Friday, 4 September 2009

A Televised Debate

Sounds like a good idea, doesn't it?

Much like at any hustings you gather the main protagonists together and let them squabble and shift and allow the real picture to emerge as the viewing audience graduall make their minds up...

Sky News have been promoting the idea in conjunction with The Daily Telegraph after launching a campaign.

Meanwhile The Guardian reports that Gordon Brown has 'sidestepped' the calls and BBC reports that although he is 'happy to do debates all the time' this is not the moment to be discussing the matter (the irony is not lost).

Obviously politics plays a part in how this discussion is managed because the simple fact that the PM would be prepared to put himself on equal footing with his opponents gives them the opportunity to cut him down to size in the eyes of voters. So this is standard fare for oppositions at a time when the government is seen to be weak and on its way out.

While it might automatically be assumed that this is a tory plot to hammer home their perceived advantage as indicated by the polls it was also a no-brainer that Nick Clegg jumped at the suggestion.

But this is about more than mere party-political jostling. It is also about media jostling in their crowded marketplace.

Sky has clearly seen an advantage in pushing this as a means to gain publicity in their on-going war with the establishment BBC (which officially reflects the diversity of views in society and cannot directly or overtly campaign). The Murdoch-backed company clearly feels it can get one over the national corporation.

But again, it also about more than that. It's about who decides to set the all-important context.

The range of alternative ways of presenting a debate means that in the decision to set the context - which could come down to minutiae such as whether the participants are seated, standing or are given a floor to roam about - can have a significant impact on the outcome.

Like they say "framing is all".

Because presentation is half the battle in politics the manoeuverings which go into the lead-up are often the most decisive phase.

In the US Presidential campaign each of the major networks got to run a televised debate and each of them tweaked the 'Town Hall' format to provide slightly different slants as they saw important. The networks also had commercial constraints placed on them which limited the extensiveness of their debates.

In the French Presidential election audience participation was largely done away with as a more discursive and open-ended approach was adopted.

Then there is also the possibility that the actual debate can be framed and analysed with the vast expert resources at the disposal of the broadcasters. But it is precisely the availability of these resources which is a game-changer and make televised debate nothing like ordinary hustings.

In the US the networks agreed to balance the biases on each others presentational format by sharing out the debates and conducting a series of them, and I would argue for the same here.

So if there is to be a formal televised debate, then each of the major news broadcasters (ie Sky, BBC and ITN) need to be involved equally in the discussions with each of the major parties (ie Labour, Conservative and LibDems) to reach a decision about how a framework for debate can be arrived at.

No comments: