BBC’s HARDtalk: Worlds that passed in the night

Stephen Sackur

There is a paradox involved in disagreeing with someone: in order to disagree with them, you first have to agree with them. You both have to have a shared set of fundamental assumptions which constitute the invisible background to the debate. A disagreement can only be said to occur within such a set of understandings. If the two interlocutors do not share such fundamental understandings – that is, when ‘worldview x’ is absolutely other than ‘worldview y’ – then a disagreement cannot be said to have taken place: the ‘zero-level’ of understanding which would have formed the basis of the dialogue is missing.

Recently, I’ve watched three episodes of HARDtalk (a BBC ‘current affairs’ programme in which an interviewer supposedly ‘grills’ some or other important public figure) during which I’ve felt acutely the lack of this ‘zero-level’ between interviewer and interviewee. The guests were Alain Badiou, Noam Chomsky, and Slavoj Žižek respectively (all episodes are available on YouTube). What happens in each interview is that two fundamentally different views of the world meet – and miss each other. The basic outlook of the interviewer (Stephen Sackur) is that of your average well-educated liberal: the world is basically fair as it is; if we just give it a few tweaks here and there then we’ll more or less have the best we can hope for within the limits of our eternal human frailties. Now, Badiou, Chomsky and Žižek hold radically different views from one another, but they share one or two basic assumptions which make it almost impossible for them to communicate with the interviewer: namely, the world is basically unfair because it’s structured by a global economic system which necessarily produces inequality and exploitation; change will require much more than ‘making a few tweaks here and there’ – it will require radical transformation, from the roots on up.

Now, given the enormous discrepancy which forms the basis of these conversations, can the ‘interviews’ really be said to take place? Sackur becomes exasperated as soon as someone suggests a view of the world in which injustice is fundamental, while the interviewees become exasperated when confronted with a naive, self-righteous toff. Such ‘(non-)interviews’ can never arrive at truth, but what they do achieve is precisely their propagandist function: to drown out ‘radical’ voices in liberal arias sung in homage to the status quo.


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