Broadcast general election
Chapter 1: Introduction
1. On 15 April 2010, the first ever
broadcast general election debate between the UK's Prime Ministerial
candidates was televised on ITV, followed one week later by a
second debate on Sky News and a third, one week after that, on
the BBC. Although Channel 4 had been involved in discussions early
on, it was not among the broadcasters to televise a Prime Ministerial
debate in 2010. This
precedent has prompted discussion about the debates' impact in
2010 and whether they should take place again in 2015 and beyond.
There is also a prior question: why did they not happen before?
2. The answer comes down to a range
of factors, considered closely in a report
for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism by Ric Bailey,
Chief Adviser, Politics at the BBC who was a representative for
the Corporation, alongside Sue Inglish, the BBC's Head of Political
Programmes, Analysis and Research, on the negotiating team which
set up the 2010 Prime Ministerial Debates. From his report emerge
four principal factors which played a part in keeping the debates
from our television screens until 2010.
3. Firstly, "ever since the
contrasting images of Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice-President
Richard M. Nixon became the template for winners and losers in
gladiatorial politics, the UK associated election debates with
the United States and with Presidents."
This association strengthened concerns that if the UK followed
where the United States had led, it would be a further erosion
of our parliamentary democracythe 'presidentialisation',
the 'Americanisation' of our politics.
4. Secondly, there was the perception
of television itself"a byword among many in the political
classes (who don't watch it much) for shallowness and vulgarity,
with its ever-reducing sound-bites, its game-show culture, and
its preference for image over substance."
This is a concern which ceases to go away, not least because candidates
in debates have in the past been evaluated differently by those
who watched them on television compared to those who heard them
on the radio.
"a dozen general elections
came and went without televised debates between the party leaders
[because] even though all of the UK's major political parties
said they supported the idea
The snag was, they never all
called for themand meant itat the same time. It
is no criticism of party politicians to say that their priority
in an election campaign is, on the whole, to win, or at least
to maximise their results. They also appreciated from the start
that televised election debates would have the potential to transform
a campaign in unpredictable ways. So the chances of all the key
parties believingat the same electionthat debates
would improve their own electoral prospects were always quite
6. The fourth factor is the approach
taken by the broadcasters involved. Acting independently of each
other and vying to be first to host these debates, the broadcasters
have in the past been accused of a "self-defeating and somewhat
inappropriate jockeying for position" and more generally
of a "rather casual approach."
7. Each of these factors conspired
to make the process of setting up debates at each election "a
fragile and painstaking business, vulnerable to the storms and
vagueries of political evolution, accident, and determined self-interest"and
ultimately unsuccessful. The pattern was only broken in 2010 becausefor
onceall of the UK political parties whose leaders were
in contention to become Prime Minister concluded there was electoral
advantage in debates andalso for the first timethe
broadcasters involved worked closely together to overcome the
significant practical obstacles.
8. This latter point touches on
a real curiosity. Ordinarily, the broadcasters are devoted defenders
of their own individualism: commissioning, producing and broadcasting
programmes independently of each other with different objectives
and purposes in mind. When it came to the Prime Ministerial debates
in 2010, as Professor Purvis told us,
"it is best to understand that
the three broadcasters decided to do certain things jointly. They
decided which political parties to invite, they negotiated the
rules with them and then they published the rules. The broadcasters
then agreed the locations, the themes of the debates and which
of them would produce each debate. Then they did things individually.
They chose one of their own anchors as the anchor or the moderator
of their debate. They designed their own branding and their own
sets around their own debate. They organised selection panels
for audience questions and they provided all the production facilities
and they paid for it all. Each transmitted its own debate."
9. The broadcasters' decision to
their editorial judgementon some but not all mattersin
order to remove known historical obstacles to the debates taking
place underlines that these television programmes are the outcome
of an unusual collaboration.
10. The first act of this collaboration
was to agree the purpose of the debates television programme;
to decide on that basis whom to invite; and in that invitation
to set out the outline of a proposalthe number of debates,
their timing and so on.
With an acceptance by the invited parties to take part in negotiations,
a process was set in train, involving 13 negotiators, two from
each of the three broadcasters, BBC, ITV and BSkyB, two from the
Conservative Party, two from the Labour Party and three from the
Liberal Democrat party. Their discussions led first to a published
set of principles,
and ultimately to an agreement on the format of the debates, summarised
in a list of 76 "rules."
These specified how the audience was to be selected and presented
on television, what role the audience would play in the debate,
the structure of the programme, the role of the moderator and
the layout of the set. In addition, this document specified the
three themes and their order: Domestic affairs, International
affairs and Economic affairs. These would take up half of each
debate with the rest of the time devoted to general policy issues.
11. This agreement highlights another
unusual collaboration. A consensus on a whole range of matters
was achieved among the political parties involved, hammered out
between their negotiators and the broadcasters. The odds, at the
start, that this consensus could be achieved cannot have been
favourable. Even in 2010, a disagreement over the order of the
three debates threatened to scupper the process at the last minute,
and there can be little doubt that a decision by one political
party to withdraw would have been likely in 2010 to cause the
whole house of cards to collapse. The fact that none did and a
consensus was found masks how unusual and unprecedented the collaboration
12. Altogether, it is remarkable
that an election-based television programme whose evident fragility
has for so long led negotiations to collapse now appears to many
of us an established and inevitable landmark in the electoral
calendar. Clearly, however, the future of broadcast election debates
in the UK cannot be taken for granted, though it must be said
that it seems more likely than not, given the weight of public
expectation that they do happen (the evidence for which we consider
in Chapter 2), that publicly vetoing debates in the traditional
way will now be much more difficult for reluctant party leaders
and their strategists.
13. For some, of course, the consensus
and collaboration which was achieved indicated a cosy and exclusive
processan invitation-only club bouncing at the door other
parties such as smaller UK-wide political parties and those with
significant electoral standing in one of the devolved nations.
In 2010 this concern prompted complaints to the broadcasting regulators,
and ultimately an appeal for judicial review. The concern also
lies behind calls received during this inquiry for the whole process
to be lifted free of the political parties and broadcasters, and
handed over to a new body, an independent commission on general
14. There is clearly a whole range
of profound questions to explore in connection with the debates,
and we take up a number of them in this Report. In Chapter 2 we
consider the impact of the debates in 2010, not whether they should
happen again but the evidence we have heard about their impact
on the electorate. Although there are dissenting voices, we note
that this evidence, inter alia, suggests that the public
expects they should happen again in 2015. In Chapter 3, we pick
through the dense regulatory and legislative structures which
set the context in which the debates are broadcast. We have found
that these tend to be poorly understood and yet any proposals
for change must follow from a proper understanding of the arrangements
as they are now.
15. In particular, we explore the
current legal and regulatory framework around broadcasting which
contains requirements for broadcasters to uphold due impartiality
in their coverage of political parties: an obligation to which
they must be especially sensitive during election periods. Indeed
during such periods, this obligation applies to their whole 'grid'
of coverage, including debates between the parties' departmental
spokespeople, any one-on-one interviews and indeed any broadcast
content, rather than just to a single television programme like
a debate between Prime Ministerial candidates. It is important
to recognise that party political and referendum broadcasts (PPRBs)
stand somewhat apart from the broadcasters' wider election coverage.
They are not exempt from the legal and regulatory framework with
which all broadcast material must comply but the decision to broadcast
them is different: they represent a mandatedalbeit decreasingly
watchedform of programming to which the broadcasters are
obliged to cede time in their schedules (see Box 2).
16. By contrast, the obligation
to uphold due impartiality across election coverage more generally
is met through the broadcasters' creative and nuanced editorial
judgements about the nature and weight of coverage they provide,
featuring each political party in different ways and to different
extents across an election period. One of the ways in which the
broadcasters sought to meet this obligation in 2010 is occasionally
forgotten: televised debates took place not only between the leaders
in the running to become Prime Minister but also between the leaders
of the main parties in the devolved nationsin the midst
of which, of course, there was a whole range of other programming
in which smaller UK-wide parties also gained coverage. In exploring
this framework in Chapter 3, it is clear that it sits over not
only the Prime Ministerial debates but broadcast general election
debatesand other election coverage in the broadcasters'
gridas a whole. This lies behind our decision to call our
Inquiry and Report "Broadcast General Election Debates"
rather than "Broadcast Prime Ministerial Debates." Although
our focus is on the Prime Ministerial debates, the framework which
we explore applies to all of the broadcast debates and other election
coverage as a whole. Finally, in Chapter 4, we consider a number
of proposals for change to the current arrangements: both proposals
which imagine a fundamental overhaul and those which are more
evolutionary, identifying potentially important reforms to the
debates under the continuing editorial stewardship of the broadcasters.
17. Finally, we acknowledge that
this Report is unusual. Ordinarily, select committee reports make
recommendations to the Government, who in turn respond to the
Committee's report in writing within two months.
The subject of this Report is not the direct responsibility of
the Government and we do not make a single recommendation to the
Government in it. Our intention has been to provide the House
with a reference document, setting out the legal and regulatory
framework around broadcast general election debates. This will
we hope help to clarifyif not settlea number of
questions which have shown a perennial tendency to emerge. In
addition, we provide recommendations or at least "food for
thought" for the broadcasters to consider with regard to
any broadcast general election debates potentially to take place
in 2015 and beyond. Accordingly, we do not anticipate a written
response from the Government to this Report, though we will seek
a debate in the House. However, we have written to the broadcasters
from whom we received evidence on this inquiry, inviting them
to submit brief responses to this Report. We will publish these
responses on our website.
18. We would like to thank everyone
who gave evidence to us, both at oral evidence sessions, which
we held between 11 February and 18 March 2014, and in writing.
We also wish to thank our Specialist Adviser, Professor Richard
Tait, whose expertise greatly enhanced our work.
1 Channel 4 did, however, televise an 'Ask the Chancellors'
debate in 2010. Back
Ric Bailey, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, February
2012. Squeezing out the oxygen-or reviving democracy? The history
and future of TV election debates in the UK. Available online:
There was a famous difference between the way in which those listening
and those watching evaluated Kennedy and Nixon in their 1960 debate.
More recently, news stories about the debates held between Nick
Clegg and Nigel Farage in the run-up to European Parliamentary
Elections on May 22 2014 have sometimes focussed on their visual
characteristics rather than substance. Back
Op. Cit. Back
David Butler and Anthony King, Nuffield Studies, Macmillan, 1965,
The British General Election of 1964. Back
Op. Cit. Back
Q 70 Back
BBC Press Office, 2 October 2009, Joint BBC, ITV and Sky press
statement. Available online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2009/10_october/02/statement.shtml Back
See Appendix 6 Back
See Appendix 7. A similar but significantly shorter set of 'rules'
were agreed for Channel 4's Ask the Chancellors Debate; these
can be found in Appendix 8. Back
PPRBs is Ofcom's term for party political and referendum broadcasts
as a broad category. The broadcasters on air use three different
terms, depending on the context. During an election campaign,
they are called Party Election Broadcasts; during a referendum
they are called Referendum Campaign Broadcasts, and when there
are no election or referendum campaigns pending (eg, around the
party conferences) they are called Party Political Broadcasts.
The Broadcasters' Liaison Group (BLG) is the group which meets
from time to time to co-ordinate the criteria which each broadcaster
applies in determining the amount of airtime to be made available
to registered political parties to help them promote their
manifestos to the electorate and to designated organisations
in referendum campaigns. Back
Cabinet Office, 21 September 2010, Departmental evidence and
response to select committees: guidance. Available online:https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/departmental-evidence-and-response-to-select-committees-guidance Back
See Appendix 2 for a list of all those who submitted evidence Back