The tyranny of ‘expert’ opinion

Closing his ‘Tonight’ programme on TV3 on the 24th of May, Vincent Browne made an extraordinary statement, almost revolutionary. He announced that he was looking to move  from the practice of having only ‘expert’ people on the ‘Tonight’ panels and, in the interest of having a democratic balance of views and opinions, asked for recommendations from the general public of suitable people who could contribute to his programme, to be drawn from across the social classes and not exclusively from the professional/business class as is the norm. What an idea!

Browne’s statement is extraordinary not only because what seems on the face of it to be a fair and democratic and correct approach has never been the practice in broadcasting in Ireland, but also because TV3 is a commercial TV station with a mandatory but limited public service broadcasting requirement. What Browne is proposing might more readily be expected to originate in RTE, the ‘national’ broadcaster, with its much more extensive public service broadcasting requirement and a significant proportion of its revenues provided by way of licence fee, paid in the main by the ‘great unwashed’ whose voices are excluded other than in shallow radio phone-in programmes, heavily moderated.

Blinded by ‘experts’, we are led up the garden path, lectured on what is ‘common sense’ and what should be dismissed as ‘looney’. These ‘experts’ are presented to us as people who ‘know’, who have the ‘truth’, whose opinions are not just worth hearing but worth internalising so that they become our opinions.

The ‘experts’ are, we are often informed, eminent or distinguished or foremost in their field. Some may be, but what does that mean? It may be that the lawyer knows a fair bit about contract law, or licencing law, or constitutional law, or criminal law, but not usually all of these legal areas and more. It may be that the surgeon is indeed an expert in neuro-surgery, or cardio-vascular conditions, or plastic-surgery, but not usually all of these and more. It may be that the academic has forged a successful career in the area of sociology, or economics, or science, or literature, but not all of these and more. It may be that the entrepreneur has made a fortune selling cups of coffee, or building houses, or making plastic ‘things’, but what does that show other than an ability to spot a chance, get organised and make some money?

‘Experts’ usually have a very limited area of expertise. They are not all-seeing, all-dancing fonts of wisdom. In fact, the very closed world that they usually inhabit within their particular area of expertise may close off ways of seeing and ways of thinking about a wide range of personal, local, national and global issues about which they are supposed to have opinions that we are led to believe are worth paying attention to. On these radio and TV panels, surgeons, lawyers, academics, politicians and ‘personalities’ will insist that their thoughts on economics, or politics, or the media, or war, or US foreign policy, or the EU policy on immigration, or the banking crisis are so well-informed and well-thought-out as to be suitable for serious consideration by the population at large. What arrant  nonsense!

On the other hand there are those who did not gain a reputation or access to membership of the political class by acquiring a degree or a PhD in a limited field, or by ‘networking’ successfully, but who left formal ‘education’ early and then educated themselves by keeping their eyes and ears and intellects open, by reading and discussing, by being aware of the natural, social and political worlds, by dissecting and assimilating ideas.

One such man was my father. Having left school at 13 through economic necessity, like so many others had to, he became a sheet metal worker, then a panel beater and later a garage owner. An inveterate reader, he was also a very fine writer, good enough to be offered a position as a correspondent in the 1960s by the Evening Press newspaper. He had a superb knowledge of history – Irish, European and World, and of current affairs, again spanning the globe. His analyses of various issues and their likely outcomes including Ireland’s membership of the EEC/EU, the conflict in the Six Counties, US foreign policy especially in the Middle East, and the economic rise of the East and of South America have been, or are being, borne out. He had an intimate knowledge of the natural world, from the sky at night to the earth below. Long before it was fashionable he was an environmentalist, and again before it was fashionable went against type by championing the cause of indigenous people from the Native Americans to the Australian Aborigines, and all points between.

So highly regarded were his views and opinions that on Saturdays at his garage in Dublin he would be visited by a stream of regular customers, including many  regarded as eminent in their professions, there not just to get petrol in their cars but to hear his views and to exchange ideas. One of the highest-ranking solicitors in the land would spend up to an hour every Saturday talking with him, and listening. But Pearse Stokes would not qualify for inclusion on any RTE discussion panel – then or now.

That is why Vincent Browne is not only right but intelligent in his new approach to the formation of panels for his ‘Tonight’ programme. At a moment in our history that we would prefer not to have visited – brought here by the ineptitude and stupidity and greed of so many in the political class, including some of the media ‘darlings’ – it is time to open out to a wider range of views and opinions by listening to articulate and intelligent and well-informed contributors from previously excluded social class groups.

By adopting this new approach, Vincent Browne and TV3 will enhance the Public Sphere, that area in social life in which public opinion is formed. It should make for more interesting television too – an escape from the incestuous ‘same old, same old’ discussion panels.

And what will it do to RTE – the broadcasting arm of the State and of the political class? Let’s hope it will give them cause for concern. They have had it their own way for far too long, at our expence. Come on Vincent Browne and TV3, show the Donnybrook set how proper current affairs broadcasting should be done – and  can be done.

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About Tom Stokes

Tom Stokes is a writer and journalist, and has taught media and journalism at foundation and under-grad levels. He holds a BA in Communications and Cultural Studies and an MA in Journalism from Dublin City University. He is a grandson of John Stokes, a striking tram driver in the 1913 Lockout and a Volunteer in Boland’s Mill in the 1916 revolution. He is an organiser of the Citizens’ Initiative to establish a new national day in Ireland on April 24th, to be known as Republic Day, and is co-organiser with Marie Mulholland of the campaign to have Ireland's new children's hospital dedicated to the memory of Dr Kathleen Lynn, to be named The Kathleen Lynn National Children's Hospital. View all posts by Tom Stokes

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