Broadcast general election debates - Communications Committee Contents

Broadcast general election debates

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.[1] 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[2] 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."[3] This association strengthened concerns that if the UK followed where the United States had led, it would be a further erosion of our parliamentary democracy—the '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."[4] 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.[5]

5.  Thirdly,

    "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 them—and meant it—at 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 believing—at the same election—that debates would improve their own electoral prospects were always quite low."[6]

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]

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"[8]—and ultimately unsuccessful. The pattern was only broken in 2010 because—for once—all of the UK political parties whose leaders were in contention to become Prime Minister concluded there was electoral advantage in debates and—also for the first time—the 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]

9.  The broadcasters' decision to "pool"[10] their editorial judgement—on some but not all matters—in 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 proposal—the number of debates, their timing and so on.[11] 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,[12] and ultimately to an agreement on the format of the debates, summarised in a list of 76 "rules."[13] 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 was.

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 process—an 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 election debates.

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)[14] 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 mandated—albeit decreasingly watched—form 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 nations—in 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 debates—and other election coverage in the broadcasters' grid—as 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.[15] 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 clarify—if not settle—a 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.[16] 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

2   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: Back

3   Ibid. Back

4   Ibid. Back

5   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

6   Op. Cit. Back

7   David Butler and Anthony King, Nuffield Studies, Macmillan, 1965, The British General Election of 1964.  Back

8   Op. Cit. Back

9   Q 70 Back

10   BBC Back

11   BBC Press Office, 2 October 2009, Joint BBC, ITV and Sky press statement. Available online: Back

12   See Appendix 6 Back

13   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

14   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

15   Cabinet Office, 21 September 2010, Departmental evidence and response to select committees: guidance. Available online: Back

16   See Appendix 2 for a list of all those who submitted evidence Back

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