The term “platform” used to mean a horizontal wooden structure on top of which rosettes are given to particularly attractive farm animals. In these politically tumultuous times, however, it has taken on a much more contentious meaning, (except perhaps at the Puck Fair, where I understand platforms have always been contentious). A platform is now broadly understood to mean a space, either physical or digital, where one individual’s voice may be heard over others. Who gets to have a platform has become one of the most significant questions of our time, after the “Who did Jay-Z cheat on Beyoncé with?” one of course.
We all have our own personal platform. I’ve been using mine to try to persuade Tampax to stop producing plastic tampon applicators. They continue to ignore me. But the issue gets more complicated when discussing the more substantial platforms the media regularly afford to people. This has become such a talking point, I’d be surprised if any new Roddy Doyle movie didn’t contain some version of the line: “Give us a go on your platform there, mister.”
The New Yorker magazine came under pressure this month over its decision to invite the former Trump adviser Steve Bannon onto its platform. The magazine, a major media brand and intellectual home for liberal thinkers, had planned a one-on-one public interview of Bannon by its editor David Remnick. The event was billed as part of its annual festival programme. I'm free that weekend, by the way, Mr Remnick, if your programme needs an opinion on the minutiae of product design.
The announcement created an online backlash from the considerable number of people who find Bannon’s views on immigration and other topics morally repugnant. Indeed, many feel his tenure at the Breitbart website, where he oversaw such headlines as “Hoist it high and proud: The Confederate flag proclaims a glorious heritage” and “Would you rather your child had feminism or cancer?”, was the beginning of the breakdown of civility in American discourse.
Platformers, many journalists themselves, have an unshakeable faith in their power of intellect and reason to defeat bad ideas
To them, the New Yorker event would provide an opportunity for Bannon to popularise white supremacist views. Subscriptions to the magazine were cancelled and many of the festival's other high-profile guests, including comedians Jim Carrey, Judd Apatow and John Mulaney, took the stand of cancelling their attendance. The pressure was on the festival to revoke the invitation. It worked. Twenty-four hours later Bannon was out.
And then came the backlash to the backlash. Another sizeable group of liberal thinkers objected to the de-platforming of Bannon. They agreed with Remnick, who defended the invitation saying that to interview Bannon or anyone was in no way to endorse their views. The only way to probe unpalatable views, they said, is to allow them on the platform where someone of an opposing viewpoint can apply pressure to them. To cancel the event, they believe, is a missed opportunity to force the architect of the Trump presidency to defend his handiwork in public.
And so a huge schism now divides liberal politics. To “platform” or to “no platform”? One side certain that allowing white supremacist views on any platform presents too real a threat to minorities, who suffer hate crime at increasing rates. The other certain that such a risk must be taken if the US is to be rescued from the grip of right-wing populism.
It's not just in America where this debate is playing out. In Portugal, Irish Web Summit impresario Paddy Cosgrave rescinded his invitation to the leader of France's National Rally party, Marine Le Pen, partly "out of respect for our host country". In the UK, Bannon is still invited to an event at the Economist magazine's Open Future festival later this month despite cancellations from other speakers. Holding the interview at a respectful distance from the scene of the speaker's perceived crime seems to be solving the problem for now.
Getting an accurate read on how big an influence discussions have on public behaviour is difficult. However, the schism itself reveals something about the way interview, debate and those who practice it, the liberal media, are perceived. Platformers, many journalists themselves, have an unshakeable faith in their power of intellect and reason to defeat bad ideas. “Guys, calm down. We got this. We have the measure of Bannon’s kind,” they seem to say. No-platformers doubt them. “White supremacy needs no debate. It’s simply wrong. And it is not the people who profit from this festival who will pay the price if you fail,” is the reply.
The outcome of recent events, however, seem to support the no-platformers. Interviews with far-right extremists (who never seem to turn down any platform) have not resulted in anything near the definitive victory one might expect. Indeed Hillary Clinton – who had more than sufficient knowledge, expertise and experience to trounce the floundering charlatan Trump – still lost the election. Perhaps people are questioning if those on our TVs are really as smart as they claim to be.
Any journalist still harbouring ideas that they can beat Bannon with data and statistics needs to dig deeper
And thus I offer the backlash to the backlash to the backlash. What if the question we ask is not the correct one? Instead of asking if white supremacists should ever be offered a platform, perhaps we should ask how the liberal media can strengthen the one it has? This is what journalists and, in particular, broadcasters must do if they want to be trusted with the precarious job of interviewing leaders of the far right.
In the meanwhile, any journalist still harbouring ideas that they can beat Bannon with data and statistics needs to dig deeper. He and his ilk will make them look foolish. It's possible the entertainers who pulled out of the New Yorker festival know something about playing to the whole room and not just those they shared a dorm with.
Remnick’s choice to debate Bannon in a festival setting when the political stakes are so high was dangerously naive. I’ve never been to a festival where everyone didn’t end up in the bar together at the end of the night. But then again I’ve never been to the Puck Fair. Perhaps that’s an assumption I need to question.
Eleanor Tiernan is a writer and comedian