Into my inbox last night popped an email from someone at Sky suggesting that whatever else I might be doing, I really ought to drop it, and tune in to watch political editor Adam Boulton at 10pm. No details were available as to why I should make this radical change to my life, beyond a hint that he had something interesting to say. In other words, a fairly easily ignored piece of media spin.
So I ignored it. Then this morning came another email from the same source with ‘more detail’ on what I assume had been the subject of the missed 10pm report, namely a Sky ‘campaign’ for a TV debate between the main party leaders.
I hope Lynne Truss, she of the aberrant apostrophe bestseller, is not on the same Sky mailing list as I am. The subject heading was ‘leaders debate’ (apostrophe after the s on leaders missing) and the message below was Sky News’ campaign (apostrophe correctly used) for a debate between the parties leaders (apostrophe required after parties). Sorry, but I am almost as obsessed as Lynne Truss.
Since, I have seen an article by the head of Sky News, John Ryley, setting out the rationale for the campaign, and a Sky report, attached to the article online, of Sky reporter Joey Jones walking round Westminster hand-delivering letters to Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg.
Now on balance, all things considered, I think a leaders’ debate or series of debates is probably a good idea, and would help enliven and illuminate the election campaign.
I say ‘on balance’, because it is not as simple as the broadcasters pretend. To them, it is obvious – politics has a bit of a problem with the public; so let the public see the leading politicians in a TV debate, and that problem might be addressed a little. What it fails to take into account is that part of the problem is the way that TV covers politics in the first place. The context and tone for Mr Ryley’s article is the ultra-negative view of politics, the one that tends to pervade most media outlets’ coverage. There is another, more balanced view. It just tends not to get ventilated.
And the weight of spin applied to the launch of this campaign rather highlights the concern that some have about seeing TV debates as an obvious benefit to a democracy. There is a difference between stories and debate. Sensation and argument do not go well together. Calling for the debate is a story. Joey Jones tramping the streets delivering the letters is a story. Cameron and Clegg saying they would welcome the debate is a story. Gordon saying yes would be an even bigger story. And if the debate actually happened, there would be stories galore to report – before, during and after.
As for Ryley’s claim that political leaders do not open themselves up to scrutiny on TV … let’s not get silly. They’re never off the TV. Can Mr Ryley name another elected leader who in addition to Prime Minister’s Questions puts himself up for regular press conferences as well as Parliamentary select committees? I remember once BBC political editor Nick Robinson saying that when we first brought in the press conferences, they were a good innovation. But Tony Blair got ‘so good at them, they became boring.’ Interesting perspective that. The sensation has gone. They want something new to play with.
If we had a sensible political media in this country, that was not prone to sensationalism, trivialisation and an obsession with process, there would be no argument at all. TV debates would be a no-brainer. But I think even the most ardent supporter of our political media would be hard-pressed to say TV was not more sensationalist, trivial and obsessed with process than it used to be.
Mr Ryley says the debate will be going ahead anyway, and if any of the leaders are not there, they will be represented by an empty chair. Oh yeah, not yaboo politics at all that, is it? He also says Sky will make the debate available to all other broadcasters. I can hear them expressing their gratitude now. Not. If there is one group of people who find it even harder to agree than opposing politicians, it is rival broadcasters.
The report in The Times says that plans for a debate between Tony Blair and John Major fell apart because the parties could not agree on the identity of the host. Not so. They fell apart because the discussions between the broadcasters and between the parties were taking up far too much time and energy, and getting in the way of the rest of the campaign.
I said then, and have said since, that these debates will only happen if the leaders want them, and if the nature and format can be organised, and any legalities addressed, long before the campaign has begun. To that extent, Mr Ryley is right to try to get this sorted now, and I wish him luck. But I wonder if the manner in which he has gone about it might have made it less not more likely to happen. He created himself a story. But will he get the debate?