Remember a young prime minister who vowed to bring to an end the ‘Punch and Judy show’ that was Prime Minister’s Question Time in Parliament? His name was David Cameron. Whatever happened to him…?
Ironically, not only did this good intention not survive the world of adversarial politics, he was then to launch one of Britain’s most polarised debates for a generation by framing a simple Yes-No choice process around the question of economic and political integration with the EU.
As a mediator of serious conflicts, I have a rich experience of opening sessions which have an air of Punch and Judy about them, as legal teams and clients seek to prove their story is ‘right’ – ‘Oh No it isn’t!’ is the natural response. These duels can be entertaining and sometimes intellectually razor-sharp, but whether they are truly enlightening is another matter. More often it takes time for differing stories of the past to be heard and understood, different attitudes and perspectives to be appreciated, and various explanations and needs to be explored. It is a refining and distilling conversation process that is closer to the craft of a sculptor, shaving off elements from a rough lump of a case to get to its real shape and significance for the future.
Of course, even then you cannot assume you will get to a ‘truth’, but you may be better placed to make an overall choice of who to side with for purposes of judgment. Fortunately, mediators do not have to make that choice, but judges will if a case fails to settle. However, the deeper appreciation of the realities of their situation after the intense dialogue of a mediation, in most cases helps parties ‘take back control’ from the litigation gorilla as they better understand the kaleidoscope of risks and realities facing them. In-depth and multi-layered examination rather than adversarial claims, helps chart a realistic and well-crafted way forward.
Our political leaders should also, in my view, exercise leadership by ‘modelling’ this kind of problem-solving process for genuine exploration of complex problems. It would better help the electorate realise the complexity of the choices we face as societies, but too often politicians only work with the crudity of Punch and Judy to serve their partisan interests for election. As for the media’s role when politicians fail to be effective, it is surely worth encouraging them to favour in-depth examination of topics to offset the gap in political leadership, rather than for their skills be devoted to reinforcing the crude seaside entertainment of political grandstanding?
Dr Karl Mackie CBE is CEDR's Founder President and one of the most experienced mediators globally. To learn more about Karl's mediation practice visit his website https://www.cedr.com/karlmackie/ and to book him as a mediator contact the CEDR Commercial Team on 0207 536 6060 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kamal Ahmed told the Edinburgh International Book Festival this week that the BBC needed to be very careful about “false equivalence”, the practice of giving airtime to marginal views to avoid accusations of bias. He also questioned whether a debate between two opposing sides about an issue was “the most illuminating way of explaining” it.