The L2B Union: Are televised election debates between party leaders a good thing?

The proposed TV debates between the leaders of the main political parties have themselves been the subject of much controversy, with arguments raging about which leaders should be invited to take part – and about whether televising such events is a good idea in the first place.

Lawyer 2B invited readers to enter a competition to argue the case for and against televised events. Here are the two winning entries.

Are televised election debates between party leaders a good thing?

YES

Debate itself being the lifeblood of democratic politics, what is in question here is the suitability of the television format. Perhaps a medium most often employed for entertainment is not fitting for making judgements about leadership. A broadcast is a necessarily compressed and decidedly visual extraction of high politics, and it may be argued that the time pressure and superficiality of television sits uncomfortably with sophisticated political argument.

Those that contend this are right – it does. But the advantages of the small screen are too many to ignore.

With a large electorate, leaders cannot hope to interact with very many personally, and television offers the nearest alternative – an immediacy and realism that it is very difficult, if not impossible, for newspapers or radio to match. A televised debate gives viewers the relatively rare opportunity of seeing each contender side by side, and to judge each more holistically – look, sound, and confidence – avoiding a dependence on printed words, ‘sound bites’, or a disembodied radio voice. It can also mean increased objectivity; since it is very difficult to write persuasively without expressing an opinion, a news article or comment piece recommends a stance for the reader, while the camera lens lets the viewer decide.

A well-managed debate will ensure the discourse prevents any individual from monopolising the discussion, lending proceedings a sense of fair play and competition. Finally, televised election debates are events likely to draw large audiences. These elements combine to encourage an atmosphere of inclusiveness, energy, and even excitement, qualities that are very desirable, but somehow often elusive, in British politics.

A broadcast debate is not without dangers. It is still open to manipulation, for instance, by focusing unduly on policy areas where a particular party is weak. Additionally, there must be consistent and significant media attention on each leader in the run-up to an election, or there could be the potential for one broadcast to be decisive. But ultimately, the electorate will consider the track record and policies of each party, and the performance of each leader over a sustained time period, with TV appearances being put into context. With this in mind, the televised debate is a healthy, if terrifying, addition to the schedule for potential Prime Ministers. I look forward to tuning in.

Susan Byron studied at BPP University and is hoping to start the GDL shortly.

NO

No, televised election debates between party leaders are not a good thing.

A strong argument for having TV debates is that it is keeping up with the times; politics should be dispensed via new mediums so that it is accessible to all. This argument is effective but its implications do not match our political system.

TV debates work in America because they vote directly for their Presidential candidates. In this country we do not have a presidential system, you do not vote for David Cameron or Ed Miliband (unless you live in their constituency). Our Prime Minister in this country is meant to be ‘primus inter pares’ – the first among equals – he should be of equal stature to the rest of his cabinet and appear only as the front-runner of the pack. TV debates allow people to think that the Prime Minister has the constitutional powers of the President – he does not, but increasing media focus on the PM’s office will create that power gradually by precedent, which it has already done to a large extent. So when we are asking the question should we have TV debates, we should first ask ‘Are we okay with significantly increasing the presidentialisation of the Prime Minister?’

A second argument for TV debates is that it encourages younger generations and others who usually do not vote to take an interest in politics. Before we allow that to happen we should really ask ourselves if this is a good thing? It sounds elitist, but if these people do not know enough about politics to vote, then do we really want them deciding who governs the country. Of course the counter-argument would be that we should give people who lack the knowledge and interest in politics the information that they need to make an informed via decision and the best way to do that is it reach them through TV debates. This is where my final argument responds to state that TV debates are not an adequate way to inform the electorate.

Those in favour of TV debates would say that they make information about the parties’ policies clear and on a medium that reaches all. This should be true, but TV debates instead allow charisma to shine over policy. This was made especially clear during the first televised US Presidential debates in which Richard Nixon won one in the ratings taken from radio listeners, but the TV viewers overwhelmingly polled that Kennedy had won the debate. It can be inferred that Kennedy won not on the content of his argument but by his presence on stage; his body language and appearance. TV debates are a beauty pageant in a profession referred to as ‘show-business for ugly people’. Politics should not be about posture and punchlines; it should be about policy. TV debates are bad for politics and they do not fit the UK system.

Marcus Wethered graduated with a degree in politics from the University of Warwick and is now a GDL student at BPP Waterloo. 

Congratulations to both Marcus and Susan, our two winners of this competition, and thanks to all those who entered. Look out for more debates in future.

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