The first clash between Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg revealed nothing new. Yet its timing underlined just how out of touch all our leaders remainby Alastair Harper / April 16, 2010 / Leave a comment
The first historic hurdle is crossed. Britain’s domestic situation has been analysed and argued over by the three leaders like they were hosting an ITV makeover special, where they all agreed that this shabby old country was a debt-bloated sap in need of change, progress, and a fresh start. Each leader offered their variation on a starvation diet of efficiency savings.
But this was no casual bit of broadcasting. These debates are “historic”—or so we’ve been told, over and over. Sky will even be broadcasting the second debate in historic HD. Though actually, it seems the debates are only historic in the sense of being outdated. After all, for the last 20 years, every week parliament was in session, we’ve had the equivalent of a televised leaders’ debate in the form of Prime Minister’s Questions. Are we meant to see this new debate format as a revolution in British democracy just because for the first time the opponents stand in a line, rather than on opposite benches? Or because it’s what the Americans do?
It’s been 50 years since Nixon’s sweaty and uncomfortable performance opposite the smooth-faced Kennedy made personal image matter for politicians. And perhaps the most interesting thing about our own televised debates, now, is that they target the same audience who first watched Kennedy’s triumph. As MORI founder Robert Worcester told the BBC on the morning of the debate, three out of four pensioners don’t use the internet, while they make up 40 per cent of voters. Like universal free education and the state pension, the television debates are something which will benefit only the baby boomers. Perhaps that was why the set looked like it was from the Krypton Factor.
Yet as our politicians performed their great historical act, the future carried on regardless. Despite the 76 rules compiled to save the leaders any embarrassment, the debates did not occur in the one-way tradition of broadcasting that held when Kennedy faced Nixon. Before a point had been finished, it was already being analysed by voters writing up live blogs, or tweeting. An hour in, tweets featuring the hashtag “leadersdebate” were coming in at an average of 22.55 a second. Cameron’s obsession with meeting minorities was being mocked. Brown’s need to butt in was sneered at. Long before the column writers could file their thoughts as to who had won, the digital electorate had analysed and decided…