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Charlie Beckett

November 29th, 2019

The Election TV Debates: lessons from 2017 and 2015

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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Charlie Beckett

November 29th, 2019

The Election TV Debates: lessons from 2017 and 2015

0 comments

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

With all the controversy around the TV elections debate during this 2019 UK election it is worth looking back at how it has – or hasn’t – worked in the past. The UK does not have a formal system to oversee TV debates. Broadcasters are governed by Ofcom codes but as long as they are ‘impartial’ overall, it is up to them to negotiate with each other and the political parties on how any debate might happen. There is no obligation on any politician to appear, let alone to accept a particular date or format. So in practice, it is all down to practical politics and as we have seen this year, ad hoc, often last-minute bargaining.

This is a version of extracts from a chapter written by Professor Charlie Beckett with Professor Stephen Cushion of Cardiff University for Kavanagh and Cowley’s The British General Election of 2017, on broadcasting in the that campaign. This section focuses on the formal election TV debates. There is much more detail in the book.

You can also read the relevant section of the chapter on the TV debates for the 2015 General Election here.

The role of Election TV debates and leaders’ appearances on television

Unlike the 2010 and 2015 election campaigns, there was limited negotiations between broadcasters and political parties about televised leaders’ debates. As most of our interviews with senior broadcast executives and/or journalists explained, the Conservative Party was adamant that May would not appear one-on-one with Corbyn nor debate with other party leaders. According to ITV News editor, Geoff Hill, “In our negotiations with the Tories about the debates they made it clear that they would not come. This time around ‘we’re not doing it and that’s the end of it’”.

The BBC’s head of newsgathering, who was also part of negotiating TV debates with party representatives, also pointed out May’s team was “very clear that they were not doing debates in any debate in any format, they would not appear in any studio with any rival – they would do QT [BBC’s Question Time programme] sequentially but not head to head”. “In the end”, as John Ryley, Head of Sky News, conceded, “there were election programmes but not proper debates between the leaders”.

During the 2017 election campaign, there were no television programmes where the main party leaders – May and Corbyn – engaged in direct debate with one another on the same platform. Calling a snap election meant there was less time for discussions between the broadcasters and the parties. What ‘negotiations’ there were, according to our interviewees, was perfunctory. So in the end there were, as in 2015, programmes where the two main leaders appeared and took questions from a journalist and/or members of the public.

Overall, the viewing figures for the election special programmes were significantly lower than the previous two campaigns. And they did not remotely dominate the wider media agenda as they had in 2010 when they were still a novelty and several party leaders took part. They did not generate any particular policy concerns nor did they create exchanges that meaningfully shifted the dynamics of the campaign in the way that they arguably had done in 2015. With two exceptions. In the later stages of the campaign the BBC Election Debate with all of the leaders, bar Theresa May, helped crystalise the idea that the Prime Minister was running from open questioning, while supporting the image of Corbyn as open and ‘honest’. The final BBC Question Time Special featuring the two leaders compounded that contrast.

 

The ITV Leader’s Debate

The first ITV Leaders’ Debate on May 19th hosted by Julie Etchingham featuring all the minor party leaders helped lower expectations about the significance of televised election debates. Both Corbyn and May declined invitations to appear. Unlike in 2015 the public were less interested in the characters of the leaders and opinion polls were suggesting that they would have less of an impact on the campaign. As press coverage pointed out, with an average viewing figure of 1.6 million, marginally fewer people tuned in than watched a

programme about vets on Channel 4 at the same time1. However, it was arguably of political significance in that the new UKIP leader Paul Nuttal, despite an exuberant performance, was put under attack by all the others. His repeated failure to get Plaid Cymru’s Leanne ‘Natalie’ Wood’s name right was perhaps the most noteworthy part of the low-key debate. Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron used the programme to push his party’s demand for another EU Referendum. All of them attacked the PM for failing to ‘show leadership’ by her non-appearance.

The Battle for Number 10

Sky and Channel 4’s joint May 29th programme with the two party leaders facing separate questioning from the audience moderated by Sky Political Editor Faisal Islam and then a 15 minute grilling from Jeremy Paxman generated more interest than ITV’s debate. Channel 4’s viewing figures of 2.9 million was supplemented by 400,000 on Sky and another 400,000 via live feeds on Facebook and YouTube. Corbyn came under sustained attack from the public and Paxman on issues such as security, Brexit and his leadership. Paxman also focused on the Labour leader’s past statements on terrorism, foreign policy, the monarchy and banks. Even commentators for the Conservative-supporting Daily Telegraph acknowledged that the audience seemed surprisingly ‘sympathetic’ to Corbyn who was a ‘natural communicator’ who remained calm under fire from Paxman.2 May, by contrast, according to the Telegraph, was ‘Prime Ministerial’ but also ‘dull, professional and on message.’ She came under fire from the audience questioners on Brexit but also domestic issues such as health, social care and her leadership style. Paxman majored on Brexit but touched on the increasingly sensitive issues of social care which she defended despite increasing criticisms. Both avoided any gaffes and got their core messages across. But in terms of the visual and personal impact that matters so much on television it gave the first indications that the public were less frightened by what they saw of Corbyn and less engaged by May as a character.

BBC Election Debate

By the time of the BBC Election Debate hosted by Mishal Husein on May 31st the perceived momentum of the campaign had shifted. The terrorist incidents had temporarily halted but not swamped the campaign. The polls had narrowed, and a consensus was building that Corbyn was exceeding the low expectations. Just 24 hours before broadcast Corbyn agreed to take part in the BBC Election debate. The opening part of the statement read “I have never been afraid of a debate in my life”, but it went on to reveal the real strategic motive for his change of heart:

The Tories have been conducting a stage-managed arms-length campaign and have treated the public with contempt. Refusing to join me in Cambridge tonight would be another sign of Theresa May’s weakness, not strength.

The other leaders were happy to adopt the same tactic and, during the debate, five times May was attacked directly for not taking part, accused of being ‘afraid.’ The Green’s Caroline Lucas memorably pointed out that ‘the first rule of leadership is showing up’ while Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood suggested May’s ‘campaign of soundbites was falling apart’. Home Secretary Amber Rudd defended Conservative policies competently but the absence of her leader left the lasting impression. The Liberal Democrat’s Tim Farron even suggested viewers should tune into the Great British Bake Off rather than bother listening to her closing statement. This sense of the Conservatives being embattled led to party complaints about ‘biased’ audience selection. The BBC had asked independent pollsters ComRes to vet the audience and had given ‘rough equivalence’ to Labour and Conservative supporters. But with supporters of the other parties also lining up against Amber Rudd, the atmosphere in the studio enforced the sense of Conservative isolation.

The audience of 3.5 million was not particularly big in itself but Corbyn’s decision to take part helped shift focus onto the gathering doubts about May’s campaign competence and generated wider media interest in the debate. The questions from Husein had covered the economy, climate change and foreign policy but it was the leadership exchanges that hit home. It appeared to enhance the sense that Corbyn was at least prepared to engage while his team’s tactical shift gave his campaign an aura of political credibility at last.

BBC Question Time Special

The final election debate programme, moderated by David Dimbleby, secured the highest viewing figure at just over four million and was the liveliest on-screen event. It brought both leaders into direct and often hostile contact with members of the public for 45 minutes each, with May in the preferred first slot. Again, Conservative supporters subsequently questioned the composition of the York audience, which, judging by noise levels seemed more enthusiastic about Corbyn and, at times, more hostile to May. However, the BBC insisted that statistically it was proportionate with two thirds allocated to supporters and one third ‘undecided’. The questions were also equally critical attacking each leader from the left and right. One BBC executive we interviewed suggested that the impression of an imbalanced audience response may have reflected the degree of overt enthusiasm their supporters were feeling:

Early questions to May focused on her own credibility and her change of heart on Europe and on calling an election she had previously ruled out. It moved on to wider issues around health, climate change and even foreign aid.

Questions to Corbyn also began by challenging his leadership ability, specifically on Brexit. He was also asked about his nuclear defence policy and public spending as well as tuition fees, business and zero hours contracts. He was heckled at one point over the IRA, but deflected the angry challenge with a calm generalisation that “all deaths are wrong, all killing is wrong”. Neither had a melt-down moment or blundered badly. Corbyn stuck to his non-committal stance on pressing the nuclear button while hinting at a softer Brexit stance. May was focused and assertive, saying that she had shown ‘balls’ to call the election and in a tough question from a nurse insisted there was no ‘magic money tree’ to relieve austerity. For once, the phrase ‘strong and stable’ did not cross her lips. With under a week left to campaign it did not appear to have changed much, but it might have been most significantly confirming that Corbyn was, at least, competitive.

This is a version of extracts from a chapter written by Professor Charlie Beckett with Professor Stephen Cushion of Cardiff University for Kavanagh and Cowley’s The British General Election of 2017, on broadcasting in the that campaign. This section focuses on the formal election TV debates. There is much more detail in the book.

You can also read the relevant section of the chapter on the TV debates for the 2015 General Election here.

 

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Charlie Beckett

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