The debate over the general election debates

Nigel Farage, debate, general election, politics, Alex Veeneman, Kettle Mag
Written by Alex Veeneman

The main broadcasters unveiled proposals on 13 October for a series of debates featuring the leaders of the main political parties ahead of the general election in May.

The proposals, jointly announced by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky News, called for 3 debates, due to be scheduled for 2 April, 16 April and 30 April.

The first debate would be co-produced by Channel 4 and Sky News, and feature Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband. That debate would be presented by Jeremy Paxman, who is joining Channel 4 from the BBC’s Newsnight programme to present general election coverage.

The BBC would produce the second debate, which would feature Cameron, Miliband and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. The debate would be chaired by David Dimbleby.

The final debate, produced by ITV and chaired by Julie Etchingham, would feature Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and UKIP leader Nigel Farage. The invitation to Farage comes after UKIP won its first Parliamentary seat in the Essex constituency of Clacton.

Exclusion concerns

Criticism of the proposals, however, was swift.

In a statement on the party web site, a spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats called for a system similar to that of the debates gearing up to the 2010 general election, with all debates featuring Cameron, Miliband and Clegg. The party added that it intended to make the case to participate in all debates.

“We do not accept the proposal that the Liberal Democrats, as a party of government, should be prevented from defending our record in one of the TV debates,” the spokesperson said. “That is the case we will make strongly in the negotiations that will now take place and we urge the other parties to join us around the negotiating table without excuse or delay.”

Farage, in a message on the social networking site Twitter, said considerations should be made to allow UKIP to participate in another debate.



Speaking during a visit to Portsmouth, Cameron said he was in favour of the debates, but there were still questions to be answered.

“I’m in favour of TV debates, but you’ve got to make sure you come up with a proposal that everyone can agree to,” Cameron said according to a report from The Guardian. “I can’t see how you can have one party in that has an MP in Parliament, and not another party.”

Miliband, in remarks obtained by the Labour Party, said he welcomed the proposals.

“I think they are a positive set of proposals,” Miliband said. “Obviously there will be negotiations, but I think they are a positive set of proposals, I think they are a good basis for moving forward, and I think the most important thing is to give the public what they entitled to, which is these TV debates. They happened in the last general election, we must make sure they happen in this general election too.”

The debate formula

Criticism also came from the Scottish National Party, the Welsh national party Plaid Cymru and the Green Party, saying they should be given the opportunity to participate.











Responding to the remarks, a spokesperson for Channel 4, reached by email, said the decision to have a debate between Cameron and Miliband jointly broadcast with Sky was in the interest of viewers.

“Channel 4 has chosen to propose we jointly broadcast the head to head debate with Sky because we believe it is crucial viewers can see a debate just between the only two individuals who could realistically become Prime Minister and have the opportunity to reflect on how they compare,” the spokesperson said. “As a public service broadcaster we will, of course, comply with Ofcom rules on due impartiality and provide sufficient airtime to other parties on Channel 4 during the election campaign.”

Reached by email, a spokesperson for the BBC said the proposals had been a fair and realistic formula, and the broadcasters were interested in getting the debates back on the air.

The spokesperson added that the BBC was also looking at proposals for other debates across the UK.

“Ensuring impartiality during the election campaign is a priority and judgements about debates, as other programmes, are taken on the basis of objective editorial assessments of a number of factors, including the levels of past and current electoral support for each party,” the spokesperson said.

ITV and Sky News did not respond to requests seeking comment prior to the submission of this piece to Kettle editors.

Making the national conversation bigger

These debates, common mostly in politics of the United States, are the second in British political history, the first of them taking place in the run up to the 2010 election. 

22 million people watched the debates last election, which featured Clegg, Cameron and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and had special debates produced on ITV, Sky and the BBC, according to a statement from the broadcasters.

The only other televised debates available at the time were debates in the House of Commons, including Prime Minister’s Questions, which became available in 1989, and have grown a following internationally.

Separately, an internet debate is being considered. The Telegraph and The Guardian are considering working with YouTube to put together a 90 minute streaming debate ahead of the election.

Chris Birkett, a spokesman for the consortium organising the debate, consisting of YouTube, the Telegraph and The Guardian, which announced their plans for a debate last May, said negotiations were ongoing with the political parties were ongoing, and that the digital platforms were prominent considering the media landscape and how people get news.

“The significance of the digital debates offer a different part of the population to engage with the political parties,” Birkett said in a telephone interview. “It doesn’t make sense why the political parties wouldn’t want to do these. If YouTube is the hub, we are talking a different proposition from taking a TV oriented debate and putting it on YouTube.”

Birkett says that such a digital debate would be beneficial, especially for young people. Birkett cited statistics that 12 per cent of young people would vote in the election, and a digital debate would perhaps enhance the engagement of the youth vote.

In the long term, however, Birkett says such a digital debate would enhance the national conversation.

“It makes the national conversation bigger,” Birkett said. “If you have 3 debates on TV, it’s the same demographic 3 times. If a debate is a digital inception, you’ll get an entirely different demographic taking part.”

The digital role would also become essential moving forward, and Birkett says, debates will happen on all platforms, including digital, when it comes to the 2020 general election.

“By the time we get to the next elections, [a digital debate] will be part of the electorate,” Birkett said.

What do you think of the proposals? Have your say in the comments section below.

Secondary image: lukesutton.blogspot.com