Is a Televised Pre-Election Debate a No-Brainer?


At first sight, the democratic benefits from a televised debate in the UK by the Party leaders prior to a UK general election are overwhelming. But is the case as clear-cut as it appears?

It is an easy case to make. The Prime Minister remains reluctant to take part in a pre-election televised debate. But why should a democracy be deprived of a debate involving its political leaders in the run-in to a general election?

In a letter to party leaders, the head of Sky News, John Ryley, said: “With politics – and dare I say, many politicians – currently held in such low regard, to debate publicly the major issues facing Britain away from Westminster, presents a unique opportunity to re-engage a disillusioned electorate.”

In a letter in reply, David Cameron, leader of the Conservative opposition party said: “Prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons are no substitute for a proper primetime studio debate. People want more than the brief exchange of questions they get at Wednesday lunchtime. They want to see the leaders of the main political parties talking in detail about the issues that matter to them, setting out the policies on offer, and opening themselves up to public scrutiny.”

Presently, [September 2nd 2009], the Prime Minister opposes such a debate. It is generally suggested that the incumbent has more to lose than the challengers. But while this applied to Mr. Brown’s predecessor Tony Blair, it could be argued that the situation is less clear if the incumbent has little to lose through the low standing of his party and his own popularity with the electorate.
Gordon Brown has echoed Tony Blair’s general rebuttal on the grounds that the UK situation differs from the American one. The UK is not calling on the electorate to appoint a President. Nor, he might have argued, is the election some kind of charisma contest.

Sky gets a dusty response

The appeal to public interest in Mr Ryley’s actions were not received with universal approval, notwithstanding his offer to make the viewing available to Sky’s rivals for terrestrial [non Satellite] viewers.

B Sky B’s leader James Murdoch had expressed the company’s dissatisfaction with what he saw as the BBC’s Orwellian influences a few days earlier.

Sky could hardly have expected a positive response from the BBC
whose report noted:

The BBC’s chief political adviser Ric Bailey said there had been lots of negotiations and “informal discussions” as securing a TV debate was a “delicate” process – with the best chance being for broadcasters to work together on a joint approach.
The current ITV director of news Michael Jermey, said he wanted to see the leaders debate on ITV1 as part of a series of programmes during the general election campaign. “ITV believes that a series of leaders’ debates through the general election campaign would be good for viewers and voters. ITV and the BBC are working closely together on this and we welcome involvement from other broadcasters.”

The Times chimes in

The Times [Sept 2nd 2009] added its weight to the debate on the debate,
joining the Murdoch offensive through an editorial (British party leaders must not duck out of a TV debate), a lead story and back up stories, plus the article by its Sky colleague John Ryley with its ‘invitation to collaborate’.

The Times argued that such a debate was important. The examples presented the possibility of a crucial moment, a political tipping point which might occur.

The examples of the crucial moment were North American. There was the infamous five o’ clock shadow which did for Nixon so long ago. There was the relaxed put-down by Reagan of the earnest Jimmy Carter. There was the even more alarming account of a remark from Canadian opposition leader Brian Mulroney which apparently destroyed the credibility of Prime Minister Turner in that year of years 1984. According to the Times Journalist Chris Smith “Faced with this declaration of moral clarity, the Liberals collapsed in the polls and the Conservatives won by a landslide”.

In other words, this is the view of history as a series of crucial incidents. Unless the debate itself can rise above the quality of the debate about the debate, it is unlikely to add to much public understanding of policy issues.

Wishful thinking

Despite media interest, the whole business may be little more than wishful thinking. After all, it came on a day when the main front-page headline in The Times was Who spiked my pumpkin? A case of vegicide.


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