because, knowing the process from the inside, it isn’t quite so absorbing. Baroness Davidson has a good rant, in the first episode, about the contrast between Lindsay Hoyle rejecting a call for a new vote on Gaza because of threats to the safety of MPs, with Margaret Thatcher carrying on as normal during IRA bombings. For all I disagree with her politics, this was stirring and unfashionable stuff.

Unfortunately, Jess Phillips is an annoyance machine, ensuring that the conversation never reaches interesting depths because it cannot penetrate the surface of her self-regard. Honestly — she grandstands like the lead singer of a hair metal group.

A valid point, about MPs’ work having more to do with unheralded local responsibilities than holding forth on international politics, has the whiff of boastfulness when she specifically defines it as her work.

Epistemic arrogance can only be tolerable when it is entertaining

Soon, she is making an (in fairness, hastily retracted) reference to “my Muslim community”. Commendably, Rigby plays devil’s advocate on Galloway and jokes that Phillips doesn’t look happy about it. One can imagine.

Galloway’s previous campaign in Batley, Phillips sneers, “seemed to focus entirely on low-traffic neighbourhoods”. “Up the workers,” she contemptuously adds. If there’s one thing that workers love, it’s being fined for driving through the wrong part of town. It can be an appealing aspect of podcasts that famous hosts can relax and be more reflective. But for some, this is like a bird shedding its wings.

A month of politically-minded podcasts reached its exhausting apogee with Baroness Warsi and David Baddiel’s A Muslim & A Jew Go There. A Muslim and a Jewish commentator sharing different perspectives could be interesting. Unfortunately, Warsi and Baddiel do not have the chemistry for real conversation, meaning that the show sounds like two podcasts being smashed into one.

Nor do they have the knowledge to match their confidence. Baddiel shoots himself in the foot in almost heroic style when he claims that only in the case of anti-Semitism would a political party commission a report “into institutionalised racism … without a member of that minority leading the report”.

Warsi points out that a report into Conservative Islamophobia was led by a non-Muslim. She immediately spoils this triumphant moment by implying that this non-Muslim, Professor Swaran Singh, was actively anti-Muslim. Look up the limpness of her claim for yourself.

Reader, I couldn’t take it. Epistemic arrogance can be tolerable when it is entertaining, but I had already endured Baddiel, a comic veteran, announcing that Warsi’s pronunciation of “from the river to the sea” sounded like “from the liver to the sea”. I could stomach no more strongheaded ignorance and laborious pseudo-jokes. Apologies are due for such negativism this month, but there is simply no point in wasting your time on explanatory podcasts that will somehow leave you less informed than you were before.

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