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TV debate – good idea in theory, but …

Posted on 2 September 2009 | 3:09pm

Into my inbox last night popped an email from someone at Sky suggesting that whatever else I might be doing, I really ought to drop it, and tune in to watch political editor Adam Boulton at 10pm. No details were available as to why I should make this radical change to my life, beyond a hint that he had something interesting to say. In other words, a fairly easily ignored piece of media spin.

So I ignored it. Then this morning came another email from the same source with ‘more detail’ on what I assume had been the subject of the missed 10pm report, namely a Sky ‘campaign’ for a TV debate between the main party leaders.

I hope Lynne Truss, she of the aberrant apostrophe bestseller, is not on the same Sky mailing list as I am. The subject heading was ‘leaders debate’ (apostrophe after the s on leaders missing) and the message below was Sky News’ campaign (apostrophe correctly used) for a debate between the parties leaders (apostrophe required after parties). Sorry, but I am almost as obsessed as Lynne Truss.

Since, I have seen an article by the head of Sky News, John Ryley, setting out the rationale for the campaign, and a Sky report, attached to the article online, of Sky reporter Joey Jones walking round Westminster hand-delivering letters to Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

Now on balance, all things considered, I think a leaders’ debate or series of debates is probably a good idea, and would help enliven and illuminate the election campaign.

I say ‘on balance’, because it is not as simple as the broadcasters pretend. To them, it is obvious – politics has a bit of a problem with the public; so let the public see the leading politicians in a TV debate, and that problem might be addressed a little. What it fails to take into account is that part of the problem is the way that TV covers politics in the first place. The context and tone for Mr Ryley’s article is the ultra-negative view of politics, the one that tends to pervade most media outlets’ coverage. There is another, more balanced view. It just tends not to get ventilated.

And the weight of spin applied to the launch of this campaign rather highlights the concern that some have about seeing TV debates as an obvious benefit to a democracy. There is a difference between stories and debate. Sensation and argument do not go well together. Calling for the debate is a story. Joey Jones tramping the streets delivering the letters is a story. Cameron and Clegg saying they would welcome the debate is a story. Gordon saying yes would be an even bigger story. And if the debate actually happened, there would be stories galore to report – before, during and after.

As for Ryley’s claim that political leaders do not open themselves up to scrutiny on TV … let’s not get silly. They’re never off the TV. Can Mr Ryley name another elected leader who in addition to Prime Minister’s Questions puts himself up for regular press conferences as well as Parliamentary select committees? I remember once BBC political editor Nick Robinson saying that when we first brought in the press conferences, they were a good innovation. But Tony Blair got ‘so good at them, they became boring.’ Interesting perspective that. The sensation has gone. They want something new to play with.

If we had a sensible political media in this country, that was not prone to sensationalism, trivialisation and an obsession with process, there would be no argument at all. TV debates would be a no-brainer. But I think even the most ardent supporter of our political media would be hard-pressed to say TV was not more sensationalist, trivial and obsessed with process than it used to be.

Mr Ryley says the debate will be going ahead anyway, and if any of the leaders are not there, they will be represented by an empty chair. Oh yeah, not yaboo politics at all that, is it? He also says Sky will make the debate available to all other broadcasters. I can hear them expressing their gratitude now. Not. If there is one group of people who find it even harder to agree than opposing politicians, it is rival broadcasters.

The report in The Times says that plans for a debate between Tony Blair and John Major fell apart because the parties could not agree on the identity of the host. Not so. They fell apart because the discussions between the broadcasters and between the parties were taking up far too much time and energy, and getting in the way of the rest of the campaign.

I said then, and have said since, that these debates will only happen if the leaders want them, and if the nature and format can be organised, and any legalities addressed, long before the campaign has begun. To that extent, Mr Ryley is right to try to get this sorted now, and I wish him luck. But I wonder if the manner in which he has gone about it might have made it less not more likely to happen. He created himself a story. But will he get the debate?

  • nic careem

    On balance I welcome a debate as it will be an opportunity to expose inadequecies of someone once famously said was physcologically flawed. Obviously as you know support he must have had some counselling session to get over his personality defaults. Why bother Alastair your party will be history soon. You’d be better off to plan Labour’s future, that is of course if it has one. As a former member I would be mortified to see a party that I once thought could change the world dissappear altogether. Democracy is better served when there is a decent opposition.

  • Graham

    The apostrophe in Sky News’ campaign is wrong – should be Sky News’s campaign.

    I think a single TV debate with pooled coverage would definately be a good thing.

  • Jo Christie-Smith

    Do you think the US media, well TV, is less obsessed with process than the UK media?

    Because I think that the US television debates work well, but although the US media isn’t so cynical I’m not sure they’re any less obsessed with process.


    I think what Nick Robinson meant is that Tony Blair became proficient at using his press conferences to only say what he wanted to say how he wanted to say it.

    The most infuriating thing about politicians, and especially New Labour politicians, is that they refuse to answer the question. I understand that not every question can be answered, but that doesn’t mean almost every question should be evaded.

    Is it therefore any surprise that journalists start doing the same thing – reporting things how they want to? I don’t appluad it, but I do understand it.

    I think it’s this dynamic that is at work here; the politicians will only take part if the debate happens on their terms, and the media host will attempt to steer it in the direction they think is best for the ratings (which is unnecessary because if the three party leaders did debate together everyone who would be interested will watch, whatever the format).

    I should think that you, more than anyone else, realise that politicians and journalists are almost always complicit in masking or interpreting the truth, even when they’re working at odds.

  • @jlocke13

    If you were still advising the Prime minister, would you advise Gordon to participate?….He is not a natural performer and it may be his “Nixon” moment..However the downside is, he has a reputation for “avoiding” decisions, and saying no would only reinforce that image… Tricky one, which I presume is exactly what Sky had in mind when they started it!

  • Craig, Oxfordshire

    Am I just too cycnical? I can only see this from one angle, that being NewsCorp and their willingness to extend their ever-increasing advocacy for Dave.

    Debates are made for oppositions to triumph in. The questions will be set by the agenda of the day, which has already been painted in anti-government spin by the Tories and their huge (and loyal) media friends.

    Debates are made for presentation-obsessed politicians to shine in. Despite Sky’s insistence that ‘policy’ will play a part in the content, giving Dave a timed agenda to stamp his feet, bang his fist and rattle off home-spun soundbites without a single hard question from the chair person along he lines of “That’s all very well – but what will you actually do Mr Cameron” plays to opposition and media strengths.

    And finally, from an organisation that has consistenly and severely attacked New Labour for their “presidential” style of governance (The Sun and Times especially), is it not more than hypocritical to setup a debate system which pushes this concept yet further?

    Brown would do well to stay well clear of this one. A debate with Dave, Clegg and an empty chair would make them all look rather foolish…

  • Pat Hill

    We see exactly the same thing now with polls and surveys. The BBC are the worst offenders. Spend our money to survey what we supposedly think, then skew the coverage to show their survey was right. Waste of time, waste of money. I agree a debate would be a good idea but would dread the hoo-ha the media would surround it with

  • Carrie S

    The idea that a one hour debate could swing an election is itself ludicrous. But because of the way the Tories are operating, and because the media are allowing them to avoid real scrutiny on policy, it might well be to Labour;s advantage to have one. But even the best presenters would not be able to resist trying to make it all about them. I agree we have a real problem with the media and its coverage of politics

  • AC

    Many thanks to Graham for pointing out that Sky’s apostrophe error count was not, as I had calculated, 2 out of 3, but a full house, as ‘Sky News’ campaign’ ought to have been ‘Sky News’s.’ Good point, well made, so I will ignore Graham’s mis-spelling of definitely

  • Helene Pooley

    I love the way your blog bounces from subject to subject, but always with a point that you seem never to tire of making – in this case media not as good as they pretend to be, often Tories bad people. I agree almost always!

  • kardinal birkutzki

    More correctly, (according, I believe, to both Gower and Fowler) it should actually be “Sky News’s campaign”. The issue, according to them, is apparently to make clear the difference in pronunciation. Thus, one would write “the Lions’ fly half”, since there is normally no extra “s” in the pronunciation of “Lions'”. In contrast, the Newcastle United ground should actually be written as “St James’s Park”, since an extra “s” is present in the pronunciation of the latter.

    Personally, I might plump in this case for “the Sky News campaign”, leaving the apostrophe out completely and not pronouncing an extra “s”. I am told this is nowadays known as using the word “Sky” “attributively”. This is by all accounts anathema to the purists but, personally, I prefer it, since “News'” or “News’s” look rather ugly to me on the page.

  • kardinalbirkutzki

    Oops! Just bothered to read the rest of the comments; you have obviously already made that point. Appologies!

  • TS

    The use of the term “leaders debate” without an apostrophe is not necessarily incorrect. It depends on exactly what meaning is meant to be conveyed. If the debate is supposed to belong to the leaders then an apostrophe is required after the s (as in “the leaders’ phones have all been ringing non-stop throughout the day”). However, it is possible that the author did not mean to imply that it was the leaders’ debate (as in, possessed by them), but rather simply to name the debate after the leaders. To illustrate the point consider the example of an interview carried out by a broadcaster with the Prime Minister. It would make perfect sense to refer to this as “the Gordon Brown interview”. There is no need for an apostrophe or an s because the sentence is not possessive and does not mean to indicate that the interview belongs to Gordon Brown, just that it is named after him. Similarly, if the Sky employee did not mean that the debate belonged to the party leaders, just that it is named for them (as in, “a debate between the leaders”) he is not wrong in using the non-possessive “leaders” without an apostrophe.

    As has already been noted, the use of the apostrophe in “Sky News’ campaign” is incorrect, contrary to what is stated in the post. Other than this rather unsuccessful critique of Sky’s use of punctuation I wholeheartedly agree with everything in the article.

  • Thomas Rossetti

    To lift a quote from this piece:

    “The context and tone for Mr Ryley’s article is the ultra-negative view of politics, the one that tends to pervade most media outlets’ coverage.”

    How exactly would you describe your coverage of British politics as the Political Editor of the Daily Mirror back in the day? Hardly “positive”, was it?

  • gary Enefer

    Forgive me if i am wrong but,unlike America (which is where all this stuff on Sky comes from)we have a weekly Prime Minister’s Questions and regular news form all of the party leaders regularly.

    I would like us to move away forma media driven environment to one of a more stoical country that is more connected within it’s own society. The gulf between Politics and the media – which is now in grave danger of being seen as the same thing-and Society is large now I fear that the whole political process will collapse. Parties (sorry if the grammar or spelling is
    wrong!) will no longer get funding – as Sky does – so in the end we’ll be run by Tescos and Sky?!Suddenly people will realise that the media has ruined politics and politics matters.Gordon brown seems to show too much respect to sky and the rest of the media. It would be good if he would say ”Sky can take a hike on that one”and find his mettle.He could also say that
    Mr Pr only (David Cameron) could stick his questions on Megrahi where the sun don’t shine!

  • Trevor Malcolm, Portsmouth Hampshire



    Hey all, out there. ‘Twas Teatime Wednesday, when the rarity took place, (AC blog, 1 September): The gentleman “Graham” – presumably some chap with a PhD in using apostrophes – earned himself AC full approval, not once, but twice. Graham’s name gets mentioned TWICE, yet he only submitted TWO lines. A measly 28 words, in total

    Whereas the rest of us have to attend over 20 sessions of intense psychotherapy to earn that much focus of attention and “psychologically stroking”, so we too can feel that jolly valued and self-important

    Your apostrophe boffin must be bouncing off the walls with excitement. Since you launched your blog, 3 February 2009, count the number of times you’ve intervened to comment, on the fingers of one hand or two. Graham must hold a special place in your heart. Plus he deserves a free promotional goodie-bag, of course

    No wish to poop the party, but who knows if your crack “Search Engine Optimisation Team” (SEOT), those nerds promoting your weblog, and keen not to screw up on such a lucrative, ongoing contract, sense future problems, optimising your website?

    Geeks, whose engaging, reading material includes statistics, supplied courtesy of Google-Analytics, all hankering after a constant supply of keyword-rich, unique varied and highest content provision, despite it becoming increasingly difficult to come by

    Without that, they’d risk you slumping down the Google “natural results” radar screen, as most other weblogs that don’t promote so relentlessly, tend to, over time. Then, trouble sets in. Forced into stumping up advertising dollars, just to tout your speaking engagement availabilities

    So, I hope you extend your approval to the “backroom boys” who have made your commentary and observations the daily appointment “must-read” it has become

    In simple terms, remember to say “thank you” to the techie-folks, behind the scenes, who make it all go right for us to read

    Trevor Malcolm



  • Trevor Malcolm, Portsmouth Hampshire



    You detect the expression “Nae Worries, Lad” replacing the plebeian and colourless “Not at all” or the more genial but equally vacuous “It is my pleasure, Sire, I prithee”

    Or worse, that familiar, most popular, silent facial-gormlessness. Not so much as a “see ya again soon, cock” – Shameful, shameful

    Apologies first to the articulate Dr Jane Appleton, feeling “ … Ancient/Borderline Medieval” for her responses. Truth is, I would feel deeply honoured if Dr Jane A responded to me with “you’re welcome” – so there. Same with Ann, “ … feeling abit aged” (both comments published on your blog 1 September)

    For consolation, ladies, (and reassurance that you’re NOT both examples of Spencer’s rustic Hobbinols), my own multiple responses, variants on tediously mouthing I thank you time after time, have included

    “ … It’s an honour for ME to serve YOU, madam, believe me … “

    Ladies, I must admit, sometimes I near-despair of Our Hero, AC. Next time he stops to purchase bottled water at some posh Primrose Hill shop, tell him it’s his own fault for getting thirsty. Good start, blame the customer

    Lesson One, he’s a Lucky Lad shopkeepers bother to thank him at all. AC’s little purchase doesn’t sound like it’s destined to turbocharge the “green shoots of Gordon Brown’s promised economic recovery bustling into the daylight”

    Besides, as the beneficiary of gratitude is unlikely to be actively listening anyhow, Lesson Two, would be you could get away with saying anything – even the neutral and meaningless, like “Englis-sh*t” or even “Bulls-sh*t it” – without getting rumbled

    In other words, welcome to our modern “make it up, as you go along” culture. For example, years ago when tv actress, Joanna Lumley – since elevated to Gurkha deity status – used to spout “Fabulous, absolutely fabulous” to everything anybody said. But did anybody mind? Hell no; we all copied her, silly

    Lesson Three, for those who believe in an “Attitude of Gratitude” – ie those who don’t wear white, printed t-shirts, announcing “Success Literature Sucks” or “Self-Improvement Loser” – try “Blessed Be, My Brother” and finger the sign of the crucifix in front of you. Onlookers will assume you’re doolally, Concorde-high on drink and drugs. Or recalling in part a 1960s hit song by The Hollies, called “He ain’t heavy, He’s my bruvver” – so, nae worries there either, as they say, laddie

    Oh, and “thank you” – from Trevor Malcolm, thank you



  • Fugitive Ink

    No claims to originality in this comment – I know others have tried this before – but could you please try to develop some way of allowing permalinks to your posts on this site? Lacking this, it’s very hard to make reference to your arguments here – which is a shame, as what you write about the Leaders [sic] Debate is not only very individual, but also, I think, entirely correct.

  • Jane A

    I wonder if the American roots of the televised debate might be a positive. I appreciate the US debates are highly choreographed, but if GB could use it to rebutt Dave’s cranky policies and promote Labour’s record, it may bring a lot more people around to voting and taking an interest in politics than hearing everything refracted through the lens of the papers and the commentators. I’m for it.

  • Mark Reckons

    The truth Alistair is that if Sky had not forced the issue it would have gone exactly the same way as in previous elections and not happened. The idea that Sky’s actions have made a debate less likely is not credible. It may still not happen but their actions have made it more likely that it will.