Thursday, March 12, 2015

Election debate may join YouTube generation

The debate surrounding TV election debates has descended into farce and become ever more heated with little over 50 days to the General Election. Broadcasters have been accused of breaking impartiality rules. The PM has been labelled a chicken.

The election debates have run the risk of being shelved altogether. But with a  proposal of a Digital Debate, the election debates may be saved.

Chickens and empty chairs

As proposals for election debates began in January the current Prime Minister David Cameron said that he would take part in TV political debates that included the Green Party. This sparked allegations that the PM was chicken and was trying to duck out of the debates altogether.

Broadcasters squabbled over what they might air initially rejecting the suggestion that the Green Party might be involved and with some threatening to 'empty chair' the Prime Minister.
There were then proposals that as well as the Green Party, leaders from other parties be involved including those from Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Ultimatums and temper tantrums

Then came a declaration from Downing Street saying that David Cameron would only take part in a single debate and that the broadcasters should argue it out amongst themselves as to how they might organise the event [BBC].

In Wednesday's PMQs the debate became particularly heated with the opposition leader Ed Miliband accusing the PM of "chickening out" while Cameron himself labelled Miliband as being "despicable" for only wanting to discuss a TV programme rather than political policies [BBC / Daily Mail].

Digital debate

As the main broadcasters, Sky, the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV, discussed their proposals, two national papers put forward a new suggestion [Telegraph].

The Telegraph Media Group, which publishes The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and Google, which owns the YouTube video website, invited the leaders to a five way "digital debate" on 26th or 27th of March.

The proposal would fulfil Cameron's insistence that the debate be held before the end of March as well as his call for the Green Party to be involved.

In their letter executives from the consortium wrote, "We note that the prime minister has said he is willing to take part in a debate in the week beginning 23rd March and that the leader of the opposition is prepared to debate 'any time, any place, anywhere'."

"We also note that the impasse in negotiations with the broadcasters means that meaningful television debates now look unlikely to take place."

Joining the YouTube generation

The consortium have said that the debate would be available live, and after the event, for any and all TV networks to broadcast in addition to being on YouTube platforms [Guardian].

Speaking shortly after Prime Minister's Questions, sources close to David Cameron and Ed Miliband said they were considering the proposal for the digital debate. Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps told the BBC's Daily Politics a digital debate seemed a "plausible" way forward. Lib Dem general election co-ordinator Lord Ashdown said the party remained committed to election debates and would consider the digital debate proposal.

Meanwhile UKIP leader Nigel Farage said he will take part in the digital debate [Telegraph]. "Scrutiny is an important part of democracy, and for this reason I am delighted to accept the Telegraph/Guardian/YouTube invitation to this debate - so that I can make the case to the British electorate on why they should vote UKIP," Farage was quoted as saying.

Media circus

The so-called digital debate may prove to be the best option. It would certainly bring an end to the media circus that has surrounded the TV debates.

There have already been accusations from both sides of the house that the broadcasters have held a gun to the Prime Minister's head with the threat of empty chairing the Conservative leader.

Answering questions at the Retail Week Live conference in London, former Labour strategist Lord Mandelson said broadcasters were not entitled to "empty-chair" leaders who refuse to take part in debates.

The former business secretary said, "I think voters feel entitled to have that sort of debate and comparison directly in front of them."

"I think that David Cameron, though, is entitled not to do that debate in the particular way the broadcasters have prescribed and the Labour Party is entitled to make him look and appear completely 'frit' and chicken and force him to take a hit for not doing the debates," Mandelson said. "What I don't think is that the broadcasters then are entitled to impose what they want on the political parties and empty-chair party leaders." [Daily Mail]

Conservative Peer Lord Grade has also stepped in saying  the broadcasters were breaching impartiality rules and "playing politics" in the row over election debates.

The ex-BBC, ITV and Channel 4 boss said it was "not acceptable for unelected journalists" to replace David Cameron with an "empty chair" if he refused to take part in any televised debates. "There was no divine right to have election debates" [BBC / Telegraph].

Taking stock

The digital debate may well take place given it fulfills Cameron's main demands, But the broadcasters meanwhile continue to discuss the possibility of going ahead with their own debates whether or not the PM takes part.

However, it should be considered by all media outlets that TV debates - or even those conducted on a digital platform - are not a cornerstone of the electoral process.

Britain has been conducting general election campaigns under universal suffrage for over 200 years. Only once, in 2010, have TV debates played a part. There is no great issue of constitutional precedence at play here. Indeed in Britain, debates are an electoral curiosity, not an electoral necessity and could be considered to be an American import.

Debates are not, of themselves, politically neutral events. They provide an inbuilt advantage to the challenger, or challengers, at the expense of the incumbent. By demanding the debates take place, something the broadcasters are doing now, demanding and threatening, rather than negotiating, they are siding with one political party, or parties, against another. This, as Lord Grade has pointed out, goes against impartiality rules.

Should the broadcasters go ahead and empty chair David Cameron a week before polling day, as they currently seem to be proposing, they may turn the election debates into a farcical spectacle especially if the only person taking part is the opposition leader Ed Miliband.

The digital platform may not appease the broadcasters whose ratings would surely suffer. But at least according to one poll, 79% of participants thought the Internet was the best medium for the election debates [Telegraph].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

No comments: