Last Sunday’s Big Debate on BBC1 was unsatisfactory from a number of perspectives: I’ve posted it in full on YouTube in two parts, and viewers will draw their own conclusions. It exhibited the structural problems that beset all such debate formats, on BBC, on STV and on Sky, so rather than analyse this particular one, I’ll try for generic comment covering all that I have seen.
POLITICAL DEBATES IN A DEMOCRACY
Before television, political debate was simpler – in America, politicians went on the stump, and in Britain on the husting. Both referred to the platform mounted by the speaker or speakers to address voters, which could quite literally be a tree stump, but more often was a specially erected platform in a public place, or even the platform in a village hall. A humbler version was the soapbox, whether at Hyde Park or the Glesca Barras. (My political awareness from childhood was honed by listening to the wonderful Barras soapbox orators in the 1940s)
Sometimes there was only one speaker, with one political viewpoint, sometimes there were multiple speakers with different viewpoints. There was occasionally a chairman of sorts for the multiple speakers versions, who had the unenviable job of trying to maintain order, often backed up by the polis in case he failed. Sometimes there were stewards to deal with the unruly hecklers who were invariably present.
Scotland - Dundee specifically - may lay claim to originating the term, which comes from the jute trade hecklers who teased and combed out the flax. A heckler performs a similar role, by interrupting, by raising embarrassing points, by puncturing pomposity and exposing humbug, by departing from the agenda, and often by abuse and taunts in a deliberate attempt to disconcert the speaker. A good heckler teases out the truth. Disruptive hecklers obscure the truth and inhibit free debate. Political extremists use heckling to destroy democratic debate, and right-wing hecklers move quickly to violence, as history shows all too clearly. So heckling is a mixed blessing – sometimes vital in a free democracy, sometime inimical to that very democracy.
Politics has many similarities to advocacy in a court of law – the law, the facts and the rules of procedure matter vitally, but so does charisma and the ability to appeal directly to the emotions as well as the intellect. An electorate – or a jury – may assimilate the arguments and understand the law, but the force of the argument depends in significant part on the style and personality of the person delivering the argument and citing the law. And in both situations, the jury or the electorate may choose to ignore the facts and the law and deliver a verdict based on emotion or gut feel – call it what you will.
Why do we permit this as a society? Because the law is a process that does not always deliver justice, and emotions and deeply felt convictions are sometimes not shifted by facts. Both the law and political argument in the United Kingdom are adversarial in nature: both sides claim to be in possession of immutable, incontrovertible facts, both sides – or in politics, multiple sides – produce experts of unimpeachable authority who in effect call each other idiots, if not outright liars. Of course, there are real facts, objective truths in there somewhere, but we only perceive them through distorting prisms of personal belief and experience, and through competing interpretations of these very facts by people with an axe to grind.
In law, a judge considers, then decides, although sometimes constrained by a jury’s contrary decision. In politics, the ultimate judge is the collective voice of the electorate.
The electorate are not all of the people, however, they are only some of the people: many have no franchise, usually because the law so dictates, but on occasion because they have spurned their right to vote because they distrust the system under which it is granted. In certain situations, therefore, the voice of the people overwhelms the voice of a manipulated electorate, and their voice is heard by other means.
If the opposition is weak, even though large in numbers, the protest movement is simply ignored, e.g. the Iraq War. Otherwise this leads inevitably to one of four outcomes – reform of the electoral system, overthrow of the government by revolution, or suppression of the protest movement, and perhaps the complete suspension of democratic rights.
So political debate has always mattered, because the alternative are not attractive. But the old concept of politicians on the stump and the hustings changed for ever with the advent of television and the Nixon-Kennedy debate over half a century ago. This new medium and this seminal debate revolutionised US politics and political debate, and had an incalculable impact.
But it has taken the UK all of that fifty years to really catch up with the American model of political debate, and the 2010 general election campaign and the 2011 Scottish Parliamentary elections were the first real television debates based on the American model. There had of course been extensive television coverage of politics and politicians and other televised forums where politicians debated, sometimes with an audience present, but they had tended to be focused on a narrow range of issues.
The 2010 debates overnight transformed the fortunes of the LibDems and put them into coalition government almost totally because of Clegg’s performance in the final debate, aided by the post-debate poll on ‘winners and losers’ of the debate. The subsequent disastrous impact of coalition on Clegg and the LibDems perhaps points up inherent weaknesses of electoral success thus gained.
How much the televised debates contributed to the SNP’s landslide victory in 2011 can never be accurately determined, but they must have contributed in some measure.
THE STRUCTURE OF DEBATES
The first question that must be asked on television debates is Who decides the structure and format?
I don’t know the answer to that, anymore than I know the answer to related questions that follow. What I do know is that the process must be more transparent than it has been, more open to scrutiny, that there must be more consultation and involvement and a wider range of views sought than has been to date.
The other questions I would like answered – I realise the answers may already be there waiting for me somewhere on a TV company’s website or elsewhere and I just haven’t found them – are: -
How is the party representation chosen by the television companies involved, i.e. the political parties to be given a place?
For example, in last Sunday’s debate, who decided on one Green, one Labour, one SNP, one Tory? Who decided that the LibDems didn’t warrant a representative, or the Scottish Socialists? Was the decision based on the number of representatives in Holyrood? On the number who voted for these parties at the last Holyrood election? Did the UK status of the parties – very different say, in the case of the Tories and LibDems – come into play?
Who decided that the Greens and the Tories be represented by their Scottish party leaders and Labour and the SNP by their deputy leaders? Was it the BBC or the parties themselves? Does one Green or Tory leader equate in status terms to one Labour or SNP deputy leader?
What input do the parties themselves have to the decisions made, if any?
AUDIENCE SELECTION AND QUESTIONS
Similar questions arise in relation to the selection of the audience. The BBC did invite members of the public to apply for tickets and stated that a balanced audience reflecting the range of political views would be selected from the applications. But how is this determined? Do they take the word of those applying as to their affiliation? Were there sex and age criteria?
Audience members are invited to submit written questions – how is the choice made from those submitted, since more are submitted than can be asked? How is the choice made on the basis of spontaneous, hands-up questions by the presenter/moderator?
(I can only offer personal experience from attending a regional Question Time at Meadowbank Stadium many years ago. I received a phone call following my application, and I was asked what issues were important to me. I was not asked to specify my political affiliation. Before the show, audience members had to submit several written questions. How the choice was made, and what criteria were applied is unknown to me.)
THE FORMAT OF THE SHOW
Just what criteria determine the format of the show itself are not clear. Is it an attempt to reproduce a husting – a political meeting in a hall, with all the potential rough and tumble that the real thing involves? Is it an attempt to create a structured debate, with controls of time and content – and behaviour – applied by the moderator?
How is the balance found between informative, structured debate and the excitement of spontaneity that a traditional husting might provide – that spark, the unexpected questions, the revealing answer, the passion? What makes for good television viewing may make for poor voter information, but too much control can inhibit true debate. These are the challenges that face television producers and presenters in news debates between the parties, but with an audience, the unexpected quotient goes up radically.
If the format is too loose, it may make for good television but poor debate, and leave serious voters frustrated that issues were not examined and key arguments either not presented or buried in cross talk and abuse.
Critical timing decisions are involved. How long should the overall debate be? Too long, and the viewers may get bored, and the practical limitations of television schedules obviously create constraints.
What should the debate theme(s) be and how many topic headings should be covered in the time available? How much time should each speaker be given to reply? Should the time allotted to speakers relate to the size of their party’s representation in the Parliament, or to their voting strength in the last election – or none of these? How rigorously should the guillotine on speakers be applied by the moderator? How much time should be allocated to spontaneous contributions by audience members?
SOME THOUGHTS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
What I have to say here represents my frustrations with some of the political debates, all of which were present in last Sunday’s BBC debate. These frustrations may not be shared by others, and even if they are, they may have different ideas.
Scottish television news channels and political programmes have found seemingly endless time to discuss the financial affairs of Rangers Football Club. Newsnight Scotland seems to have been temporarily – one hopes – to have turned into Newsnight Rangers, and other slots have been devoted to this hopefully not endless saga.
Could the future of Scotland as a nation – which will also significantly determine the futures of England, Wales and Northern Ireland – be given at least equivalent time in total to the future of a football club?
Either the one hour slots need to be increased in frequency, or longer time given to each programme, dependent on topic reach.
The skills of a television interviewer do not necessarily embrace the skills required of a debate moderator. Television channels understandably want an experienced political journalist with a familiar face, but across all the debates that have been held, this has proved – at least from my perspective – only partially successful.
Radical thought though it may be, a moderator does not necessarily require political understanding, but only the skills necessary to authoritatively control a debate within rules. It is the politicians and the audience that must be heard in a debate, and prompts and context interventions are not required from a moderator.
Since I have dragged a football comparison in above, let be say that a football referee has to understand the game and its rules, and have the capacity to apply the rules scrupulously fairly, with sanctions if necessary. He is not required as a coach to offer useful suggestions as to how the game should be played. I see no reason why this should not apply in debate moderation.
I noted above that in adversarial politics and the law, all sides will find experts to argue contrary interpretations and offer conflicting ‘facts’.
Since each political party cannot supply its own experts without cluttering the programme, I suggest that for key topics, the political parties must by consensus choose a single expert to offer an opinion on facts at pivotal junctures.
If, as may well be likely, the parties can reach no consensus, then there should be no experts, and the programme moderators should open proceedings by announcing this fact, and the names of the experts considered and rejected. An intelligent electorate – and Scotland does have an intelligent electorate - will draw its own conclusion from this failure.
STUDIO AUDIENCE REACTION AND APPLAUSE
Studio audience reaction at the moment is confined to applause, and since this cannot usefully be analysed except by volume and the infamous clapometer, other methods should be used. For a least twenty years now, audience voting remote control devices have been available, subject to an immediate count. A simple YES, NO choice could be offered at suitable points in the debate, giving a much more accurate idea of how the audience reacted to key points and propositions, with instant display of results.
Some pre-submitted questions are chosen and others are rejected by the programme makers. A list of all questions submitted and the criteria for selection/rejection should be made available after the programme to all those present and be available online soon after.
LIVE QUESTIONS/REACTION FROM THE AUDIENCE
The practice of inviting live responses from the audience, a staple feature of BBC’s Question Time, and on balance well managed by them, does not in my view work well on live TV debates. Although the selection is random by the moderator/presenter, it does leave the way open for deliberate planted question by party hacks placed in the audience for that purpose, and there have been some egregious examples of this recently (my perception).
In my view, little would be lost and much gained by this practice being abandoned. It is a feature of live hustings but has little useful place in studio debates. One gain would be of that crucial commodity, time for debate.
CROSS TALK AND INTERRUPTIONS
No talking over a speaker should be permitted by the moderator – the parliamentary procedure of asking the speaker to give way should be observed, and the discretion of the person who has the floor should be respected.
SEATING ARRANGEMENTS FOR SPEAKERS
There should be a speaker’s lectern – there would very definitely have been one in a live husting, and the television debate should observe this. The politician speaking should be up front and addressing the audience, not looking to the side at others. Alternatively, all the speakers should be standing at individual lecterns, as in the Parliamentary debates of 2010.