Chapter 4: Proposals for change |
107. As set out in the previous
chapter, the operation and management of broadcast general election
debates, as well as the legal and regulatory framework around
them, stem from the straightforward fact that they are both produced
by the broadcasters and ultimately broadcast by them too. Proposals
for change to the current arrangements fall into two basic groups:
proposals which imagine a fundamental overhaul, turning the debates
into electoral events set up and run independently of the broadcasters,
though perhaps to be distributed by them later; and proposals
which are more evolutionary, identifying potentially important
reforms to the debates under the continuing editorial stewardship
of the broadcasters.
Proposals to make the debates
independent of the broadcasters
108. We began our inquiry by inviting
views on, among other matters, the potential for the debates to
be operated and managed under the auspices of an independent body.
This idea has acquired some currency in public discussion of broadcast
general election debates and even emerged during negotiations
over the 2010 debates. As Sky News told us: "In 2009 there
were suggestions from both Labour and the Conservatives that they
favoured the appointment of a neutral group or chair, separate
from both politicians and broadcasters, to oversee the negotiations."
109. We have not received a great
deal of evidence expanding on what this alternative model might
entail and how it might work. However, it is safe to assume that
supporters of this idea must imagine that debates organised by
an independent body would be different in some way to those set
up by the broadcasters. One does not need to speculate to realise
what some of these differences might be. It is a matter of record,
for example, that the political parties involved in the 2010 negotiations
sought to influence the format of the debates but were not always
able entirely to get their way.
They might imagine, therefore, that a new body in which the broadcasters
do not hold the editorial chair could be expected to allow the
parties a greater say. Taking a different tack, evidence we have
received from the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) argues
that "an independent 'debates commission' may well be the
They also suggest that its criteria for inviting parties to a
Prime Ministerial debate should be based less on past performance
in equivalent elections and more on recent polling data. In short,
they imagine that a new, independent body for overseeing the debates
might adopt different rules of engagement; alternative methods
for determining which parties to invite to a Prime Ministerial
110. This rather faint and suggestive
picture of how an independent body might operate obviously leaves
a whole range of questions unanswered. How would it be established
and funded? Which debates would it produce? Whom would it invite
and how would this stand up to challenge? How would it succeed
in convening the parties at all? How would it secure the distribution
of the debates by the broadcasters? That nobody, up until now,
at least, has seen sufficient need to go into the detail of this
ideato address these and a whole range of other questionsmay
111. Nonetheless, in the absence
of a clear proposal, most witnesses attempted to put some flesh
on the bones by turning to what appears to be the closest existing
analogy for a body, independent of broadcasters and responsible
for election debates: the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD)
which has sponsored the United States Presidential debates since
112. Exploring the potential relevance
of the CPD to the UK has been helpful for three reasons. First,
it has uncovered a number of very positive lessons to be learned
from the way in which the Commission approaches its work around
the debates, including a whole range of activities related to
voter information and encouraging the public to be interested
in the electoral process; we consider these lessons below. Secondly,
it has shown that the model does indeed carry some of the characteristics
which some of the political parties in the UK might consider an
attractive alternative to the status quo (see Box 3 below).
The US Commission on Presidential
|The US Commission on Presidential Debates was established in 1987 and has sponsored and produced all of the broadcast presidential and vice-presidential debates since then. We were told by Janet Brown, its Executive Director, that its 11-person board "is an extraordinary collection of people who take their commitment to the CPD extremely importantly in terms of acting as a unit, regardless of what their past political involvement or preferences might be." Nonetheless, scepticism was expressed by some about its membership; the BBC claimed in its written evidence to us that the Commission "is co-chaired by representatives of the two biggest political parties and is widely regarded as 'bi-partisan', rather than 'independent'." Professor Bill Wheatley Jr., Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University, and former Executive Vice President of NBC News, told us that, "while the leaders of the commission are certainly responsible people, it would be a leap of faith to believe that partisan considerations do not play some role in the commission's deliberations." The broadcasters and networks are not directly represented on the Commission's board.
Beyond constitutional eligibility (ie. inter alia being a US citizen) and evidence of ballot access (ie. a candidate's name appearing on enough state ballots to have at least a mathematical chance of securing an Electoral College majority in the general election), the key criterion which the CPD have used in the past for determining eligibility for participation in the Presidential debates is the following: requiring that the candidate have a level of support of at least 15% of the national electorate as determined by five selected national public opinion polling organisations, using the average of those organisations' most recent publicly-reported results at the time of the determination.
113. Finally, exploring the potential
relevance of the CPD to the UK has also brought into sharp relief
the dramatic differences between the legal and regulatory context
for broadcast election debates in the UK as compared to the United
States. The latter point prompts two curiously opposite sets of
conclusions: that the move to producing debates for broadcast
along the lines of those produced by the CPD would either have
no impact, as the body would have to assimilate into the UK system
anyway; or it would have a dramatic impact because the entire
system would have to change around it. Each of these possible
conclusions is worth exploring in more depth.
114. First, if a commission on the
US model were imported into the UK system, it would find that
any debates which it produced for broadcast would have to confront
a set of statutory requirements which they do not face at home
in connection with a US election. This has a bearing on the notion
that an independent body for overseeing the debates could introduce
a format to the debate which would not otherwise be possible under
the broadcast rules; or that it could adopt alternative methods
for determining which parties to invite to a Prime Ministerial
115. To take the latter notion,
it may help to imagine what would happen if a debates commission,
set up independently of the broadcasters, were successfully to
convene those political parties in the UK which meet the CPD's
criteria for eligibility to participate. This is what is called
for in UKIP's evidence for instance. Of course at some point,
this commission would need to approach the broadcasters to address
the question of televising the debates. In doing so, however,
this commission would find itself treated by the broadcasters,
the regulators and the law much like an independent producer (like,
for example, the independent production company which produced
the Channel 4 'Ask the Chancellors' debate in 2010).
It would be told that any content to be broadcast during an election
period in the UK would be subject to the same regulatory rules
as if the debates were produced 'in house' by a broadcaster, as
we set out in chapter 3. This was underlined by ITV:
"It is not clear to us what
a separate Commission could helpfully add to the process
Any format approved by a Commission would still need to be consistent
with existing broadcasting law and regulation and therefore would
still be subject to the jurisdiction of Ofcom or the BBC Trust."
116. It is important to recognise
that the broadcasters do not have a real choice in this matter.
First, trying to accommodate a debate in a broadcast schedule
for which participation was determined on CPD's model would have
such a chaotic and distorting effect on a broadcaster's approach
to achieving due impartiality across the rest of their election
coverage, that it seems inconceivable that they would ever accept
or tolerate doing so. Phil Harding, Media Consultant and former
Controller of Editorial Policy, BBC told us:
"The idea that you could have
boxed-off party leader debates and
one body being responsible
for the impartiality there and
the broadcasters having
to pick up [the need to uphold due impartiality across] all the
bits that were left behind
would not be workable. The whole
thing is a patchwork of impartiality. It is not just about the
117. Secondly, given the history
of legal challenges to debate formats and casting, where the courts
have always sought evidence that the broadcasters were applying
the current rules and operating within the current regulatory
framework, it is very likelyif not certainthat any
proposal for a debate which clearly and materially disregarded
the current regulatory framework would face a legal challenge
ahead of broadcast. Moreover, it is hard to see how such a challenge
would not succeed as the broadcasters' duty of impartiality is
one of their most significant obligations under statute and, for
the BBC, under its Charter and Agreement. The only conclusion
is that the broadcasters themselves would clearly not wish to
broadcast such a programme. It would be in breach of their obligations
and their editorial policies. They would also be aware that any
UK broadcaster who committed such a serious breach would face
severe regulatory sanctions or fines and in the case of commercial
broadcasters, the potential loss of their broadcasting licences.
118. This calls into question the
case for commission on debates in the UK, at least along the lines
of the US model. From an intellectual standpoint, it is unclear
that the introduction of a body to produce debates for broadcast
on the CPD model would result in its being able to produce debates
any differently to the broadcasters. From a public interest standpoint,
it is unclear, therefore, why anyone would take the trouble. In
the US, broadcasters are not under a legal or regulatory obligation
to uphold due impartiality. In that context, establishing a separate
body to produce the debates provides a way of reassuring the political
parties involved that the debates will not be biased against them.
This is clearly rather superfluous, however, in a UK context.
As Dan Brooke, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, Channel
"the concept of a commission
like they have in the US is just not necessary here, in part because,
as we understand it, part of what the commission is doing is establishing
a set of principles that exist here before the process even begins
because they are enshrined within Ofcom's broadcasting code."
119. All of this underlines the
simple conclusion that the move to producing debates for broadcast
along the lines of those produced by the CPD would have no material
impact on, for example, the methods used for determining which
parties to invite to a Prime Ministerial debate, as the body would
have to assimilate into the UK's legal and regulatory framework
for broadcasting anyway.
120. On the other hand, if we were
to try to imagine the circumstances required to allow election
debates to be broadcast in the UK on the model adopted by the
Commission in the US, we would find that there were only two possibilities:
that a great exception would have to be made such that these particular
broadcasts were not required to comply with the framework; or
that the entire framework itself would have to change out of all
recognition. Even if the debates were conceivably to be given
a mandated standing along similar lines to Party Political and
Referendum Broadcasts (PPRBs), which the broadcasters are obliged
to carry, this would not make them exempt from the obligations
of the wider regulatory and legal framework around broadcasting,
with which PPRBs must also comply.
121. We draw two conclusions: first,
that despite the apparent currency it has enjoyed in public discussion,
very little thought appears to have been put into developing the
idea; and second that even if we attempt to understand the case
that might be made for introducing such a body in the UK, there
appears to be very little, if any merit to it. This general scepticism
was expressed widely across the evidence we received and the ultimate
implication of that was put to us by David Muir, "a Debates
Commission which does not have the buy-in of parties or broadcasters
makes it more likely that debates will not happen."
122. We have carefully considered
the potential case for a body to be established independently
of the broadcasters to oversee and produce broadcast election
debates in the UK. We have found no good arguments for the introduction
of such a body.
Reforms to the debates under
the editorial stewardship of the broadcasters
123. As set out at the beginning
of this chapter, we have also heard a range of proposals for change
which are evolutionary, identifying potentially important reforms
to the debates as television programmes under the continuing editorial
stewardship of the broadcasters. These reforms fall into two basic
groups: those relating quite generally to closer, better working
between the broadcasters; and those relating to specific editorial
aspects of the debates and their format. We will look at these
BETTER WORKING BETWEEN THE BROADCASTERS
INVOLVED IN THE DEBATES
124. During this inquiry, we have
heard of a number of ways in which the broadcast general election
debates might benefit from the broadcasters involved working better
together. We set these out here as prompts to the broadcasters
as they consider the ways in which they might coordinate themselves
as a group in the context of future debates potentially to be
broadcast in 2015 and beyond. In the order that we pick them up,
they relate to:
· Voter information and encouraging
the public to be interested in the electoral process;
· A clearer, better communicated
set of processes and principles;
· An online portal or hub for
· A 'wash-up' and review exercise
following the broadcast of the debates.
VOTER INFORMATION AND ENCOURAGING
THE PUBLIC'S INTEREST IN THE ELECTORAL PROCESS
125. Exploring the potential relevance
of the CPD to the UK is helpful in part because it uncovers a
number of very positive lessons to be learned from the way in
which the Commission approaches its work around the debates, including
a whole range of activities related to voter information and encouraging
the public to be interested in the electoral process. Janet Brown,
Executive Director for the CPD told us about the amount of effort
that goes into this: "It is approximately a two-year process
to plan for putting these together in a way that maximises the
soundness of their production and the maximum level of their educational
value to the American public."
126. It is a matter of historical
record that the broadcasters involved in the 2010 UK debates had
much less time to prepare. As Ric Bailey notes in his Reuters
report, "six executivestwo from each of the big broadcasting
organisationscame together and, with a keen eye on the
historical pitfalls, began a process which would take five months
of remorseless planning, negotiation and caffeine."
Michael Jermey added that in these discussions it can
become easy to forget the fragility of the processes which led
to the debates happening at all: "In the academic contributions
to the discussion around the debates there is a starting position
that they are an established fact and therefore all we need to
do is refine the process of how you administer them and deal with
public education around them and so forth."
Professor Purvis added that he thought "the reality
was that last time they were just trying to get the show on the
air" but that "this time, if they got themselves organised,
they could probably do everything that the commission does and
do it rather better."
There has certainly been an indication from some that the broadcasters
could do more if the debates are to take place again; Tim Gardam
told us that "the broadcasters were taken by surprise by
the resonance of the debates last time. That was my impression.
I think, talking to them, that they would say the same. There
was a nervousness about how popular they would be, although no
one doubted their significance."
In any case, it is not to be critical of the UK broadcasters'
efforts last time, that it strikes us as valuable to look at the
kinds of voter information activities which they might consider
and undertake around any debates potentially to be broadcast in
127. We heard of a number of interesting
ideas. Janet Brown told us that the CPD's objective
"around the debates is to try
to use them as vehicles not only to educate voters about the candidates,
the parties and the issues but particularly to get young people
involved in understanding why this matters. One of the things
that I do that is a lot of fun is to go around and talk to kids
who are in high school, some of whom are eligible to register
and vote and some of whom are just getting there."
128. In addition, she told us that
"we have purposefully chosen to go to college and university
campuses to do these debates. The ripple effect that the debates
have in the communities are just extraordinary in terms of not
only the curricular editions that the universities add to their
own programmes and the speakers and similar one-off events, but
then the work that they do within the county and the state to
involve kids at a lower grade level in understanding why this
is importantit is truly inspiring."
129. There appears to be a consensus
that much can be learned from the CPD's efforts in this regard.
Phil Harding told us,
"I was impressed by what I
read of the evidence about what is done in the United States with
educating young voters and I would have thought the broadcasters,
if they put their minds to it, could certainly do something very
much along those lines. There is a model. For example, the Chris
Evans show now does a short story competition for young people
and that has attracted 90,000 entries. When they put their minds
to it they could think of inventive ways of involving young people
in this process and getting them involved in the process of debating
130. There certainly appear to be
opportunities for the broadcasters to engage with the universities.
From Professor Coleman we heard that,
"There is something rather
unusual happening here, which is that for once the universities
might have a bit more money than the broadcasters to do this sort
of thing. We have been given quite a large pot of funding to produce
a platform for public education after the debates, if they happen
next year. What we cannot do as universitiesthe University
of Leeds is working in collaboration with Open University on thisis
what the broadcasters can do, and that is publicise it and bring
to it some of the creative design energy that we academics do
not always bring to things. I think there is tremendous opportunity
here and it is because one of the research councils was imaginative
about this idea that we are in a position to be able to do this."
131. Elaborating on the thinking
behind the project, he told us that the idea is
"to build platforms in which
the claims made in the debates and the records of the debaters
are open to scrutiny for the public. I think this is a very, very
big one for the public service broadcaster, for all the broadcasters,
to get together on and they probably need to start now."
132. There are clearly a whole range
of activities which the broadcasters might undertake with respect
to voter information and encouraging the public to be interested
in the electoral process. It must be said that there are some
potential challenges in this. We noted in chapter 2 the concerns
that exist about the debates coming to dominate the campaign and
the broadcasters clearly need to tread carefully in promoting
one debate too heavily over any others or the wider campaign.
However, these do not strike us as insurmountable hurdles and
we believe there is much the broadcasters could do around the
debates to stimulate public engagement in the electoral process
133. We encourage the broadcasters,
in particular the PSBs, mindful of their obligations and public
purposes, to take very seriously the opportunities to develop
activities around the debates to provide voter information and
stimulate the public to be interested in the electoral process
more generally, perhaps along lines similar to the activities
undertaken by the CPD in the US.
A clearer, better communicated
set of processes and principles
134. If the evidence received during
this inquiry is proof of anything, there is clearly some confusion
even among experts about the regulatory framework around the debates
and its influence on who can participate. There are a whole
range of rules, statements and guidelines distributed across different
areas of the regulatory framework which have a bearing on participation
in the election debates. Naturally, not everyone will be familiar
with all of these, nor necessarily understand how they come together
to influence the judgement which broadcasters ultimately make
about who can participate in practice.
135. In part, our hope is that this
Report will help to clarify some of these matters. Going further,
one proposal raised by Channel 4 was for the introduction of a
clearer two-stage process in the set up of the debates.
"Ahead of future debates, Channel
4 believes that the process should follow two stages: before allocation
of the debates to specific broadcasters, a list of key principles
should be developed that sets out the guiding purposes and principles
of the debates. These can then be used to determine any initial
administrative matters that need to be addressedsuch as
who should be involved in the decision-making process, how that
process is conducted, the number of debates held and which broadcasters
should take part. More detailed points about the implementation,
production and content of the debate programmes, such as the right
format and the appropriate level of audience interaction, should
be a matter of consideration later in the process."
136. The broadcasters involved last
time, of course, can already point to a statement of principles
which they published at an early first stage in 2009. Unlike in
2009, however, the broadcasters could use this opportunity to
explain why the political parties in question are the ones they
are inviting to take part. This would include a very clear statement
about the purpose of the debates, or the programme idea behind
them. We are conscious, of course that the broadcasters will have
to avoid any such statement compromising or over-complicating
their ability to find a sensible approach to upholding their regulatory
obligations. However, the broadcasters might reflect on the confusion
they could avert and the public serviceas a consequencethey
could provide by setting out at an early stage, the basis for
their judgement about who they invite to any Prime Ministerial
debate in the future and the types of criteria involved.
137. As a whole, this idea was supported
by Professor Stewart Purvis:
"I just feel that the broadcasters
need to be a little bit more formal, a little bit more organised
and a little bit clearer about some of the things they do, without
losing the flexibility. I embrace some of the things that Channel
4 said about your needing to say at the front what exactly is
the purpose of the debates and what they are trying to achieve
from the debates. They need to be clearer about the criteria on
which they finally decide to hold the debates and, for instancethey
are other little bits of business but they matterthey need
to be clear on this point of who else can join this group."
138. We endorse the proposal
made by Channel 4 for the introduction by the broadcasters of
a clearer two-stage process in the set-up of the election debates
potentially to be broadcast in 2015 and beyond.
139. In particular, the first
stage should include the publication of a statement of principles
about the format and purpose of the debates as television programmes
and should also provide a clarification about why, on that basis,
the broadcasters approached the invited political parties and
which types of criteria were used in doing so.
An online portal or hub for the
140. The videos of the 2010 debates
have not been easy to find online after the event. We consider
this to be a missed opportunity and there would be considerable
merit in ensuring that the debates are easily discoverable for
the general public. More generally, an online portal or hub could
act as a form of 'one-stop shop' for information about election
coverage, for seeing the agreements reached about the debates
and clearly viewing the debates during and after their broadcast.
A number of witnesses appeared to agree with this idea. Phil Harding
told us that,
"there is a real issue about
being able to find these debates afterwards because catch-up is
going to be quite an important factor in the next election, time-shifting
and all of that. I think there is a strong argument for being
able to find the debates anywhere and everywhere and there may
well be an argument for putting all of the debates on each broadcaster's
141. While the broadcasters may
work independently on each debate, it also strikes us that there
would be considerable merit in such a portal being shared. For
the general public, there would be great benefit in finding or
at least discovering these resources relating to the debates in
one place. Tim Gardam told us that "the BBC has done extraordinarily
[in its] move online and become the central place
for online information. For this to be a shared portal, though,
would be very advantageous."
Professor Purvis added that,
"I am slightly surprised that
Channel 4 did not immediately jump on the idea of a shared site.
In technology terms, that is quite simple. Everyone has their
own site but you have a portal where, if you go through the portal,
it then leads you to the individual sites. I think that could
be done in a couple of days, to be frank."
142. We encourage the broadcasters
to consider developing a single online portal for the debates
on which the general public could find all the information they
could need or want in connection with the debates, including details
of election coverage, the published agreements reached about the
debates and access points for viewing the debates during and after
A 'WASH-UP' AND REVIEW EXERCISE
FOLLOWING THE BROADCAST OF THE DEBATES
143. The broadcasters presumably
held discussions internally about the lessons to learn from the
debates in 2010 and we of course know about a number of substantial
academic reports produced with a view to looking back over the
debates as well, not least by Ric Bailey who was involved in the
negotiation of the debates for the BBC.
However, it is notable that until our inquiry, there has been
no more open scrutiny of the debates' success in a public forum,
reviewing of the lessons to learn about the exercise which might
be applied next time.
144. As Phil Harding put to us,
"I think it would be certainly
good to have a debate about how they worked, where they worked
and where they did not work. I am sure the broadcasters had them
themselves, but they had them in private and I am not sure I have
seen any results of that. Therefore, I think some sort of public
session about it would be useful and would be valuable. Now, what
form that takes I do not know
Maybe a hearing like this
could at least be one forum that you could think about for doing
145. There may be merit in a public
hearing a short while after the next general election to look
back over any debates potentially to have been broadcast by then
with a view to reviewing their success and ensuring there is an
opportunity for an open discussion about lessons which there may
be to learn.
PROPOSALS FOR CHANGE TO SPECIFIC
EDITORIAL ASPECTS OF THE DEBATES AND THEIR FORMAT
146. In this section of the report
we review the evidence that we received relating to the format
and editorial aspects of the debates. Any comments we make in
this section are intended to be suggestive and constructive. Whilst
hoping that our thoughts may bring about positive change, we emphatically
do not want to interfere, or to be thought to be trying to interfere,
with the editorial independence of the broadcasters.
147. We are confident that the broadcasters
will see our proposals in the spirit in which they are meant,
not least because they themselves clearly have an appetite for
changing the format of the debates. Michael Jermey told us that
there is nothing about the format of 2010 that they "would
want to lock in aspic and say that is the only way you can do
we have ambitions to improve the format to include
other ways of doing things and to develop what was built in 2010."
John Ryley similarly said that, "I think all of us would
think that the room for manoeuvre in terms of coming up with slightly
different formats is something that would be good to see."
148. As we noted in the previous
chapter, the very fact that the debates happened in 2010 was an
achievement in itself and there is widespread public expectation
that debates will take place in 2015. It is essential therefore
that any suggested changes to the format of the debates do not
put the debates themselves happening into jeopardy.
149. Ric Bailey explained that the
relative simplicity of the 2010 format probably helped to ensure
that the debates took place:
"One of the reasons they had
not happened before was that you had different broadcasters coming
up with different ideas. Parties would use that sometimes, when
they were perhaps less enthusiastic about them, as a way of not
engaging. One of the things that we were trying to do was to come
up with something very simple that we could agree on that took
us beyond some of those initial hurdles that had been experienced
by previous negotiators."
150. Michael Jermey stressed that
the 2010 format was not a bad fallback position and changes should
not be pushed through at the cost of not having any debates.
Put simply, by John Ryley, change "is less important than
making them [debates] happen."
151. We echo the point made by the
broadcasters that the priority in any negotiations must be finding
a format with which the parties will agree to ensure the debates
happen. Any suggestions that we make in this chapter must be viewed
against this backdrop.
Gender and ethnicity of the debate
152. The BBC general election debate
in 2010 was moderated by David Dimbleby, the ITV debate by Alastair
Stewart and the Sky debate by Adam Boulton, all of whom are white
men. It was surprising to us and no doubt to the electorate as
a whole that there were no women and no members of ethnic minorities.
We note that Channel 4's Ask the Chancellors debate was moderated
by Krishnan Guru-Murthy.
153. We asked several witnesses
whether there should be a greater diversity amongst the moderators.
Professor Schroeder pointed out that, "For your three
debates in 2010 you had three white male journalists. There is
nothing wrong with thatI am a white male journalist myselfbut
I do think there is some value in bringing diversity of voices
into the moderating process."
Going further, Phil Harding told us, "if it is four debates
this time you cannot end up with four white men."
154. Channel 4 told us that that
"'non-white' turnout level" at the 2010 general election
remained "lower than the national average at 51%. Given television's
ability to reach the UK population as a whole, the general election
debates provide an opportunity to reach out to such groups directly."
Similarly Tim Gardam was interested in the ability of the debates
to "reach different parts of what is an increasingly diverse
Britain. There is a danger that we do not think across the diversity
of the country and the different means whereby political engagement
I would very much like to know how the debates
play in different ethnic communities and backgrounds in the United
155. No witness presented us with
a concrete solution to the lack of diversity amongst the moderators
in 2010. The choice of a moderator for each debate remains the
decision of that debate's broadcaster.
156. Professor Purvis made
the important point that the broadcast debates are important programmes
and an individual broadcaster might be unwilling to pass over
their lead anchor for diversity's sake.
We can conceive of a situation where each broadcaster might recognise
the importance of diversity of moderators, but no broadcaster
is prepared to put this principle into practice.
157. Professor Schroeder pointed
out that a key advantage of the Commission on Presidential Debates
in the USA was that, "a single sponsor gives you the ability
to introduce more diversity into the moderating of the debates
easier to do that when you are conceiving of these things
in group form as opposed to individually."
We acknowledge that such a body would make greater diversity amongst
moderators more likely but for the reasons explained above, we
do not recommend the establishment of one.
158. Another possible solution would
be for each debate to be hosted by a panel of moderators which
could be more representative in gender, age and ethnicity terms
than a single anchor. Phil Harding told us that a panel of presenters
ran the risk of leading to a rather stilted "press conference
style of programming."
159. Professor Purvis emphasised
that the broadcasters themselves needed to address the issue of
diversity urgently and find a solution: "I am not saying
that the decision about moderation should be taken ahead of the
broadcasters. I think the broadcasters themselves would be sensible
to sit as a group and say, "Across our three or four programmes,
how are we going to get some kind of diversity here?"
160. We recognise that the choice
of moderator for each debate is a matter of each broadcaster's
own editorial judgement. Should broadcast election debates take
place in 2015 and beyond, we recommend that the broadcasters ensure
they exercise that judgement, reflecting our concern, and mindful
of the disappointingly uniform outcome of their decisions in 2010.
Greater involvement of the public
161. There was some appetite among
the witnesses for greater involvement of the public in broadcast
general election debates. Professor Alan Schroeder told us
that, ""the voting public deserves better than being
relegated to spectator status, particularly in an age of participatory
162. Professor Schroeder went
on to list six specific ways to involve the voting public in the
debates. We have summarised these in Box 4. We recommend that
those taking part in the negotiations for the 2015 broadcast general
election debates might wish to address each of the issues he raises.
Evidence received on ways
to involve the public in the debates
|· Soliciting public input. In advance of negotiations, broadcasters should seek input from interested members of the public on such points as subject matter, format, number and timing of debates.
· Creating an advisory board made up of voters. This would formalise the relationship between the broadcasters and the voters they ostensibly serve.
· Taking advantage of academic research. Debate planners should acquaint themselves with this research and seek appropriate guidance from international experts in the field.
· Keeping the public informed about behind-the-scenes negotiations. At a minimum, voters ought to be aware of the mechanics of any pre-debate discussions.
· Choosing voter-friendly formats. One of the best methods of ensuring voter involvement in debates is to include voters in the questioning. Broadcasters should explore other innovative formats that accentuate public participation.
· Developing voter information efforts in connection with debates. Broadcasters of electoral debates should approach the events as a starting point for political engagement, rather than an end unto themselves. The rise of social media creates a perfect opportunity to apply innovative approaches to such discussions.
163. We were however told that some
devices used to increase audience involvement were not helpful.
In the 2010 Debates the so-called "worm" was used by
ITVa similar device was used by the BBCin post-debate
analysis (both broadcasters made clear that the "worm"
did not appear on the broadcast version of the debate).
The worm is the squiggly line that often accompanies televised
election debates and is supposed to represent the views of undecided
voters, moving up when a candidate says something which the voters
endorse, and down when a candidate says something which they don't
164. We received evidence which
suggested that the use of the worm might distort the viewer's
perception of the debate. Professor Colin Davis told us about
an experiment he had conducted in which 150 people were asked
to watch the final general election debate in 2010a version
that included a wormand then answer a few questions:
"Unbeknownst to the participants,
the worm was manipulated by those conducting the experiment. One
group saw a worm that was biased in favour of Gordon Brown, while
for another group it favoured Nick Clegg. Although the debate
was identical in all other respects, the two groups had completely
different ideas about who had won the debate. The group that saw
a worm which favoured Gordon Brown thought that he had won the
debate, whereas the group that saw the worm which favoured Nick
Clegg overwhelmingly thought that he was the winner."
165. This research indicates that
viewers might focus on the worm's performance rather than on what
is actually being saidthis could distort their perception
of the debate. We were also told that the sample-size used to
produce the worm was a cause for concern. Professor Colin
Davis told us that, "Even without any deliberate bias it's
very unlikely that the worm provides an accurate indication of
the views of undecided voters, given that it is based on such
a small sample (20 people in the case of ITV's worm and a mere
12 voters in the case of the BBC worm)."
Professor Schroeder told us that,
"I have looked at this question
of a worm around the world. It is used all the time in Australia
with some fairly negative results.
I think it is ridiculous.
First of all, I think social media, particularly Twitter, has
supplanted the worm. The real-time, real reaction of the audience
is now measurable in ways that make the worm obsolete."
166. It is reassuring that the broadcasters
had no plans to use the worm during the live broadcasts of debates.
More generally we heard that one of the strengths of the debates
programmes was their simplicity. Tim Gardam said,
"the closed nature of political
language and political debate can make people shy away. They feel
they are not somehow emancipated to take part in it.
simplicity of format, the space given to the three party leaders
to do something very clear and specific gave people the confidence
to engage in the arguments."
Professor Coleman similarly pointed
to the simple format of the debates programmes as a reason for
167. We share the view that the
simple format of the debates allowed the viewer to concentrate
on a serious debate about serious issues without the distraction
of too much other information appearing on the screen. This is
another argument against the use of the worm.
AUDIENCE TO ASK FOLLOW-UP QUESTIONS?
168. During the 2010 general election
debates around half of the questions posed came from members of
the studio audience. The questioners were not however allowed
to pose supplementary questions. Phil Harding felt this contributed
to the debates, in his view, appearing slightly stilted at times,
"I do think there needs to be a loosening up of the format.
Above all, it did seem strange to me, for example, that the questioner,
if the question was coming from the audience, never had the chance
to come back with a follow-up question. It just seemed counter-intuitive,
in a way."
169. Tim Gardam agreed that not
allowing follow-up questions could have led to the programmes
being seen as "patriarchal" but he told us that they
avoided being seen as such for two reaons:
"First, we have been talking
about the effect of the social media conversation that went on
around it. Also
since 2000 there have been a series of
programmes, far away from the political arena, that are largely
entertainment programmes, where the audience has been invited
to interact. That audience has tended to be young adults in their
early 30s from "Big Brother" in 2000 through to the
"X Factor" and all these other programmes. Voting by
text or engaging by text has become a core part of the exercise.
I think the debates ended up offering this appetite for information
What could have been a very old fashioned
format becomes a very modern one."
170. Notwithstanding this, Mr Gardam
pointed out that a criticism often levied at politicial leaders
was that they evade questions, "I wonder whether that is
because there was no chance to follow up a question once it had
been asked. That is the area that I think could perhaps be explored."
He acknowledged that an unintended and undesirable consequence
of allowing follow up questions might be that the programmes become
171. In his Reuters report Ric Bailey
points to a possible downside of increased audience participation
in televised political debates:
"The nearest programme to a
Leaders' Debate involving the electorate was another Granada innovation,
The Last Debate
It was an early warning to the political
hierarchies of what can happen when voters themselves are allowed
to take part: 'the audience interrupted and heckled on such a
scale that at times the speakers were shouting to try to make
172. The broadcasters agreed with
each other that, all things being equal, increased audience participation
in the debates would be a positive development.
Dorothy Byrne reminded us that the politicians would have to agree
to any change in format, including increased audience participation.
AN INCREASED ROLE FOR THE MODERATOR
173. The moderator's role in 2010,
set out in detail in the rules agreed by the negotiators, was
summed up by Sky as, "effectively restricted to ensuring
equal treatment of all participants, and seeking factual clarifications."
174. There was no clear call for
an increased role for the moderator. Tim Gardam told us that,
"The danger of the moderator
taking too great a role is you are back into that old, closed
political discourse of someone you have seen on television a lot
talking to politicians as they always do, as opposed to giving
a greater breadth of discussion that you would not get otherwise."
Professor Coleman also warned that, "It is risky. It
only has to go wrong once or be seen to be an unfair challenge
by the moderator and the greater good of the debate can be lost."
175. For David Muir the danger of
a greater role for the moderator was that they would then dominate
the show, "There is a glut of political programming with
high profile TV presenters, but all record low-TV ratings.
We did not want the debate to be dominated by a puffed-up presenter
luxuriating in his or her day in the sun."
Professor Schroeder shared this view, "occasionally
these individuals forget that it is the candidates, not the questioners,
who are the rightful stars of the show."
176. The negotiators for the
broadcast general election debates in 2015 and beyond should ensure
that the format evolves as necessary to maintain or increase the
levels of voter engagement seen in 2010. This should always be
balanced against the risk of making proposals for change that
jeopardise the debates taking place.
124 Sky News Back
Squeezing out the Oxygen. Op. Cit. Back
Q 24 Back
Q 33 Back
In this instance, the independent production company in question
was Mentorn Media. Back
Q 75 Back
Q 67 Back
David Muir Back
Q 21 Back
Squeezing out the Oxygen. Op. Cit. Back
Q 16 Back
Q 81 Back
Q 102 Back
Q 28 Back
Q 81 Back
Q 102 Back
Q 99 Back
Channel 4 Back
Q 76 Back
Q 81 Back
Q 99 Back
Q 81 Back
Squeezing out the Oxygen. Op. Cit. Back
Q 82 Back
Q 3, Q 12 Back
Q 12 Back
Q 12 Back
Q 12 Back
Q 12 Back
Q 43 Back
Q 77 Back
Channel 4 Back
Q 100 Back
Q 77 Back
Q 43 Back
Q 77 Back
Q 78 Back
Professor Alan Schroeder Back
Q 15 Ric Bailey and Michael Jermey Back
Professor Colin Davis Back
Q 56 Back
Q 15 Ric Bailey, Michael Jermey and John Ryley. Back
Q 87 Back
Q 77 Back
Q 88 Back
Q 95 Back
Q 95 Back
Squeezing out the Oxygen. Op. Cit. Back
This was broadcast in 1959. Back
Q 2 Michael Jermey and John Riley. Q 3 Ric Bailey Back
Q 63 Back
Sky News Back
Q 95 Back
Q 95 Back
David Muir Back
Professor Alan Schroeder Back