The empty square: the public engaged or imagined?

Saturday 30 October, 1.30pm until 3.00pm, Upper Gulbenkian Gallery Keynote Controversies

The 2010 UK general election saw unprecedented attempts to get into the heads of the public: more opinion polls than ever, results of polls on responses to politicians’ gaffes published hours after they occurred. New technologies were used to probe deeper into our thoughts - notoriously the Ipsos MORI ‘Worm’, which measured the immediate reactions of voters during politicians’ speeches. Alongside these attempts to understand the public, new strategies are being implemented to try to ‘engage’ it, from online petitions to the first ever televised leaders’ debates. The government says it wants to ensure it has the ‘buy-in’ of the public before acting, and its Big Society idea even promises ‘power to the people’. The obsession with engaging with the public is not confined to the political sphere: public engagement is the buzzword in worlds as diverse as science and broadcasting. Theatres, museums, and concert halls analyse demographics to ensure ‘hard to reach’ members of the public are included. The public is even asked to curate exhibitions, perform music, choose repertory; being a passive audience member is no longer deemed sufficient. Meanwhile, universities are told they must demonstrate their public value if they are to receive funds; the government backed Beacons for Public Engagement scheme charged academics with getting out their ivory towers and making their work accessible. Public service news organisations plead with us to ‘email in the news that matters to you’ and text / tweet and phone in our views, all so they can prove they’re engaging the public.

Should the ‘the great ignored’ be flattered that those in power seem interested in their opinions? Perhaps not. Scratch the surface and contempt for the public seems ever more apparent. From Gordon Brown’s ‘that bigoted woman’ to the claim that ‘dumbing down’ culture is ‘giving the people what they want’, these trends seem less about honouring the public, and more about treating them as cardboard cut-outs, useful if compliant, privately despised. The truly remarkable feature of the election campaign was the complete silence of the wider public, with stage-managed photo opportunities, and handpicked audiences allowed to ask only carefully vetted questions. It often seems people are reduced to lab rats to be prodded, measured and manipulated, instead of rational adults capable of taking part in debate.

If ‘public opinion’ is mediated in this way by journalists and ‘experts’, is it even reliable? The short-lived media frenzy (or fantasy) about ‘Cleggmania’, with Clegg dubbed the new Obama by two broadsheets, might indicate a chasm separating the ruling elite from the actual public. Can opinion polls be trusted when a significant proportion of the opinion communicated to pollsters is influenced by a pressure to provide the ‘right’ responses, or be branded a bigot or worse? And anyway, in today’s fractured and individuated society, is there any meaningful sense of a public to analyse or engage with?


Listen to session audio:


Professor Frank Furedi
sociologist and social commentator; author, What's Happened to the University?, Power of Reading: from Socrates to Twitter, On Tolerance and Authority: a sociological history

Deborah Mattinson
director, BritainThinks consultancy; leading political pollster; author, Talking to a Brick Wall

Joyce McMillan
chair, Hansard Society Working Group in Scotland; judge, 2010 Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award; theatre critic, Scotsman

Graham Stuart MP
Conservative member of parliament, Beverley and Holderness; chairman, Education Select Committee and East Riding Health Action Group

Dr Tiffany Jenkins
writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there

Produced by
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
Patrick Hayes director, British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA)
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Festival Buzz

Caught in the Web

"I was stunned at the incisive level of debate, the packed venues, the calibre of the panellists and audience... getting out for face-to-face intelligent, gritty and gloves-off exchanges of views."
Humphrey Hawksley, BBC World Affairs Correspondent