Not long after MPs voted to hold a snap election, ITV announced that it would hold a TV debate between the two main party leaders on 19th November. Other broadcasters soon followed, with the BBC proposing a series of debates in the lead-up to polling day, including a head-to-head debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn and a seven-way podium debate between senior figures of the main political parties.
Uproar soon ensued over who should be allowed to take part in the TV debates, with the smaller parties criticising their lack of representation on our screens. They—rightly—argued that televised leaders’ debates should fairly reflect the choices facing the electorate, rather than attempt to retrofit the diversity of political discourse into an outdated binary format which is no longer representative of our fragmented party system and fading electoral loyalties.
Endless debates over TV debates have in themselves become a recurring feature of election campaigns, with rows over format, participating parties, style and content. Indeed, ever since TV leaders’ debates were first mooted in the run-up to the 1964 election, disagreements have developed over whether debates should be held at all and, if so, what they should look like. It was only in 2010 that any agreement was reached and the UK’s first ever televised election leaders’ debates took place.
Around 10m people tuned into the first debate on 15th April 2010, with roughly 22.5m watching the three debates that election year. The election edition of BBC Question Time in 2017 had an audience of around four million and research by the Electoral Reform Society found that over a third of viewers said the debate influenced their vote, and 56 per cent said that the debates were important in helping them make their decision.
Since 2010 there has been a growing recognition of the importance of televised leaders’ debates and the need for them to become a permanent feature of the election process. Some parties have even suggested placing TV debates on a statutory footing or having an independent body oversee the process.
But so far there has been very little done to make this happen. Earlier this year an e-petition was set up by Sky News, and backed by the ERS, which called for the establishment of an independent Debates Commission. Despite cross-party support, the government rejected the proposal.
There are various reasons for this lack of progress. First is the simple fact that there is currently no requirement or provision for televised election debates between party leaders in our electoral law—they are seen as a matter reserved to broadcasters and political parties. This lack of formalisation has meant that organising TV debates has been largely ad hoc and relied on opaque backroom deals between politicians and broadcasters—with rules around inclusion, format, and participation chosen to suit the specific context of that general election.
Second, opponents of TV leaders’ debates—or at least of their formalisation—argue that the UK, as a parliamentary democracy, is ill-suited to US presidential-style debates, given the multi-party system and the fact voters elect MPs not prime ministers.
Third, political self-interest has also stalled progress. Incumbents may wish to avoid the scrutiny of their record that a televised leaders’ debate would provide, and candidates with a commanding poll lead might want to avoid rocking the boat. Finally, TV debates have also been criticised for being a distraction and sucking the energy from the serious issues of election campaigns.
But in an age dominated by information overload and concerns around micro-targeting and “dark ads” on social media, TV debates offer a rare shared event where voters can hear directly from politicians and learn more about their policies and visions for the country. Unlike online ads and potentially misleading news, debates are a more trusted source of information which can help citizens make an informed decision—a key requirement for a healthy democracy.
For these debates to be truly informative and effective, it cannot be left to parties or broadcasters to decide what to do during each election campaign. A more formal and transparent approach is necessary.
The ERS is therefore calling on the new Speaker of the House of Commons to set up a Debates Commission to enshrine televised leaders’ debates—multi-party and head-to-head—as part of the UK’s electoral framework.
Many countries already have some form of Debates Commission. In the US, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) has sponsored all presidential debates since 1988. In Canada—a parliamentary, Westminster-style democracy—an independent commission was established in 2018 tasked with organising TV debates for the 2019 Canadian federal election and producing recommendations to parliament for future election debates.
Of course, any UK Debates Commission will have to take into account context-specific considerations and address issues such the role of parties and broadcasters, arrangements for national as well as UK-wide debates, what criteria will allow parties to qualify for inclusion, and how the commission will be funded. Prior to being fully operational, the commission could build on the Canadian example and hold roundtables with experts and practitioners—including broadcasters, academics and journalists—as well as ordinary citizens to decide on the format, structure and style of debates.
Regardless of the precise end result, it is time to stop debating TV debates and instead guarantee voters the right to vibrant, informative debates as part of the electoral process.
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