Nick Jones
Come the next British general election leading broadcasters say they will do their best to ensure that the political parties impose fewer restrictions on the format for any future televised debates between the party leaders. At a discussion hosted by the Royal Television Society (16.6.2010) there were mixed opinions as to whether the three debates were in fact the game changer of the 2010 general election but editors and executives agreed there should have been far greater interrogation of the party leaders.While the panel was unanimous in their view that social networking sites on the internet did not provide the breakthrough which the political parties had hoped for, Twitter was said by Ceri Thomas, editor of Radio 4’s Today, to have become the programme’s ‘single most valuable source’ of new stories. Although twenty-four questions were asked during the three televised debates, the broadcasters felt the format suited the politicians rather than the viewing public.  By being challenged on a variety of different subjects, the party leaders were not held properly to account on the overriding issue for the electorate which was how the parties proposed to cut the deficit in public spending. Dorothy Byrne, head of news and current affairs at Channel 4, condemned the refusal of the party leaders to allow follow-up questions either by a presenter or members of the audience. ‘In any normal debate, the audience would have come back time and again to ask questions about spending cuts and a possible rise in VAT...so it suited the leaders to have to answer twenty-four different issues while the really big question of the election was not addressed properly’. Despite their limitations, Ms Byrne thought the leaders’ debates were a ‘big step forward’ and she hoped future debates would be along the lines of the Channel 4 programme Ask The Chancellors during which the three contenders ‘really quizzed each other’.‘But if we had not had the debates, there would have been more relentless questioning of the three leaders on the economy and that might have affected the outcome of the election’.John McAndrew, executive producer for Sky News, said the three broadcasters – Sky, ITV and BBC – all agreed the seventy-six rules for conducting the debates which were imposed by the three parties were too strict.‘We all thought the ban on applause was a step too far...and we should have had an ability for the audience to come back with more questions. You could not even take a close up of the questioner when the leader was answering the question’. However, Ian Squires, ITV controller of regions and current affairs, said that given the debates were being held for the first time, ‘none of the rules were a noticeable road block to ideas being debated and discussed’.The panel agreed that Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, was the main beneficiary.  Michael Cockerell, producer of How To Win The TV Debate, said David Cameron’s reaction when Clegg stole the show in the first debate was particularly revealing.‘The look on Cameron’s face when Clegg took over the debate was the look of a spin doctor seeing an uncontrolled media opportunity which was going badly wrong’.Ian Squires doubted whether the debates changed the outcome of the election. ‘They may have driven a few more people to turn out...but the promise that the Liberal Democrats would do well did not happen and the Liberal Democrats would have been squeezed even more without the debates’.  John McAndrew agreed: ‘Cleggmania didn’t happen...and Nick Clegg would have polled fewer votes if there had been no debates’.          When it came to the impact of social networking, Ms Byrne said the politicians hoped that social media, like the television debates, would shut the broadcasters out but that did not happen.   Ian Squires said the Conservatives in particular thought they would be able to manage the campaign through new media like ‘playing a board game, but they didn’t know how to pull the levers.  Journalists were talking to each other via social networking, voters were talking to each other as well, but the politicians didn’t have the one-to-one dialogue with the public which they had been hoping for’.Ceri Thomas said the political blogosphere had a resonance in Westminster but it did not have a great purchase outside Westminster.  But the Today programme now realised the importance of social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.‘I get more story ideas from Twitter than from anywhere else...it has become the single most useful way to get information although that was not the case during the general election’. When it came to Bigotgate and the Prime Minister’s overheard remark about Gillian Duffy being that ‘bigoted woman’, the panellists all agreed that the Labour Party and Gordon Brown had only themselves to blame for not removing the radio microphone from his lapel. John McAndrew said Labour asked Sky News to put a microphone on the Prime Minister’s lapel so that a sound feed could be supplied on a pool basis to the various television crews.  ‘Brown asked for the microphone, he left it on, a producer heard what he said and we referred up through our editorial process at Sky News. We thought it was a strong story and we thought we should go with it’. Ian Squires agreed that it was the ‘right and proper’ to broadcast Brown’s comments.  ‘It might be ethically troubling about the microphone still being in place but right for members of the public to know what the Prime Minister was thinking about his conversation with Gillian Duffy’.  Ceri Evans agreed with John McAndrew that immigration was the hot topic of the election.  ‘Mass immigration will be a defining legacy of the Labour government...There was no conspiracy not to talk about it but we have missed out on it as a story’.