Rudyard Griffiths and I wrote the below for the Guardian the week after the Munk Debates, and I forgot to post. I have worked on the debates for a couple of years now, and they have grown and evolved significantly. It has been an incredibly fun project to be a part of, and it will only get more so over the coming year as we hold two new debates and roll out some cool new online features. Anyways, below are a few quick, and perhaps overly earnest, reflections on what the debates’ success may say about the state of our public policy discourse.
Last week, 3500 people in Toronto and 3,000 people online came together to watch a former Prime Minister and a writer debate one of history’s great questions – whether religion is a force for good in the world. In the 72 hours following the event 20,000 hours of archived video were viewed and on January 1st, 240 million people will watch a broadcast of the debate on BBC World Service and BBC International.
There is no doubt that Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens were entertaining, that they surely advanced what is a prescient discussion, and that the event was made even more powerful by the timing of Hitchens’ illness and Blair’s recent conversation to Catholicism. Both are giants, and the effect of them sharing a stage was electric.
Just as importantly though, the excitement surrounding this event confirmed our belief at the Munk Debates that there is a hunger for substantive public policy debate.
Over the past three years The Munk Debates has held debates on humanitarian intervention, aid, US foreign policy, health care, climate change and religion. Debaters have included Niall Ferguson, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, George Monbiot, Hernando de Soto, Samantha Power, Rick Hiller, Stephen Lewis, Bill Frist and Howard Dean. In the lead up to each debate, we have held wide ranging public dialogues online and in print. We have screened the debates in movie theaters across Canada. The debates have now been viewed by millions around the world. The live events sell out in hours. Yet the widespread perception remains that citizens are indifferent to public policy.
Perhaps though the public has tuned out not because they don’t care, but because the public policy debate has been co-opted by the language and style of academia, policy wonks and political speak. The options presented to them are either tabloid style with no substance, or serious content mired with earnestness.
Our politicians reduce their platforms to campaigns slogans, our bureaucrats keep ideas under lock and key, and much of our media treats public policy as a polarity of political gamesmanship versus dry commentary. Between wonkish think tanks and Hello magazine, there is little in between.
This creates a vicious cycle, where the ideas get less and less substantive and prescient, and the rhetoric and style in which they are presented become increasingly debased. The result is a democracy in which few are engaged in our formal institutions and in our major policy debates. But that doesn’t mean people don’t care.
The approach we have taken is the opposite of what is generally presented – to raise both the quality of the discussion and make it more entertaining. This means drawing on the best international speakers. It means producing policy debate in a theatrical, engaging style. It means using the newest online and social tools. Most importantly, it means treating the audience as the intelligent participants that they are, willing and able to both be serious and have fun.
One way to gauge the depth of the interest in such a model is whether people are willing to pay for content. And they are. Where as many media companies often struggle for small payments, the Munk Debates pay per view channel has been a huge success. So far, we have averaged $1.50 for every hour of video watched online. There is a case to be made that pay per view can be part of a new model for the funding of policy events. If people are willing to pay for football games and prize fights, why not also for public policy debates?
Politicians, policy makers, and pundits take note – the public is not the problem, the problem is the way you are speaking to them.