Opinion by Ray D’Cruz
One question being addressed by some political commentators in Britain is just who should be asking the questions in the three leaders’ debates.
There are four potential questioners, so far as I can see:
- The candidates
- The public
- The moderator
- A panel of journalists
In the UK debates, candidates should be permitted to ask questions of each other (direct questioning). This permission would make UK election debates different to the televised election debates held in countries such as the US and Australia.
Those of you who are familiar with academic parliamentary debate (sometimes called Oxford-style debate) will know that direct questioning is encouraged. Given this and the nature of Question Time in the House of Commons, I would go so far as to say that it would be culturally incongruous for a UK election debate to now allow direct questioning.
Direct questioning is expressly prohibited in US presidential and vice presidential debates. In his book Inside the Presidential Debates, author (and one of the initiators of the first televised presidential debate) Newton N. Minow suggests that the US presidential debates could be improved by allowing direct questioning. (1)
Strangely, countries like Australia and New Zealand that follow the Westminster tradition and embrace Oxford-style debates in their university debate societies have followed the US model of prohibiting direct questioning.
This may be because debates remain the subject of negotiations between political parties and incumbent prime ministers do not want to be questioned by their opponents. There’s a perception that incumbents have more to lose and that challengers gain a platform. That may not always be the case, such as when the incumbent is a long way behind in the opinion polls. That, incidentally, may be why Tony Blair refused televised debates (despite his considerable skill as a communicator) and why the less gifted communicator Gordon Brown agreed to the proposal. If this is the case, then Britain can remain hopeful that its incumbent will support the idea of direct questioning!
In the last New Zealand election debate (2008), the television broadcaster partnered with YouTube to facilitate questioning by members of the public. Of the thousands of (sub-30-second) questions received, an expert panel selected questions to put to the candidates.
A video clip of the question was shown. Some questions were directed to individual candidates, others to both. It worked well.
The initiative allowed active and direct participation from the public. It may well have increased awareness and engagement amongst younger voters too.
In the 2008 US presidential race, the third and final debate was held in a Town Hall style format, with non-partisan audience members asking questions of the candidates.
The Town Hall debate raises another possibility: that the three debates may be constructed quite differently. This may maintain interest and momentum in the UK debate series.
I do not think the moderator should ask questions. I think the moderator should stick to managing the debate – ensuring some order, ensuring participants have an equal opportunity to be heard and ensuring that participants actually answer questions (rather than resort to hackneyed spin).
Managing the UK debate will be difficult enough with three participants – and the moderator should not be encumbered with the additional responsibility of questioning. They will no doubt have a role in selecting questions asked by the public if that option is pursued.
Panel of journalists
This is the group I would be most reluctant to involve. Journalists, particularly those in the press gallery have plenty of opportunities to ask questions of politicians. They need not be given another platform. The only role I would allow them would be to select public questioners – along with the moderator – where YouTube or Town Hall formats are invoked.
Across the three debates, there is ample room to involve the public and allow direct questioning between candidates. That will make for an inclusive and exciting debate. Ensuring the moderator does an effective job of moderating will make for a fair debate.
(1) Newton N. Minow and Craig L. Lamay, Inside the Presidential Debates, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2008, p. 107.