TV Debates have become an important part of our elections, let’s do them right

Author:
Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 4th June 2024

The first election debate between Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer will be on our TV screens tonight, at 9pm on ITV. We’ve already seen a debate between party leaders in Scotland (none of whom are actually standing in the general election) and more debates are coming up on the BBC and ITV.

Televised election debates are a ubiquitous part of election campaigns now, so it’s odd to think that the first televised debate was in just 2010. But as much as they have become a part of the normal political landscape, their existence at every election is a result of behind-the-scenes wrangling between party leaders and broadcasters.

When are the TV debates and how to watch them?

  • Monday 3 June, 9pm, STV  – Leaders of five Scottish political parties
  • Tuesday 4 June, 9-10pm, ITV – Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer
  • Friday 7 June, 7.30pm-9pm, BBC One – Leading figures from seven political parties.
  • Thursday 13 June, 8.30pm, ITV – Leading figures from seven political parties.
  • Thursday 20 June, 8pm-10pm, BBC One  – Leaders of the four biggest political parties.
  • Wednesday 26 June, 9pm-10pm, BBC One  – Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer.

Do TV debates make a difference?

In 2017 we published Debating the TV Debates, a study on the impact of the BBC’s Question Time Leaders’ special. The study, by the respected academics Professor Jay G Blumler, Professor Stephen Coleman and Dr Christopher Birchnall, found that a third of viewers thought that watching had helped them decide what party to vote for in the General Election  – with young people particularly engaged.

TV debates create opportunities for headlines and for winners and losers to emerge, such as 2010’s Cleggmania, 2015’s debates around UKIP’s inclusion, accusations that Theresa May was dodging debates in 2017 and the legal challenges of 2019 for who should be involved.

Yet, there is a vital democratic aspect to TV debates too. For democracy to properly function it needs strong lines of communication between representative and represented. The age of mass media provides many such tools. Still, the TV debate is a direct opportunity for voters to compare and judge political leaders directly and for those same leaders to make a pitch directly to the public. Vitally, debates are a shared event for supporters of all parties, which is becoming a rarity in the age of hyper-targeted campaigns.

Much of what we see and read about politics today is micro-targeted and atomised. But TV leaders’ debates offer a rare shared event for supporters of all parties – one reason why the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) has long been broadly in favour of the broadcasts.

How could TV debates be improved?

If there is one thing that we can predict about TV debates, is the debates behind the scenes about who should get to take part. Each major party can threaten to drop out and dare the broadcaster to empty chair them – in the knowledge that those broadcasters need to be impartial. Should organising debates be taken out of politicians’ hands entirely?

In Canada, an independent Leaders’ Debates Commission was set up in 2018 to organise the debates for the 2019 federal election.

The Commission clearly set out and enforced the criteria for inclusion in TV debates and sought submissions from broadcasters who wished to organise TV debates. They also hosted roundtables with experts and practitioners to decide on their format, structure and style. We could go a step further and get feedback from the public on what formats they want to see.

Who knows what will happen tonight and in the upcoming election debates. But we shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel for every election. TV debates are a major part of our elections, let’s treat them that way.

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