Saturday, 7 March 2015

Instead of choreographed leaders debates, let's just broadcast lots of local hustings...


More froth and bother has been expended over the matter of TV debates than on any number of things that actually matter in our lives. Partly this is because the big broadcasters dominate the agenda with newspapers and the hordes of spinners, PR men and political hangers on toddling along behind. The 'Westminster Bubble' some call this - a place where debate is conducted on the basis of triangulating political careers and pulling the wool over the electorate's eyes rather than with the intention of seeking solutions.

The voters are sitting there - in as much as they're paying any attention at all - looking bemusedly on as shouts of 'chicken' are interspersed with ever more complicated explanations as to whether this or that format for a TV debate is most appropriate and even more occult explanations about the reasons a particular date or location is wrong.

I think we need to move on from this sterile sideshow to real political decisions. A grand televised showpiece was always a bad idea (it was in 1966 when Harold Wilson refused a debate with Ted Heath and remained so in 2010 when Gordon, Dave and Nick graced our screens). Not only does it undermine the premise of our democracy - the election of representatives - but it trivialises debate. The format is set up to focus on presentation and style rather than content or the sharing of argument. Most people won't watch but rather will see a few carefully chosen soundbites on the evening news while listening to the so-called 'political reporter' analysing the leaders' hair, ties and body language. This is not debate but yet another example of politics as show-business, the triumph of gloss over substance.

In these days of the Internet, of easy live broadcasting and of social media interaction, we need to rethink what we want from debates. Do we want, over the period of the campaign, two or three grandstand events carefully orchestrated to shine nothing on the real issues of the campaign? Or do we want to sent the broadcasters - the big guys and the little guys, radio and TV - out into the UK's 350 constituencies where real debates might be taking place? Every constituency has a few local hustings - usually organised by a local church group or a voluntary organisation - that bring the candidates together to debate subjects raised by the local audience. Why don't we broadcast lots of these rather than a sterile and preening debates between a load of leaders who aren't on the ballot paper for most of us?

Instead of a debate moderated through carefully planned national events, we'd see a more untidy campaign where sometimes the 'wrong' thing gets said and sometimes candidates stray from the approved line. It would be invigorating and would perhaps involve more people in debating the issues rather than treating the election as a sort of beauty contest between leaders or manifesto slogans moderated by the broadcast media.


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