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TV Debates: Good for Politics or Just for TV?

Mal Fletcher
Posted 16 April 2010
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Going into last night's inaugural TV election debate, the big question seemed to be who of the three leaders would bottle it first.

Who would be the first to choke under pressure, to fluff their lines or appear either too aggressive or disengaged under the glare of the TV studio lights?

However, after the hype of this first debate dies down, a much more important question will remain. On balance, will these debates be healthy for the election process in years to come?

Doubtless, they are here to stay, in one form or another, but will British politicians and media outlets discover and develop a distinctly British approach? Or will we see politics turning more and more toward America for its models on how to connect with voters?

Americans are very adept at incorporating razz matazz and star-power into their political process. This capacity for showmanship is more natural for them, more true to their heritage of public life than it is for the British.

By most accounts, Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats won the first debate. Contrary to the tone taken in many of the newspapers, that’s probably not such a surprising feat.

In some ways, Mr Clegg went into the debate process with several advantages. The mere fact that he was included in the debates was a major win for him and his party.

The two major players could just as easily have tried to freeze him out, based on the assumption – not an unrealistic one – that his party couldn’t realistically expect to form the next majority government. As things stand, of course, he won’t get to be Prime Minister, but he may yet play the king-maker in a hung Parliament.

Mr Clegg also had the advantage of low public expectations; he had less to lose than the other two in what is already a tight race between them.

It is also much easier for the leader of a minority party to appear above the political fray, to take the high ground while morally inferior but much larger parties slug it out below.

For as long as it remains an ‘also-ran’ in elections, the Liberal Democrat party will find it easier to take a policy route that looks quite different to that of the other parties. It will be easier for them to position themselves as a completely different political force.

It will even be able pitch policies that are a little more ‘out there’, pushing ideas that sound wonderful in a TV soundbite but which may not stand up well to more rigorous study.

Once, however, the public really does start to take it seriously its policies will come under much tighter scrutiny, as will its leaders.

TV, of course, is all about style. While Clegg looked relaxed and at home with the TV format, often speaking directly to camera, Mr Cameron, looked at times surprisingly ill at ease. Leaning backwards from the podium between questions made him seem aloof and when answering he rarely engaged the camera, peering instead at something off to stage right.

Of the three leaders, Gordon Brown looked the most like a fish permanently stranded on dry land. He looked a little dishevelled – not unusual for him – and at times there was something Machiavellian about his smile, though I'm sure he tried very hard to look sincere.

Doubtless, the debate format itself can be improved on the first effort. At times it seemed too staged. The presenter constantly interjected, in an all-too-obvious attempt to get the ‘big two’ locked in an on-air spat. He was obviously instructed to look for great TV, as opposed to drawing out political ideas.

This is one of the problems with television. As that early doyen of the biting TV interview, Malcolm Muggeridge said, the camera always lies. It does so in two ways. The mere act of pointing a camera in a certain direction provides an edited version of reality. The audience is forced to look in one direction and not another, to focus on what the camera wants it to see.

In another sense, the camera creates caricatures of people. It takes certain physical attributes or mannerisms and elevates them to a level of importance they wouldn’t have in real life.

Mr Brown, for example, cannot help the fact that he is blind in one eye. At certain angles, though, this comes across on camera as presenting a shifty appearance. Unfair? Yes, but it's the nature of the beast. TV is very much about camera angles and lighting, smoke and mirrors.

At the end of the day, though, no amount of window-dressing in a production suite will make up for poor performance – performance being the operative word.

Do we really want or need a PM who is adept at TV? Haven’t we seen enough of what spin can do to the soul of a government to feel a shudder at the idea of a PM who could just as easily present Strictly Come Dancing, as debate in the House?

And do we want a PM who is, after the American model, seen as the sole embodiment of his party’s ideals? In the US, the President is not only head of government, he’s head of state. In the UK, we leave the latter to Her Majesty, which puts that role above the rancour of the political fray.

It also means that political leaders can build teams. Our system of government is all about teamwork. TV debates won’t allow us to see the various teams at work, to judge the competence of key potential ministers.

In short, if TV debates ever become the deciding factor in an election, we are in a lot of trouble. To decide to support an entire party's policies on the basis of a leader's performance on television is a mistake.

Some will argue that this is already happening because as Marshall McLuhan observed, in the age of TV the medium has become the message. In a world dominated by screens, people already equate telegenic ability with overall competence and trustworthiness.

However, politicians do most of their work a long way from the sanitised world of the TV studio. Politics, even at an international level, is still very much about deals done behind closed doors.

Prime ministers are not TV presenters. One can hardly imagine Winston Churchill being a good TV performer. He was too gruff in his manner, too dismissive of opponents and too used to slowly building his case to ever engage well in a debate built on soundbites.

TV debates are helpful – and potentially interesting television – but there is much more to political leadership than a good line in TV patter.

In this first debate, Mr. Cameron tried hard to make the government seem tired, Mr. Brown tried hard to make the Tories seem risky, and Mr. Clegg tried hard to bark at the heels of the other two.

TV debates will be a good servant to the election process, but they must never become its master.


Copyright Mal Fletcher, 2010

What’s your view?

Are TV debates overall a positive thing for the election process?

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No

Keywords: tv debates | politics | uk election | politicians | clegg | brown | cameron

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