Broadcast general election debates - Communications Committee Contents

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."[124]

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.[125] 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 way forward."[126] 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 debate.

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 idea—to address these and a whole range of other questions—may be telling.

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 1988.

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 Debates (CPD)
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."[127] 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'."[128] 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."[129] 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 debate.

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).[130] 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."[131]

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 leader debates."[132]

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 likely—if not certain—that 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 4, argued:

    "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."[133]

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."[134]

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 in turn.


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 the debates;

·  A 'wash-up' and review exercise following the broadcast of the debates.


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."[135]

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 executives—two from each of the big broadcasting organisations—came together and, with a keen eye on the historical pitfalls, began a process which would take five months of remorseless planning, negotiation and caffeine."[136] 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."[137] 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."[138] 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."[139] 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 the future.

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."[140]

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 important—it is truly inspiring."[141]

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 and democracy."[142]

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 universities—the University of Leeds is working in collaboration with Open University on this—is 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."[143]

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."[144]

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 in general.

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 addressed—such 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."[145]

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 service—as a consequence—they 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 instance—they are other little bits of business but they matter—they need to be clear on this point of who else can join this group."[146]

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 debates

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 website afterwards."[147]

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 well … [in its] move online and become the central place for online information. For this to be a shared portal, though, would be very advantageous."[148] 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."[149]

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 their transmission.


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.[150] 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 that."[151]

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.


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 it. … we have ambitions to improve the format to include other ways of doing things and to develop what was built in 2010."[152] 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."[153]

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."[154]

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.[155] Put simply, by John Ryley, change "is less important than making them [debates] happen."[156]

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 moderators

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 that—I am a white male journalist myself—but I do think there is some value in bringing diversity of voices into the moderating process."[157] Going further, Phil Harding told us, "if it is four debates this time you cannot end up with four white men."[158]

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."[159] 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 takes place. … I would very much like to know how the debates play in different ethnic communities and backgrounds in the United Kingdom."[160]

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.[161] 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."[162] 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."[163]

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?"[164]

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 media."[165]

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 ITV—a similar device was used by the BBC—in post-debate analysis (both broadcasters made clear that the "worm" did not appear on the broadcast version of the debate).[166] 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 like.

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 2010—a version that included a worm—and 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."[167]

165.  This research indicates that viewers might focus on the worm's performance rather than on what is actually being said—this 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)."[168] 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."[169]

166.  It is reassuring that the broadcasters had no plans to use the worm during the live broadcasts of debates.[170] 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. … the 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 their success.[171]

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.


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."[172]

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 and transparency … What could have been a very old fashioned format becomes a very modern one."[173]

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."[174] He acknowledged that an unintended and undesirable consequence of allowing follow up questions might be that the programmes become longer.[175]

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 themselves heard'."[176] [177]

172.  The broadcasters agreed with each other that, all things being equal, increased audience participation in the debates would be a positive development.[178] Dorothy Byrne reminded us that the politicians would have to agree to any change in format, including increased audience participation.[179]


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."[180]

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."[181] 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."[182]

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."[183] 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."[184]


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

125   Squeezing out the Oxygen. Op. Cit. Back

126   UKIP Back

127   Q 24 Back

128   BBC Back

129   Q 33 Back

130   In this instance, the independent production company in question was Mentorn Media. Back

131   ITV Back

132   Q 75 Back

133   Q 67 Back

134   David Muir Back

135   Q 21 Back

136   Squeezing out the Oxygen. Op. Cit. Back

137   Q 16 Back

138   Q 81 Back

139   Q 102 Back

140   Q 28 Back

141   Ibid. Back

142   Q 81 Back

143   Q 102 Back

144   Q 99 Back

145   Channel 4 Back

146   Q 76 Back

147   Q 81 Back

148   Q 99 Back

149   Q 81 Back

150   Squeezing out the Oxygen. Op. Cit. Back

151   Q 82 Back

152   Q 3, Q 12  Back

153   Q 12  Back

154   Q 12  Back

155   Q 12  Back

156   Q 12  Back

157   Q 43  Back

158   Q 77  Back

159   Channel 4 Back

160   Q 100  Back

161   Q 77 Back

162   Q 43  Back

163   Q 77  Back

164   Q 78  Back

165   Professor Alan Schroeder Back

166   Q 15 Ric Bailey and Michael Jermey Back

167   Professor Colin Davis Back

168   Ibid. Back

169   Q 56  Back

170   Q 15 Ric Bailey, Michael Jermey and John Ryley. Back

171   Q 87  Back

172   Q 77  Back

173   Q 88  Back

174   Q 95  Back

175   Q 95  Back

176   Squeezing out the Oxygen. Op. Cit. Back

177   This was broadcast in 1959. Back

178   Q 2 Michael Jermey and John Riley. Q 3 Ric Bailey Back

179   Q 63  Back

180   Sky News Back

181   Q 95  Back

182   Q 95  Back

183   David Muir Back

184   Professor Alan Schroeder Back

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