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Time to agree to differ?

August 20, 2014 by
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I can’t hide my nervousness: broadcast for the first time tonight is a radio programme I have been trying to develop for several years (indeed I posted about it nearly four years ago!). Of course, I hope it sounds good and is reasonably entertaining but just as important that it helps to get across the idea that originally inspired me.

The programme is called Agree to Differ and the first edition – on Radio 4 at 8.00 pm – is on the topic of fracking. The format involves me chairing a discussion between two people who hold strongly opposing views. Our job, working together as much as the protagonists are willing, is to try to agree what their disagreement is about. We divide the issue into three segments and see whether at the end of each we can find a form of words that the guests will accept adequately summarises the basis of their differences.

Recording the programmes it has been fascinating to see how the debate has unfolded. Tonight, as I had envisaged, the two rivals  – George Monbiot against fracking and James Woudhuysen in favour – do indeed get under the surface of the issue, relegating some of the controversies that have received the most publicity and focussing on others which they both view as more significant.

Other programmes, however, have gone in a different direction. In one, the format led two high profile people who have been on opposite sides of a highly charged, sometimes even violently contested, issue ending up agreeing on almost everything. While in a third, despite me feeling there was quite a bit on which the protagonists might agree to differ, they found it very hard to get past their accumulated and mutual suspicion.

The inspiration for the programme was my frustration at the tendentious nature of most political and policy debates as they are reported or take place in the broadcast media. Put simply these are versions of ‘I believe in good sense and the public interest while my opponent is blinkered and self interested’ to which comes the reply ‘no, I believe in good sense and the public interest while it is my opponent who is blinkered and self interested’. The consequence is that very often the issue in question becomes more, not less, opaque to the average viewer or listener. ‘Imagine’ I thought ‘if we applied the kind of techniques used in mediation to shed much less heat and much more light?’ Vital to that method is requiring that the protagonists resist caricaturing each other’s position – something which immediately inflames debate – and focus instead on clarifying their own stance.

It’s a pretty simple idea but, as I hoped, it does cast new light on well-rehearsed arguments. From recording just three programmes I formed two conclusions.

The first is that we often fail to pay enough attention to the underlying structure of a debate; is it, for example, one in which matters of detail stand for much more fundamental differences of values, or one in which relatively small differences in starting points have somehow ballooned into what feels like a much more polarised debate than it needs to be?

Second, my original hunch has been confirmed: there is whole industry out there comprising most of party politics, large swathes of the media, lobbying and campaigning which is basically a disorganised, self serving conspiracy to convince the public that just about every issue is the site of deep and profound differences of opinion. About three quarters of the ground of every debate comprises the arid territory of one side’s distorted portrayal of the other side’s views.

Imagine a world where the organised effort of politics and communication was to make things clearer and, where possible, more consensual. Not only would we waste a lot less time and probably make wiser decisions, but we could focus our arguments on stuff that is genuinely important and on which we really do profoundly disagree.

I am incredibly grateful to the folks at Radio 4 for commissioning the first short run (and to its brilliant producer Phil Pegum). The BBC won’t look kindly on me hustling for a second series but if you do feel like listening and tweeting your approval I would be very grateful.  And if you don’t like it, well maybe we can agree why not.




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  • Jack Robson

    Look forward to listening to this, Matthew.

    I was thinking about this a couple of days ago after watching this debate on C4 News.

    Two “experts” who were incredibly rude to each other citing evidence from conflicting studies to put their viewpoint across. They completely disavowed each others argument and, as the viewer, I felt even more ignorant of the issues than I had before listening to the debate.

    I hope this new format works out and will encourage healthier debate.

  • Matthew Taylor

    Thanks Jack – that’s exactly what I am aiming for. Really hope you like it.

  • Matthew Mezey

    Valuable though this sounds, I can’t help also wondering whether it might it might be best in the long run to seek out a new space where the ‘both/and’ people can talk and avoid the usual either/or thinking, avoid the true believers who spend their time black-hatting their oppositions.

    For example Jonathan Haidt set up the Asteroids Club to try to bring together such people – from both sids of US politics:

    Part of Haidt’s rationale is to create: ‘a gathering convened by two people who disagree politically but are willing to mutually acknowledge that the other side may see some real threats more clearly than does one’s own side’.

    Robert Kegan talked with me about how the Public Conversations Project (in Boston) had done something a bit similar, after the anti-abortion campaign battles led to two killings.

    After six years of mediated private conversations between a few people from the two sides, they decided to go public.

    People found it very hard to understand how the two sides hadn’t found common ground, reached any compromises – but had instead grown a huge respect for their opponents, a huge attachment.

    One pro-choice woman being interviewed said:
    “I’m embarrassed to tell you this but when I first met these women, many of them are from the church and so on, my belief was that I was going to meet people who were not very intelligent and who were blindly following the dogma of their faith, who I was not going to find very interesting and I can tell you today, that these three women are among the people I feel closest to in the world and for whom I have enormous admiration”.

    The women invovled eventually decided the best was to describe was that it was all about love. Though they never found any common ground, the conversation in Boston changed, the dehumanising of opponents stopped. No-one else was shot dead…

    As Prof Kegan would put it, they’ve moved out of their competing Self-authoring ideologies and built something bigger, a bigger context.

    Some of them had even – by the end of 6 years – moved beyond the Self-authoring (independent) mind and into the Self-transforming Mind (inter-independent).

    That’s one of the reasons why I think the RSA’s ‘Power to Create’ needs to be making room for the Self-transforming mind – to be careful not to advocate solely autonomy, self-authoring and independence, which can’t untie the knots of deep disagreements, and make progress on ‘wicked’ issues.

    Matthew Mezey
    (RSA Online Community Manager)

  • Gareth Barnes

    Listening to the show now. Breath of fresh air, learned a lot. So much better than the childish mud slinging whicb characterises lots of “debate” on Radio 4.

  • Matthew Taylor

    Thanks Gareth – very kind of you to comment. And Matthew thoughtful as always.

  • Ross

    Re agree to differ.

    Pls do some basic research on the subject and stop being so damn lazy, See gasland 1 , 2, triple divide and promised land. Then google fracking and watch some of the videos of people affected by it. It’s not that hard to see the obvious.

    Problems with fracking

    Stop the ridiculous argument that methane is greener
    Natural gas is methane, methane is 5 time more of a green house than co2

    Best scientific evidence, how about letting scientific research to be done in America and Australia instead of a shameful culture of cover up, cronyism and denial. See Erin brokovitch critique of the EPA and “regulatory” capture.

    Local problems with fracking….

    Basic level of hubris and incompetence. See deepwater horizon, with all it’s amazing regulations and best of the best contractors, See the piper alpha findings and how they have been forgotten and mothballed.

    Heavy Traffic 24 trucks a day on country roads through villages.

    Water usage… 5 swimming pools per frack x 1000

    Water contamination from the actual process plus indirectly through accidents.

    Air and noise contamination, flares, noise.

    Ground contamination, Just put soil on top of evaporation pools in flood areas see colorado floodings. See the scale needed 1000 of wells per area. Just imagine that impact on landscape and house prices.

    Small quiet Vertical turbines on houses and lampposts, Solar roads and roofs,
    Better insulation. 22 percent of uk energy last Sunday was from wind power. Where is all the sniggering about nimbyism when it comes to wind farms?

    Hydrogen gas oxygen creation and storage on offshore windfarms if needed.

  • Jamie

    This post reminded me of Bryan Caplan’s idea of an ‘Ideological Turing Test’ which tests how well an individual on one side of a debate knows the argument of his opponent: and

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  • rhian

    that sounds a really good idea.
    i hope to catch one of the radio programmes.
    Would you try a follow-up series in which you tried a new innovative format to get the 2 parties to see each other’s similarities and build from there? imagine the potential…
    You could unveil your technique to the UN; and the middle-east etc…Got to be an improvement on the UN as it stands.
    In my former job i met lots of UN mediators and conflict resolution practitioners..
    they obviously don’t have much impact on the middle east…
    maybe the rsa can come up with an improved paradigm to export to international conflict zones incorporating the arts as well… maybe it exists already…

  • Oliver


    But why hustle the BBC to give you a second series? Imagine what the discussion would resemble if you had Monbiot and Woudhuysen round your house and you spent an hour talking about everything else but this issue, and just having drinks in your kitchen or something. Then you start recording and turn the conversation onto fracking, but without any debate formalities, the incongruence of mediation or anybody having a set piece to deliver with time constraints to worry about.

    What would the conversation resemble if it was just that, a real conversation? Upload that as a podcast. A natural back and forth where the participants unconsciously learn, grow and appreciate each other as a consequence of the process. Something that’s not like the rest of Radio 4, which resembles 1950s timewarp.

    Personally, I want to know what Matt Ridley would say in private to his most most thoughtful friend who disagrees with him more fiercely than anybody. What would those two guys say in a relaxed, friendly,non-public setting after a few drinks. Let’s hear that.


  • Benjamin D

    Nice effort. Felt like you were just beginning to work out the limits of the format, but an enjoyable an generally informative listen. Was it just my own bias, or was Monbiot a little more gracious/willing to move from his trench a little more?

  • Penny Walker

    Thanks for this Matthew! A great initiative to show people how these difficult questions can be understood in a different way.

    I have blogged a bit here, for the process geeks – would be good to know if what I heard is what you meant ;-)


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  • Damian Hargreaves

    As others have said, I found this a breath of fresh air and very informative. It was refreshing to have the focus on the issues rather then the posturing and point scoring which often characterises programmes on emotive issues such as this. I’ll look forward to listening to the other programmes.

  • Anna

    I think this is a fantastic idea. Thank you very much, Matthew. The first two programmes have been fascinating.

    Given the scale and complexity of 21st century challenges, we urgently need to shift public discourse away from the pointless Good versus Bad mud-slinging we generally get. I suspect that the Good versus Bad mud-slinging is a significant part of what repels people from politics.

    As a theology undergraduate some years ago, I remember that our final year seminar on “Ethics” started with two reminders. Firstly, that you may start from the same premises as another but reach radically different conclusions. Secondly, that you may reach the same conclusions as another from radically different starting points. Which politicians can understand such nuance? Precious few. So we stay trapped in simplistic and unworkable claptrap.

    The idea for this series also reminds me of work by St Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation on “disagreement success”. I don’t know if that informed the thinking behind the series; if not, it’s interesting to note the parallels happening in multiple places.

    Finally, I’m reminded of Marx’s “immanent critique” – the attempt to persuade one’s opponents by using their own argument and logic, not yours. My experience suggests that this is far more likely to be successful than endless mud-slinging. It would be great to see progressive politics use this approach a lot more imo – maybe “Agree to Differ” can be part of a move in this direction.

    Radio 4 – LOTS more programmes like this please!

  • Matthew Taylor

    Thanks folks for the comments. Overall I am pleased with what people have said about the format. Each programme has had its own dynamic with the one next week – on Jerusalem – very different to the one this week on vivisection. One point I think we should clarify if we do get to make more is that the people we have suggested are reasonably high profile exponents of their position but they are NOT official representatives. Overall, intriguingly, of the few criticisms we have most has come from people who think ‘their’ side hasn’t made the case forcefully enough. Thanks again for listening and don’t forget programme three next Wednesday at 8.

  • Will

    Good luck with the radio program. I’ll be listening!

  • Mark

    If only such a sensible and intelligent approach could be adopted as a model across the BBC, it would no doubt benefit us all. Discourse in today’s media (and hence today’s culture) seems shaped less than ever by such noble intent. I guess complexity and consensus are just not as entertaining as the sort of fostered adversarialism and trivialisation we’re all sadly so accustomed to. I’m more than happy to add my voice to those keen to nudge the BBC back towards the more neglected Reithian tenets. Starting with a request for more ‘Agree To Differ’

  • Sheena

    This is what all debate should be like. I sincerely hope Radio 4 continues with this series. It’s very strange that people with strongly opposing views are so often content to sling mud, rather than get down to the much more interesting and satisfying discussions that can be had when they’re scrupulously honest and fair about facts and motives.
    So far I’ve only listened to the episode on vivisection. Although it seemed to me that Prof Aziz wasn’t being as honest as he could be (he skirted around some questions and was disappointingly flippant about cosmetic testing), it was a decent, reasonable discussion.
    There is a debate on Hayek vs Keynes, still available on the Radio 4 site, which I found very unsatisfying. I would love if this was a subject in a future series.

  • Brendan Burgess

    Hi Matthew

    Absolutely brilliant programme. I have just finished listening to the programme on Jerusalem. You did a great job in keeping them on track.

    I hope some other programme makers follow your lead and try to get the participants to work together instead of provoking them to fight with each other.