“I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.”

Margaret Thatcher during an interview with Italian broadcaster RAI, 10 March 1986.

“You are a superstar,” the gushing Trevor Noah tells Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on America’s late-night talk programme The Daily Show – precisely the variety of brown-nosing you would expect Graham Norton to deploy on a soon-to-be forgotten diva on his show. The studio audience erupts when Bregman calls for higher taxes for the rich. “Make America Great Again… bring back higher tax rates.” Women scream. People cheer. Bregman smiles and gets an easy ride.

The historian gained his recognition for using the same rhetoric during a discussion panel at the Davos World Economic Forum. In a video which became a viral hit, he bewails the attendees to pay their fair share of taxes at the summit in Switzerland: “Almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance, right? And of the rich just not paying their fair share. It feels like I’m at a firefighters conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water.” He boasted during his interview on The Daily Show that he was invited to Davos to discuss the basic aspects of his book, Utopia for Realists, which calls for universal basic income, but instead went off-script on a rage against the rich. The organisers, unsurprisingly, were unhappy. But when the tables were turned during his appearance on BBC’s This Week and he was pressed to discuss something other than his book, Bregman spat out the dummy and tweeted to his followers.

This Week is a BBC late night political chat programme, hosted by Spectator chairman Andrew Neil, which most recently aired on 21 March. This edition featured former Tory defence minister Michael Portillo and ex-Labour home secretary Alan Johnson as co-hosts. As per his interviews, Bregman blabbered about environmentalism, universal basic income and higher taxes in a short film during the show – but what followed was a stark contrast to the US media’s passivity. Both co-hosts were asked for their reaction to the historian’s ideas and dissected each of his claims; Portillo even slamming what he saw as an “ill-informed film”. Bregman, stung by the backlash, failed to give answers on his supposedly specialist subjects and rejected the facts. When Andrew Neil suggested that his criticism should be directed at China rather than the UK, referencing the coal power building boom in the country, Bregman responded, “that old trick doesn’t work anymore.” What trick? Your guess is as good as mine.

Bregman went on a tirade of adolescent name-calling on social media following the programme, labelling the hosts “three right-wing dinosaurs”. He was furious that he was asked to talk about something other than his book, i.e. Brexit, and that the hosts pretended to be interested in his ideas. I would argue they were interested, but interested in highlighting the flaws and not giving them praise – like Bregman craved. The academic expected the kind of blandishing you would give a puppy during toilet training for defecating in the garden and not under the dining table, which is far from the This Week style – and rightly so. The role of political chat programmes should be to interrogate ideas, and if the guests feel uncomfortable, so be it. Although Jürgen Habermas’s idea of the public sphere focused on the upper-classes and he argued that the mass media has created a passive public, it still remains a fundamental principle where citizens come together, free from the state, to contribute to political discourse. In a climate of no-platforming, fake news and political division, the concept of the public sphere has never been more important. As for Bregman, if he is not willing to participate in any form of debate about his ideas, I hope the US media welcomes him with open arms (as usual), and keeps him there.

 

In defence of This Week’s interview with Rutger Bregman