Broadcast general election debates - Communications Committee Contents

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."[17] 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.[18] 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 audiences—the reach of the debates overall was over 15 million viewers and the total of the three audiences was above 22 million.[19] The average viewing figures for each of the debates was 9.4 million (ITV), 4 million (Sky) and 8.1 million (BBC).[20] These viewing figures "were noticeably higher than the average rating for political TV programmes like Question Time and Newsnight."[21] [22] 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."[23] 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 election."[24] Tim 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 younger voters."[25]

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.[26] 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 vote—compared 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%.[27] This had fallen to 59.4% in 2001.[28] Turnout in 2005 was a little better at 61.4%.[29] Electoral turnout in 2010 rose to 65.1%.[30] 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[31] 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."[32] 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."[33]

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 abstain.[34]

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.[35] 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).[36]

Expectation that the debates will happen again

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 happen again."[37]

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 the proposition."[38]

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."[39]

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.


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 Britain."[40] Phil Harding acknowledged that the series of debates did not "reverse the trend towards it being a more presidential type of contest."[41]

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."[42]

37.  We did not receive a significant amount of evidence on this point—indeed 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 of 'presidentialisation'.[43]


38.  Phil Harding told us that the debates "came to dominate the campaign too much … there is a danger that the debates become the whole campaign and there is no other campaign; and that … wouldn't be in the public interest."[44] Doctors 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."[45]

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.[46] 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 debates—taking place in each week of the campaign—and the heavy advertising that preceded them as reasons why they dominated the general election campaign in 2010.[47] 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 election—this 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 otherwise.

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.[48] 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

18   Q 72 Phil Harding Back

19   Q 1 Michael Jermey, ITV Back

20   HC Library, 2 February 2011, General Election 2010, Final Edition, Research Paper 10/36. Available online:ý Back

21   David Muir Back

22   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

23   HC Library, 2 February 2011,Op. Cit. Back

24   Q 1 Ric Bailey Back

25   Q 87  Back

26   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 online:  Back

27   HC Statistical Section, 1993, General Election Results 9 April 1992. Available online: Back

28   HC Library, 18 June 2001. General Election results 2001, Available online: Back

29   HC Library, 10 March 2006, General Election 2005 Research Paper 05/33, Final Edition. Available online: Back

30   HC Library, 18 May 2010, General Election 2010 Preliminary analysis, Research paper 10/36.Available online: Back

31   David Muir Back

32   Q 72  Back

33   Q 87  Back

34   Sky News Back

35   Leaders in the Living Room. Op. Cit. Back

36   Plaid Cymru Back

37   Q 1  Back

38   Q 1 Michael Jermey Back

39   Q 88  Back

40   Dr Stephen Barber Back

41   Q 90  Back

42   Q 90  Back

43   See Appendix 5, containing a summary of the general election debates broadcast in 2010. Back

44   Q 72  Back

45   Dr Nicholas Allen, Dr Judith Bara and Dr John Bartle Back

46   IbidBack

47   IbidBack

48   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

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