2010 UK Election, Ray D'Cruz, View opinion pieces

A leaders’ debate for the UK: debating the why and the how

Opinion by Ray D’Cruz

There’s been a strong campaign by media outlets, particularly Sky News, for the UK to have a formal, televised leaders’ debate as part of the upcoming UK General Election. It would be a first for Britain, but certainly not a first with countries like the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand hosting election debates.

In this opinion article I will raise and respond to several questions:

  1. Is it time for the UK to have a leaders’ debate?
  2. Who should participate in the debate?
  3. How should it be conducted for it to be a beneficial and worthwhile exercise?

Is it time?

Yes, it probably is time that leaders’ took their message to the public through a televised debate. So many other parts of politics are conducted through the medium of television that this seems like a natural extension. We see press conferences, Question Time, interviews and informal debates, so why not a formal, structured debate?

Indeed a formal, structured and well-run debate has the capacity to raise the quality of televised political debate significantly. It has the potential to move leaders beyond the 15-second grabs (assertions) that we must up with most of the time. Having said this, the spin doctors will see this as a slight variation to their daily routines and will try to script and spin every word. That is a risk that can be addressed in the conduct of the debate.

There are dangers to televised debates. Image and impressions count for much and can sway audiences. Perhaps they can sway audiences in lieu of good arguments. Richard Nixon sweating and failing to make eye contact with the audience during the 1960 US presidential debate with John F. Kennedy is said to have lost him an election. That was the first US presidential debate to be televised. Nixon’s substance versus Kennedy’s presence might have explained who the majority of radio listeners thought Nixon won while the majority of television viewers thought Kennedy won. It is almost 50 years since that debate and we are well and truly past the age of detailed policy argumentation. The age of image is here, and a television debate, properly run may be able to create some additional time and space for political debate.

Who should participate?

There is some conjecture about whether it should be the three leaders of the major parties or all leaders (including minor parties).

It is my view that only major parties should be represented; that is Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems.

This is primarily to ensure that the debate does not become too crowded and messy. Five or six speakers is simply too much. A six speaker debate for 90 minutes means an average of 15 minutes per speaker. Even if the debate is solely dedicated to domestic issues, it means each speaker has 15 minutes to communicate their views about economic management, health, education and a raft of other issues. Add in the likely interruptions from other speakers and you have little more than the usual 15-30 seconds per issue grab that we are greeted by on the nightly news. That sort of depth of coverage does not justify a debate. You have to draw the line somewhere.

If you want an example of a confusing, muddled and ultimately unsatisfying debate, just watch the 2008 Canadian Leaders’ Debates. The most recent election debate featured five speakers. It was a messy debate, with the four opposition speakers regularly combining to attack the incumbent Prime Minister Stephen Harper. It created a strange scenario where Harper was under constant attack, but with unofficial rights of reply he was able to dominate air time and therefore may have won the debate.

This debate highlighted another problem with minor parties joining leaders’ debates: their narrow interests are not compatible with debates that cover a wide range of issues. In that debate, the Bloc Quebecois leader either looked for ways to drag mainstream issues back to his party’s narrow interests or simply dropped out of the debate. This particular problem – sectional interest party participation – really does help to decide where that line should be drawn. So, BNP, Greens etc should be excluded.

How should it be conducted?

Debates should be conducted independently of television companies and political parties.

Both groups have such strong interests that are incompatible with educating the public that they cannot be expected to produce the debate. Indeed the Sky News campaign for the debate, duly endorsed by other Murdoch media, has been so vociferous that one should be suspicious. Make no mistake about the motivation of television companies: these debates will be draw massive audiences. The Australian experience is that television networks cannot be left to run debates by themselves.

In Australia, one commercial network introduced ‘the worm’ some years ago. Each member of the studio audience was provided with a hand-held device with a dial capable of being pointed in a positive or negative direction. Audience members were asked to respond to leaders’ comments. If the leader said something that the audience didn’t like, the worm (a little line on the television screen) would track down; if they said something popular it would track up. Aside from being distracting in real-time, the worm also occupied excessive amounts of post-debate analysis. It added very little to the analysis of the debate and the issues presented. Similarly in Australia, there has been much conjecture and dispute about the bias of moderators chosen by the television companies.

Part of the problem in Australia is that there is no independent debates commission, as there is in the United States. This means that parties and television stations have a periodic stoush to determine the number of debates, the structure and content focus of each, who will moderate, how long it will last, whether there’ll be a worm and so on. In the lead up to the last election then Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd pledged an independent debates commission but no announcements have been made yet.

In America, we see three presidential debates, each with a different structure and focus. The rules of engagement are clearly defined and respected by all participants.

If Britain is going to have a leaders’ debate, it should do it properly: it should establish an independent group that will oversee its design and production. That group may have media and party representatives, but the ultimate decision making authority should rest in the hands of independent people. They can decide on the structure and content of debates. They can manage the risks of spin and insufficient time and focus on substantial issues. They can choose moderators. And they can deal with emerging issues such as the role of technology. The recent New Zealand leaders’ debate featured audience interaction via questions submitted by video or email. 

Britain should have a televised debate but to ensure that the British people are the winners from the exchange, an independent body should oversee the design and production of televised debates.

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