Chapter 2: Review of broadcast Prime Ministerial
debates in 2010|
19. In our call for evidence we
made it clear that we would not focus on whether broadcast general
election debates should take place again in 2015 and beyond. During
the course of the inquiry however we received a considerable amount
of evidence on whether the 2010 debates could be considered a
success. This evidence merits proper consideration. In this chapter
therefore we briefly review the 2010 general election debates
and summarise the evidence we received about the success or otherwise
of those debates.
Were the 2010 debates a success?
20. Broadly speaking, our witnesses
were of the view that the 2010 debates could be considered a success.
Dr Stephen Barber summed up their success in general terms,
"While far from perfect and emphasising presentation skills,
the debates also allowed for a fairly open discussion of policy
and in place of the negative campaigning which has become a feature
of British general elections, opened up space for party leaders
to identify commonalities."
In the following section we set out first the specific reasons
put forward for judging them a success and then the reservations
about them expressed to us.
21. That the broadcast general election
debates took place at all was seen by some as a major achievement
and was a big first both in British broadcasting and electoral
terms. Ric Bailey's
Reuters Institute report makes clear that hitherto the process
had been fragile and ultimately unfruitful.
22. Many witnesses pointed to the
viewing figures for the debates as being the clearest proof of
their success. The 2010 broadcast Prime Ministerial debates reached
and held large audiencesthe reach of the debates overall
was over 15 million viewers and the total of the three audiences
was above 22 million.
The average viewing figures for each of the debates was 9.4 million
(ITV), 4 million (Sky) and 8.1 million (BBC).
These viewing figures "were noticeably higher than the average
rating for political TV programmes like Question Time and Newsnight."
 The relative audience
figures for these programmes are shown in Figure 1. A House of
Commons Library note on this subject points out that "even
though the second debate only averaged 4 million viewers across
the television networks, it gave Sky News its biggest ever peak
audience of 4.6 million."
Figure 2 shows the audience breakdown for each Prime Ministerial
debate by quarter-hour. In comparison with 2005, the biggest audience
for any election current affairs programme was 4.1 million for
the special edition of Question Time, where the three main party
leaders appeared one after another to answer questions from an
audience but did not debate. That audience was far larger than
the leaders' interviews with Jeremy Paxman, which averaged 2.5
million. Of course, viewing figures for such programmes have tended
to decline further since then. In a nutshell, apart from the debates,
the only substantial television audiences for election coverage
came from the comparatively short packages on the campaign in
the main news bulletins.
Election debates on BBC/ITV
achieved much higher audiences than typical BBC current affairs
programmes in 2010
Average audiences (Individuals
aged 4+ 000s)
Source: David Muir
Audience breakdown for each
Prime Ministerial debate by quarter-hour
Source: HC Library, 2 February 2011,
General Election 2010, Final Edition, Research Paper 10/36
23. Witnesses told us that the broadcasts
helped to inform audiences and helped a significant proportion
to make up their minds about how to vote, including those normally
disengaged from the political process, "The real success
and what we are all jointly proud of is that the debates reached
people who would not normally perhaps have become engaged in the
Gardam, expanding on this told us that:
"the most powerful evidence
for the argument that they had a public value was the impact on
the marginally attentive voter, or marginally attentive
citizen: the sort of person who otherwise would not have encountered
the arguments that were central to the campaign and to the decision,
but did so because of the debates. There were clearly differential
responses from the marginally attentive citizen, who often are
24. We received a considerable amount
of data supporting this point much of which referred back to figures
contained in the Reuters Institute Leaders in the Living Room
Report. In Box
1 we have reproduced a sample of evidence from this report supporting
the view that the 2010 broadcast general election debates served
the public interest by increasing engagement in the general election
campaign and helping people decide how to vote.
Sample of evidence of how
the 2010 Prime Ministerial debates served the public interest
|· Half of the viewers of each of the debates stayed with it to the end, while many of the rest had seen at least an hour of the 1.5 hour broadcast; only 4% of the first debate's viewers said it had made them 'less interested' in following the rest of the campaign.
· Approximately two-thirds of survey respondents said that they had learnt something new from the debates; three-quarters felt that they knew more about 'the qualities of the party leaders' after seeing the debates; and large majorities (between 58% and 70% across the surveys) felt that they knew more 'about the policies of each party'.
· Watching the debates seemed to have energised first-time voters. For example, as many as 55% of the 18-24 year-olds said that, as a result of having seen the first debate, they had become 'more interested' in the campaign, compared with 44% of the 25-39 year-olds, 31% of the 40-54 year-olds and only 24% of the respondents aged 55 and older. Of the 18-24 year-olds 74% considered that they had learnt something about the parties' policies from the debates, compared with 63% of those aged 55 and older.
· More important perhaps is the fact that 50% of the 18-24 year-olds and 51% of the 25-39 year-olds said that the debates had helped them to make up their minds how to votecompared with 46% and 42% of the two older age groups.
· 87% of respondents said that they had talked about the debates with others. Interestingly, this figure was higher amongst younger voters (92%) than over-55s (84%).
Increased voter turnout?
25. Turnout in UK general elections
fell sharply in the years after 1992. In the 1992 general election
turnout was 77.7%.
This had fallen to 59.4% in 2001.
Turnout in 2005 was a little better at 61.4%.
Electoral turnout in 2010 rose to 65.1%.
Some witnesses suggested that there was a correlation between
the public interest generated by the broadcast debates and the
increase in voter turnout in 2010. Of course no one is in a position
to prove beyond doubt that this was causal and to the extent that
it played a role at all, other factors may have been important
too such as the perceived closeness of the election.
26. David Muir suggested however
that the debates played a significant role in increasing turnout
and Phil Harding explained that the debates seemed, "to have
engaged viewers and voters and there may or may not be some evidence
that it helped put the turnout rate up as well."
Similarly Tim Gardam told us, "None of this is evidence for
the debates driving turnout, but I think it implies that the debates
upped the level of political engagement, political articulacy
and political confidence, and turnout did increase."
27. It was put to us that the debates
may have had an impact on not just whether some people voted but
also who they chose to vote for and that the debates may have
had a particular impact on young people.
28. Sky News pointed to research
by the consultancy firm Deloitte which found that among those
who said the debate had an impact on the way they chose to vote,
12 per cent said they had changed their vote as a result, and
7 per cent decided to vote when previously they had planned to
29. Turnout amongst 18-25 year-olds
increased by 7 percentage points in 2010 which was 3 points higher
than the average increase in turnout compared with 2005.
Plaid Cymru told us that whilst surveys on the impact of the debates
showed that more than half of viewers' election choice was impacted
by the series of debates, this figure rose to over two-thirds
of younger people (aged 18-24).
Expectation that the debates will
30. There is strong evidence that
the majority of the public would like broadcast general election
debates to take place during the 2015 general election campaign.
A number of witnesses pointed to this as being the most convincing
proof available that the debates in 2010 were a success.
31. John Ryley of Sky told us that
Sky News had carried out some polling with YouGov in August 2013,
"About 1,700 people were polled online;
15% said they
did not really know; and 16% said they did not want them to happen.
But 69%, nearly seven out of 10 people, wanted those debates to
32. ITV pointed to a more recent
poll carried out by YouGov in February 2014 which found that "57%
of adults in the UK agreed with the proposition that live debates
should happen before the next election. This increased to 63%
among 16 to 24 year-olds, and only 8% of adults disagreed with
33. Professor Coleman explained
that the corollary of this public expectation that the debates
should happen in 2015 was that "the big loser in the debates
not happening next year would be turnout, because I think people
would feel let down; they would feel that the political leaders
had not bothered to appear before them and provide them with the
opportunity to do what they could do in 2010."
Reservations about the success
of the debates
34. Reservations were expressed
to us by some witnesses about claiming that the debates in 2010
were an outright success. We examine the general criticisms below.
THE DEBATES "PRESIDENTIALISED"
THE GENERAL ELECTION
35. Dr Stephen Barber told
us that prior to the 2010 debates, sceptics had thought that they
would mark "another shift towards presidential politics in
Harding acknowledged that the series of debates did not "reverse
the trend towards it being a more presidential type of contest."
36. Tim Gardam did not think that
the 2010 debates were evidence of a creep towards a more presidential
political system. He told us that,
"the two elections in the 1970s,
and 1974 in particular, can be seen as the height of presidential
politics in Britain because you have a Prime Minister and a leader
of the Opposition, both of whom had been our Prime Minister
Remembering those elections, they were absolutely dominated by
that sense of the two of them. I think they were as presidential
as anything today."
37. We did not receive a significant
amount of evidence on this pointindeed it was our intention
to steer clear of any assessment of the constitutional impact
of the debates. We simply note here that this concern exists
and that there may be a role for the broadcasters to play in helping
the public to understand that they are not electing a president
or even, for that matter, a Prime Minister. In particular,
we recognise that our electoral system invites voters to make
a direct choice between local candidates, not Prime Ministers,
and that the broadcast of other debates between departmental spokespeople
as occurred in 2010 may be important in mitigating the effects
DEBATES DOMINATED THE CAMPAIGN
38. Phil Harding told us that the
debates "came to dominate the campaign too much
is a danger that the debates become the whole campaign and there
is no other campaign; and that
wouldn't be in the public
Allen, Bara and Bartle warned that a series of debates "can
dominate a campaign, suffocate other forms of electioneering and,
in the process, unfairly privilege the three parties taking part."
39. Whether or not this suggestion
accurately reflects what happened in 2010, we heard that the alleged
dominance may become less of an issue in the future as the debates'
novelty wears off.
Dr Nicholas Allen, Senior Lecturer in Politics, Royal Holloway,
University of London, Dr Judith Bara, Senior Lecturer in
Politics, Queen Mary, University of London and Dr John Bartle,
Reader in Politics, University of Essex, also pointed to the timing
of the debatestaking place in each week of the campaignand
the heavy advertising that preceded them as reasons why they dominated
the general election campaign in 2010.
Of course, the debates also generated a great deal of further
coverage in print and broadcast media more widely and triggered
considerable comment in social media. The broadcasters told us
that they had not cut back on the rest of their election coverage
and indeed the evidence that we received of debates in the devolved
nations, between the prospective Chancellors and front bench spokespeople
suggests that there was more and more varied election coverage
than in 2005.
40. Since the 2010 general election,
the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 has come into force and so
the date of the next general election is known. In 2015 this will
be 7 May. In addition the Government has brought into force the
provisions of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act
2010 relating to the lengthening of the United Kingdom's Parliamentary
election timetable before the next general electionthis
will make the campaign period longer: 25 rather than 17 days.
It seems likely to us that these legislative changes might have
an effect on the dominance of the debates on the wider campaign
because the timing of the debates across a less concentrated time
period might mitigate to some extent the risk of the debates crowding
out the wider campaign.
41. We recommend that the broadcasters
and parties should seek to ensure that the debates do not crowd
out the other opportunities that voters have to inform themselves
about the policies of all political parties, not just those parties
taking part in the debates. This should not be used as a pretext
for arguing that the debates do not happen at all.
The public expectation of election
debates in 2015
42. We have not focussed on whether
broadcast general election debates should take place again in
2015 and beyond. During the course of the inquiry however it became
clear that an assessment of the management and operation of broadcast
general election debates in the UK had to include a review of
the debates in 2010 and a broad assessment of their success or
43. There is a high level of
public expectation that broadcast debates will happen again in
2015. We understand that the BBC, ITV and Sky are interested in
repeating the debates in 2015, and that Channel 4 wishes to join
them which the other broadcasters welcome.
Further, whilst the debates in 2010 were not without their critics,
we are persuaded that they served the public interest by increasing
engagement with the electoral process and perhaps contributed
to a higher voter turnout. The recommendations that we make in
the remainder of this Report reflect the public's view that broadcast
general election debates should take place during future campaigns.
17 Dr Stephen Barber Back
Q 72 Phil Harding Back
Q 1 Michael Jermey, ITV Back
HC Library, 2 February 2011, General Election 2010, Final Edition,
Research Paper 10/36. Available online: www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/RP10-36.pdfý Back
David Muir Back
For comparison purposes note that Coronation Street had an audience
of around 9 million per episode in April 2010 and Match of the
Day around 4.5million. Back
HC Library, 2 February 2011,Op. Cit. Back
Q 1 Ric Bailey Back
Q 87 Back
Ed. Stephen Coleman, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism,
2011, Leaders in the living room: The Prime Ministerial debates
of 2010: evidence, evaluation and some recommendations. Available
HC Statistical Section, 1993, General Election Results 9 April
1992. Available online: http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-information-office/m13.pdf Back
HC Library, 18 June 2001. General Election results 2001,
Available online: http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons/lib/research/rp2001/rp01-054.pdf Back
HC Library, 10 March 2006, General Election 2005 Research
Paper 05/33, Final Edition. Available online: http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons/lib/research/rp2005/rp05-033.pdf Back
HC Library, 18 May 2010, General Election 2010 Preliminary
analysis, Research paper 10/36.Available online: http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons/lib/research/rp2010/RP10-036.pdf Back
David Muir Back
Q 72 Back
Q 87 Back
Sky News Back
Leaders in the Living Room. Op. Cit. Back
Plaid Cymru Back
Q 1 Back
Q 1 Michael Jermey Back
Q 88 Back
Dr Stephen Barber Back
Q 90 Back
Q 90 Back
See Appendix 5, containing a summary of the general election debates
broadcast in 2010. Back
Q 72 Back
Dr Nicholas Allen, Dr Judith Bara and Dr John Bartle Back
Quite what role each broadcaster will take on when four of them
are involved in the debates remains an open question. Michael
Jermey told us that "We welcome Channel 4's desire to be
involved in the process this time, and I think that falls into
the great category of 100 practical issues that we need to resolve
between now and next spring." (Q 17). Back