Format of first UK TV debates finalised
The tone of General Elections in the UK changed forever this week with the final details of the first ever live TV debates between the party leaders being announced by British broadcasters.
The debates will centre around three themes; domestic affairs (chaired by Alastair Stewart in the North West and staged by ITV); international affairs (chaired by Adam Boulton in the South West and staged by Sky News) and the economy (chaired by David Dimbleby in the Midlands and staged by the BBC).
The debates will be up to 90 minutes long and will be based on the American system, whereby an invited studio audience of up to 200 can ask pre-set questions but not interact with the politicians. The audience will be selected by the pollsters ICM and will be based primarily on voting intentions, as well as ethnicity, age, gender and social class. Politically, they will be selected on a ratio of 7 Labour, 7 Conservative and 5 Liberal Democrats. Eighty per cent have to have expressed a voting intention. It is widely thought that the restriction on audience interaction was one of the main stumbling blocks in advance of the this week's final decision.
Each party leader will make an opening statement on the debate's theme for one minute. Each will give a 90 second closing statement at the end of the debate.
Other senior politicians will also be holding debates and these details have yet to be finalised by the broadcasters.
Reacting to the announcement, which has come after months of discussion between the political parties and the broadcasters, the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown MP told the media yesterday: “I want to debate the big issues and I want to show that we are best for jobs, for the health services, for public services as a whole, for tackling antisocial behaviour and for dealing with the economy.” Conservative Leader David Cameron MP said: “What it is really about is trying to get across to people what you stand for, what you want to do, why you are passionate about the changes you want to bring to this country.” For the Liberal Democrats, their Leader Nick Clegg MP said: “It's great news that at a time when trust in politicians is at a low people will be able to have a good look at the party leaders and find out what they stand for”.
So who will emerge the winner? It could be argued that there will be two, based on the unprecedented positioning next to the â€˜big beasts' which these debates will secure. The first will be Nick Clegg, who if he is clever, will allow Brown and Cameron to tear pieces out of each other whilst enjoying unprecedented airtime for his party. The second will be Sky News and Adam Boulton. The satellite broadcaster campaigned for the debates last year and will now find themselves standing alongside the BBC and ITV as equals, with Adam Boulton saying yesterday that it will be a â€˜high point' in his career.
The rules announced yesterday are sensible and will hopefully ensure that the TV debates become a valuable part of British democracy, with politicians being able to give considered answers without the need to carry an audience with a soundbite.