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

Designing Britain’s leaders’ debate

Opinion by Ray D’Cruz

Britain will have three leaders’ debates, plus a host of other election debates for the 2010 general election.

The deal was struck between party and television station representatives.

In anticipation of Britain moving into the televised election debate area, Election Debates has previously commented that the governance of such debates should be overseen by an independent group. But first, credit to the negotiators:

  • Three debates is a good outcome. Enough debates to cover significant international and domestic issues.
  • Other local and specialist debates will also attract interest and focus for particular issues and places.
  • Involving the three major parties is the right move to ensure each speaker can have sufficient time to argue and rebut.

Now the challenge will be to construct effective rules within the debate. These rules should be based around managing risks which can be safely predicted based on the experience of other countries that have held election debates.

Risk #1: uneven contributions. It seems obvious that balancing the contribution of speakers and avoid any sort of bias associated with allocating one speaker substantially more time than the other. And it’s easier said than done in a three person debate. In a three person debate, where one speaker is the incumbent prime minister, both opposition speakers may “gang up” and focus on the government’s record – especially a government that has been in power for so long.

There is a challenge for participants and moderators given the likelihood of this happening: not letting prime minister Gordon Brown dominate the debate in temporal terms. It is likely that time will be allocated for both substantive arguments, rebuttal and rights of reply. It is possible, that between the time Brown spends presenting arguments and defending his government’s record through rebuttal and rights of reply, he will actually dominate the debate. The constant attacks will strengthen his position in the debate. If you want to see an example of an incumbent being attacked on all fronts, but strangely emerging as the dominant character in the debate, watch the 2008 Canadian Leaders’ Debate.

What can be done? First, the moderator has to strike the right balance between ensuring fairness (opportunities to rebut and reply). This may be achieved by ensuring that all speakers, when making substantive points, actually introduce their own policies. In other words, don’t let the opposition speakers constantly rebut. This will balance the flow of positive and negative points between all speakers and make time easier to manage. 

Second, opposition speakers need to rethink ganging up on the basis that it may strengthen their opponent rather than debilitate him. Perhaps this is a bit counter-intuitive, but it is worth careful consideration. Each speaker should focus on both opponents, and should not ensure plenty of positive time on their own policies. 

Risk #2: agenda manipulation. Debates become stuck on certain issues or topics and neglect others, by the design of cunning participants. That is to say, speakers will drag debates onto issues of their choosing, regardless of what is actually being debated. A party leader will want to debate about an issue that the public thinks their party is best placed to manage – because they’ve already won the issue. 

In the 2001 Australian election debate between prime minister John Howard and opposition leader Kim Beazley, popular consensus gave the debate to Beazley (who was a naturally more gifted orator, though somewhat verbose). However, in a commentary piece in The Age, I called the debate to Howard on account of his two comparatively strong suits (border protection and the economy) dominated 75% of the dialogue. Ben Richards, a noted Australian debater agreed with me (though few others did). Our sense was that the discussion was very unbalanced. It was dominated by issues that the viewers already identified Howard as being better able to manage – and that the issues of education, health and social welfare were relegated to throw away lines in the dying stages of the debate.

While having three debates will assist with a broader focus, spin doctors will be honing in on a few messages and unless there is a concerted effort to cover a wide range of issues, the debates may get quite repetitive. This happened in the 2008 US presidential debates. Even with three (themed) debates, we saw all three dominated by two issues: the economy and war. Many of the other issues that were also debates with viewed through either an economy or war lens.

Moderators must ensure that a broad range of issues are discussed – and don’t simply become a segue for spin, sound bytes and a much narrower discussion. Speakers should be prepared to hold each other accountable where there is evasiveness or a tendency toward well-worn phrases with limited relevance to the subjects being discussed.

Risk #3: gimmicks for ratings. Television stations, with a desire to ramp up audiences, will undoubtedly resort to gimmicks and wacky ideas to generate the biggest audience. This is after all the age of reality TV. Having three separate channels televising a debate means competition – and no doubt the competitive desire to produce the most watched of the three debates will see television executives at their innovative best and worst.

There should be an overriding goal to maximise focus and minimise disruption; improving information flow in is after all one of the more laudable (and democratic) goals of a television debate. The 2008 New Zealand leaders’ debate between prime minister Helen Clark and opposition leader (and now prime minister) John Key included questions from the public, submitted online including by video. It increased participation and gave punters a voice and did not distract or disrupt. It was well-handled. 

Innovation and technology can also go horribly wrong. Take the  infamous worm, a distracting and unhelpful feature of some Australian election debates.

The risk of gimmicks for ratings is most likely to tell us whether the Election Debates call for an independent body to regulate these debates in Britain was the correct call.

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