Monday, 26 January 2015

Wishing carefully

I’ll admit that I was taken by surprise by the announcement by the broadcasters last week that they would include the leaders of seven parties in two of the pre-election debates.  I never thought that they’d agree to that, particularly after their robust refusal to change the format in response to pressure last time round in 2010.  The sudden about turn made me wonder whether any of the parties might now be remembering the old adage which went through my mind at times last time round – the one about “being careful what you wish for”.
The volte-face does inevitably highlight the completely anomalous position of Northern Ireland, where none of the parties will be represented.  I saw the decision “justified” by one spokesperson claiming, basically, that since none of the seven parties which will be represented campaigns or stands in Northern Ireland, there’s no need to include any representatives of the parties that do.  It’s a curious piece of logic at best; the result is that one part of the UK will see coverage of a debate between the leaders of UK parties none of which they can actually vote for in an election which affects them too.  It doesn’t look like a particularly clever way of promoting the union to me – more like a deliberate attempt to exclude a part of it.
However the decision to include the three extra parties will certainly give the debates on the mainland a different and more diverse look and feel; how different depends, it seems to me, on two key points.
The first is whether the broadcasters, in setting the format of the debate in detail, actually do treat all seven leaders as equals.  I’ve certainly been in multi-party debates in the past where the chair has clearly started with the perspective that there were main players and also-rans.  It can be difficult to counter that, especially in a broadcast format rather than the more local debates of my own experience.  The amount of time for these debates will be limited, and with seven people to accommodate, the amount of time available to each will be short.  If, in allocating time (and in choosing the topics for debate) the broadcasters are other than scrupulously fair, those perceived to be 'also-rans' could all too easily be marginalised.
And the second is whether the extra participants allow themselves to be sucked into following the same approach as the original three.  Pre-prepared sound-bites, scripted jokes, and a coached performance are no substitute for serious debate on substance and policy.
The inclusion of the three extras has a real potential to facilitate a fuller debate about alternatives on a range of policy issues; but it also has the potential to make the victory look pyrrhic.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The inclusion of the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru was simply the broadcasters calling David Cameron’s bluff, but Plaid Cymru’s biggest problem in UK elections has always been a lack of visibility. So why shouldn’t they grab the opportunity if offered however it came about, we’re still in the UK and have to play by their rules.

Yet for me Plaid Cymru’s biggest danger isn’t the obvious attacks of being labelled solely a welsh language lobby group or anti English that will inevitably come from Labour/Tories and Lib Dems but that Leanne Wood when compared to the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon whose battle hardened from the Indy referendum emerges as a more credible nationalist leader of her party and country.

It’s high risk yet and high reward for all the parties as Natalie Bennett the Green’s leader found out to her cost when Andrew Neil cross examined her on some of the more radical green policies on yesterday Sunday Politics.