Brit TV debuts debates

Broadcasters, pols finally set rules for televised talk

LONDON — Fifty years after the seminal TV debates between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon changed history, the Brits are finally allowing the electoral genie out of the broadcast bottle.

Following months of horse trading between U.K. webs and politicians, the upcoming election, expected for May 6, will be preceded by three weekly debates featuring all three party leaders: Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Conservative leader David Cameron and the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg.

“A British general election will never be the same again after these TV debates. In (the) future, electioneering will revolve around the three leaders’ debates,” predicts Sky News executive editor Chris Birkett, adding that “the focus will move from campaigning across the country to the lead-up to the debates, the debates themselves and the post-debate analysis.”

In the past, plans to mount televised debates between the three main U.K. political parties during a general election have always hit a roadblock because the incumbent prime minster vetoed such a telecast.

“This time ’round Gordon Brown felt he had nothing to lose. He was so far behind in the opinion polls that agreeing to participate in a TV leaders’ debate represented one dramatic, last throw of the dice,” opines local media commentator Raymond Snoddy.

“Brown is widely seen as charmless and very bad at TV,” adds Snoddy. “Cameron, on the other hand, a former TV spin doctor, is very much at ease on television and is rather good at it. Brown must hope that he will come over as the resolute, reliable leader compared with the fluffy, young pretender.”

Regardless of who gains the upper hand in the debates, to be shown by ITV, Sky News and the BBC in that order, there is no doubt that they will mark a watershed in British political and media history.

“It is an astonishing anachronism that in a mature democracy like the U.K. these debates haven’t happened before,” says Birkett. “Even Afghanistan has them. This is a game changer. Over time the debates’ format will develop but there can be no going back.”

The three 90-minute sessions will cover domestic issues, foreign affairs and the economy, respectively, before an invited audience;

however, rules will limit the role of the audience and the moderator, in each case a seasoned U.K. public affairs anchor including BBC veteran political ringmaster David Dimbleby.

Applause will be restricted to the beginning and end of the debates. The audience will not be allowed to respond to any of the pols’ answers.

Party leaders will open with a one-minute statement, then take questions from the audience, studio and public via e-mail. They will have a minute to answer the question, a minute to react, and four minutes of free debate. All questions, including those on the main themes and those from audience members and via e-mails, will be selected by a panel of senior journos.

Birkett claims the U.K. leaders’ debates, despite arriving half a century later than the U.S. prototype, are less subject to restrictions than the events on the other side of the Atlantic.

“For the 2004 U.S. presidential election, there were 32 pages of rules,” he says. “We’ve got four and a half pages. In the U.S. the rules were hammered out between the political parties with no input from broadcasters. Here the agreement was negotiated by the parties and the broadcasters. These debates are massively less regulated than the U.S. leaders’ debates.”

Birkett adds: “In the U.S. there is a degree of reverence for the office of president that is not reflected in our own political system where every week in Prime Minister’s Questions(a ritual verbal knockabout that takes place in the House of Commons) our political leaders tear one another to pieces.”

After waiting five decades, the hope is that at least some of that lack of decorum will spill over onto the smallscreen for the U.K.