The Gryphon asks: are TV debates between politicians worthwhile?

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The Gryphon asks: are TV debates between politicians worthwhile?

No – Michael Everitt

In this day and age, there is a glut of information, readily available, on every conceivable subject. A quick Google search can satisfy your curiosity regarding the dietary habits of penguins/athletes/Kardashians (delete as appropriate). Social media and 24hr news channels are competing with each other to deliver breaking news before newspaper editors are even out of bed.

Televised debates made sense at a time when information moved more slowly. Their ground-breaking moment arguably came in 1960 when the format allowed a charismatic underdog senator by the name of John F. Kennedy to rise up out of obscurity. His opponent, a certain Richard Nixon, was humiliated by this handsome, smooth-talking young man. Television allowed Kennedy to show a nation that he was more than just a list of policies.

Contrast Kennedy with Jeremy Corbyn (easy enough to do). Few people outside Westminster had ever heard of the Labour back bencher. None the less, within hours of his nomination for the Labour leadership, there was no shortage of information about the man. Details of his image, his lifestyle and his core beliefs were swiftly communicated across the nation. For better or worse, people did not have to wait for a televised appearance to get the measure of the man.

The televised debate format might be saved, if only politicians were able to speak as freely as Kennedy had done. Instead, their spin doctors and image consultants only permit them to speak in carefully crafted sound bites. The consequence of this is that the public never learns anything about them they did not know before. Prior to their debates, people thought Clinton was competent yet out of touch while Trump was charismatic yet ignorant. After their debates, people thought Clinton was competent yet out of touch while Trump was charismatic yet ignorant. What, exactly, was the point of the exercise?

There really is no such thing as obscurity in a world where even your nan has a Facebook page. Even the relative minnow that is the Green party can reach thousands of people via the internet. An independent candidate can set up a twitter account in order to communicate directly with their prospective constituents. Undecided voters, driven by a cynical attitude towards politics, can consult one of the numerous charts circulating online which tell them how best to vote tactically. None of these cases would be any different whether the televised debates happen or not.

The problem is that the debate format has been transformed into a creature most unlike its former self. Candidates are fielded softball questions by networks desperate not to appear biased. The politicians appear caked in makeup to ensure they look good in HD. The audience is deliberately selected to the satisfaction of all involved. The whole charade has as much to do with reality as reality TV does.

The televised political debate was an innovative idea half a century ago. The problem then was how to connect the people with the person seeking to represent them. The problem now is that it is far too easy for a charismatic politician to use their personality to obscure their policies. Solving the latter problem will require a radically different solution to solving the former. It is time to accept that the televised political debate is no longer fit for purpose.

Yes – Nathan Olsen

Television, and news programming in particular, make up a key component of the mainstream media we consume. Despite the rise of the Internet, TV is still important. So, what better platform is there for presenting the policies and views of the politicians contesting the General Election? This is exactly what the debates proposed by the BBC and ITV intend to do. Theresa May, Conservative Party Leader and Prime Minister, has so far refused to appear in said debates. This does not mean, however, that the format should be abandoned; nor does it mean that political debates on television are a waste of time. May’s refusal to debate shows weakness rather than strength, as any politician with conviction should be up for presenting their political values and policies, and facing the scrutiny of political adversaries and an impartial moderator. Following on from the General Election TV debates of 2010 and 2015, which attracted up to 9.4 million viewers, it would seem strange to deprive potential viewers the chance to see what political parties have to offer at this election. This isn’t to suggest that everyone has to or should watch televised debates, but rather that it would be worthwhile to provide the citizens of the United Kingdom with the option of doing so.

Another reason TV debates can be particularly positive is that slightly smaller political parties, such as Ukip and the Green Party, are awarded the coverage they might not usually garner from print media. This is vitally important for the 2017 General Election, as all of the political parties involved in this election have strikingly different views on various issues. It could easily be argued that having televised debates as part of election coverage is yet another example of the transformation of politics from a serious subject to a personality-driven, resentment-fuelled piece of entertainment. Yet, if this is the case, that is not the fault of televised political debates but rather an issue brought about by developments in media and politics since the late-20th Century.

If Theresa May refuses to attend the TV debates, then said debates should continue without her; debate moderators would be forced to ‘empty-chair’ the Prime Minister, but that is an inevitable consequence of her refusal to attend. With or without Mrs May in attendance, the television debates should remain a key component of election coverage, as they provide a worthwhile platform for representatives of the major parties to have their views heard. Television debates are an attempt to broadcast democratic debate into the living rooms of houses all across the country, rather than a trivialisation of serious politics. Therefore, I advocate that TV debates should continue, that Theresa May should attend this election’s debates, and that some, if not all of you, should tune in.

(Image courtesy of Cardiff Student Media)

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