lessons from America

Debate Prep

When is a debate not a debate?  Tonight would seem to be the answer. 

According to this slightly tongue-in-cheek but clear explanation by

“the Obama-McCain event tonight consists of two parallel press conferences that happen to be in the same room. The detailed rules hammered out by the two campaigns state that the questions were to have been submitted in advance by the audience members and over the Internet. The questioner may not change the question and the microphone will be cut off after the question. Neither the questioner nor the moderator, Tom Brokaw of NBC, may ask followup questions. The candidates may not question each other. There will be no debate at all. Who does this format favor? Probably neither candidate. Usually the questions the general public asks aren’t very hard, are largely predictable in advance, and have already been asked 100 times (“how will you fix the economy?”). The candidates have stock answers they will roll off. Given the current state of polling, McCain needs to shake things up and Obama needs to keep the status quo. An event that doesn’t rock the boat much thus de facto works for Obama. Nevertheless, once in a while something unexpected happens at one of these events.”

It reminds me of the one televised ‘debate’ between the Labour party’s deputy leadership candidates last year, on BBC’s Newsnight.  They individually (and on a separate part of the stage) gave a short intro spiel, then stood in a row and were fired questions by host Jeremy Paxman.  There was virtually no opportunity for debate between the candidates or for an unscripted and enlightened conversation to flow.

Still, anything is probably better than the nothing we have in the UK in terms of general election time debates between the leaders of the 2, 3 or 4 main parties.  Weekly Prime Minister’s Question Time has some positives, but is not a suitable format for more than just soundbites, partisan cheerleading and on the odd occasion holding the leader to account.   And there would be no PMQs in the immediate run up to an election anyway, as Parliament would be dissolved. 

In the past few elections there have been calls – from the challenger, as well as from organisations involved in increasing turnout – for TV debates between the main party leaders.  But the Prime Minister (Tony Blair and before him John Major) have always refused.  Major preferred his soapbox and Blair his daytime TV confessionals.  Recently, David Cameron has raised the issue of debates again. Interestingly, there is now more reason for the incumbent to accept.  Brown is trailing in the polls and might feel it is worth the risk, in order to either land one of his clunking fists on Cameron, or simply change media / public perceptions him and rebut conventional wisdom.  He’s just done that with bringing back Peter Mandelson into the Cabinet, so who knows maybe he’ll make a similar decision on the debates?


October 7, 2008 - Posted by | debates |

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