TV debate between party leaders: it’s only taken 46 years

The first proposals for a TV debate between British political party leaders were made for the 1964 general election. For all the talk of the power of the media, it will have taken 46 years for them to get their wish.

It’s a credit to Sky that after so many years they finally were the broadcaster willing to call the bluff of party leaders and be willing to empty chair any who didn’t turn up – hence forcing the current agreement. The media certainly do have wider responsibilities than their own immediate self-interest, but it’s quite remarkable that for 46 years they’ve left party leaders dictate to them on what format they want.

One of the planned debate chairs – David Dimbleby – has in fact been fronting TV news programmes since 1962. After numerous elections when he would have been a strong contender for chairing a debate, he will finally get to do so. Alastair Stewart hasn’t been around quite that long, but even he started TV broadcasting in the 1970s. Whilst the TV debates will be new for 2010, this isn’t a new cast of chairs. (The third, Adam Boulton, is a sprightly youngster by comparison, having started news programming only in the 1980s and being just three when Dimbleby started.)

One very welcome throwback to the old days of TV is the planned length of the debates. At 85-90 minutes, there are very few programmes that last that long now, live sports and feature films aside. None of the speeding up and cutting down of the length of political news here.

The details of the formats are still to be decided and, hopefully, the very traditional safe choice of debate chairs does not mean that there will not be some imagination applied to the formats. One of the patterns from TV debates both in the UK and elsewhere is that it is often questions from the public which most put politicians on the spot.

Finally a plea: no, TV debates don’t only happen in the US. They also happen, for example, in Australian and Canadian (federal) elections. With both those countries having a Prime Ministerial system (and one with a first past the post election system for the lower house), they are far better places to look than the US.

Why pick on the US to talk about when it is so much less like the UK than other countries which also have TV debates between party leaders? (Yes, Guardian, I mean you, but kudos to the Daily Telegraph for breaking the usual US-addiction.)

A footnote to mull over Christmas: each party will most likely put its leader through some practice debates, with other people acting the role of the other leaders. So who in the Liberal Democrats is most suited to take the role of Gordon Brown or David Cameron…?

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