TV election debates: out-dated or out of control?

1 Jun, 2017

Presidential-style TV election debates were brought to our shores in the Cameron years (though he was soon came to regret this and refused to attend).  But in the digital era of ‘always on’ and ‘always now’, isn’t it a bit out-dated to be parking ourselves around the TV as the chairperson churns through a list of pre-prepared questions?

In theory, there’s a good reason to keep this slightly retro import, especially for those struggling to make a decision. For those undecided it’s a chance to make sense of what’s on offer, both in their heads and in their hearts. It’s a forum to run through policies, recapping on the small as well getting a better understanding the large. And it’s a rare opportunity to get a sense of the character and values of those taking part through the way they respond to questions and interact with each other in the moment.

I think they are useful to an extent, I see them partially as entertainment and to see the leaders in action. For the undecided vote, this might be the only chance or one of a few chances they get to see different views of the leaders before the election.  Shahzad H

But right now, the reality of the TV debates is falling short on the promise. And doing more harm than good.

Making a decision on who to vote for is stressful, and the debates as they stand are part of the problem.  Voters are met with scenes of chaos: barbs and insults traded instead of rationale and argument; media savvy honed instead audience empathy and understanding; and the deafening clatter of tribalism ringing above sense or clarity (and reverberating in in the newspapers the next day).

“I never watch programmes like that because it’s a waste of time, most of them just dodge the questions or shout across each other and I don’t like things like that. Also I hate them both, so I’m not wasting my time on them.”

“It’s the equivalent of being in the pub and watching 2 of your mates get into a heated debate and neither of them are progressing because they’re shouting over each other so you just decide to sit there quietly until it all blows over.”

“Last night’s debate was particularly chaotic, insults and accusations, questions being side stepped and people being interrupted in mid-sentence. It didn’t show anyone in a good light and I felt watching had been a waste of my time.” 

No one is coming across well here – least of all the political process. On our communities, we’re seeing undecided voters question whether they should bother at all. While decided voters indulge in the drama, undecided voters are growing frustrated and turning away. They switch on the debates feeling open and interested, and switch off midway feeling confused, overwhelmed and patronised.

“Honestly, there really doesn’t seem much point to these. They only occur during election season as a means of trying to soak up more voters by making the opposing parties look bad in whatever way they can. It’s like they assume the audience/country are idiots. We know what’s happening.”

To support undecided voters the debates need to dial down on theatre and dial up on respect.

This means fewer insults and less interrupting (from interviewers as much as politicians); an end to the questions being dodged and evaded; and a genuine focus on audience engagement. This is TV, and channels need to pull in viewers, but to these debates can’t neglect their role in our democratic process.

“I see them as hustings for the different political parties. They also confirm how I feel about certain politicians/leaders – Paul Nuttall(!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) & Amber Rudd!!! They also give me the opportunity to listen to leaders such as Caroline Lucas and Leanne Wood who don’t seem to receive as much air time as others. I enjoyed last night – it was more like a school ground squabble at times!”

“I would like to see something like ‘an audience with’ where the same questions are put to each leader separately at different sittings. This way I feel questions would be answered more accurately without any distractions from others and without a ‘blame and shame’ attitude. No one could hide behind anyone else’s wrong doings.”

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