The Big, Big Debate and ‘the cat in the hat’

Guest blog by Angus Dixon

In the run-up to Scotland’s Referendum on Independence, there have been several attempts to engage young voters by mainstream media. The BBC’s Generation 2014, for example, followed 50 first time voters over a year, in a documentary style highly influenced by Michael Apted’s seminal 7-UP series, and the plan is to return to this generation at various junctures over the coming years. As well taking part in a series of television documentaries (Being Sixteen in 2014), Generation 2014 participants were also involved across the rest of the BBC’s output as the ‘voice of young Scotland’.

The Big, Big Debate

Perhaps the most innovative and headline grabbing of the BBC events was The Big, Big Debate recorded in the newly built 12,000 capacity SSE Hydro one week prior to the referendum. This ambitious programme was based on a relatively traditional panel debate format – the difference being that there were 8,000 young people from schools across Scotland in the audience. Presented by BBC Scotland’s James Cook, The Big Big Debate saw 16- and 17-year-old first time voters quiz key politicians from both campaigns on the issues that mattered most to them.

Figure 1: The BBC’s Big Big Debate, hosted at Glasgow’s SSE Hydro

Hydro debate

The panel for the programme was Patrick Harvie and the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon on behalf of the Yes campaign and Galloway and the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson.

Teenage twitterstorm

Before and during the show, the BBC asked the audience to post their comments on Facebook and tweet using #BigBigDebate, a move that was to generate humour and admiration. Within about 10 minutes the hashtag began to trend on Twitter and soon other social media users were directed to the debate.

The initial comments were about having to wait too long and the heat inside the venue. “Waving paper in front of my face instead of clapping otherwise I’ll die,” wrote Hannah Clifford. “Arms pure sore from waving a piece of paper in ma face for like 3 hours straight,” added another user. Ross Fergusson was even more cutting: “Bored as f*ck any only came for a day off didny ken it was gonna be like a sauna in here.”

But that was merely the curtain raiser to main debate and George Galloway’s decision to wear a fedora and his previous impersonation of a cat on Celebrity Big Brother led to him being dubbed ‘The cat in the hat’. “George Galloway’s hat is enough to make me vote Yes,” wrote Ellie McClarty. “George Galloway does Indiana Jones,” remarked another user.

Figure 2: Gorgeous George in his Fedora

George fedora

But as the jokes subsided it was the young people’s level of awareness of the issues that began to gain attention. But the tweeters were able to move beyond the usual abuse and inane chatter that characterises Twitter for adults, let along teenagers: “If you vote yes, you’ll get Alex Salmond. No we won’t! Can’t believe I just heard that from a politician” tweeted MaryLou.

As Julie Davidson commented in The Herald:

I thought young people’s concerns would different from the usual questions, but no. They weren’t stuck on tuition fees or job opportunities but branched out into the bigger picture and were perfectly coherent and confident in doing so. Neither were they tainted with the weariness and cynicism which plagues so many of us in political debate which suggests our bright young people should have the vote in every election.

On Twitter, Rachel Fulton reflected, “Regardless of which way we vote, we should be excited at how engaged Scots young people now are in politics”. Likewise, Louise Macdonald commented: “So proud of young Scots after #BigBigDebate – articulate and thoughtful. A strong case for the franchise to be extended”.

Figure 3: Twitter praise for young voters

Twitter praise 

Engaging and representing youth

The show itself was a roaring success. Not only did it capture an audience share of 30.4% in Scotland, almost unheard of for a political debate, it actively engaged young voters within and outwith the Hydro. Equally importantly, it represented young Scots in an engaging manner. Their thoughtful questions drew heaps of praise from the audience at home, and gave lie to the myth that young people today are politically apathetic.

Angus Dixon is a freelance television producer, journalist and educator (who produced The Referendum Debate series for BBC Scotland and has worked on Panorama, Frontline Scotland, The Last Word with Nicky Campbell and Words With Wark.

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