With David Cameron reportedly ‘ducking’ the leaders’ debates, to be broadcast on various British TV channels in the lead up to the General Election, political buffs up and down the country may be denied yet another election debate.

While Scotland enjoyed watching Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond lock horns ahead of the independence referendum, audiences across the UK were not given the opportunity to tune into mainstream channels to watch a TV debate ahead of the European elections last year. This debate was shown on BBC Parliament, with a reach of about one per cent of audience share[1].

The five candidates in Brussels were looking to secure the EU’s top-job, President of the European Commission, having been elected internally from European parties. The debate sought to draw lines between candidates’ visions of EU policy direction and at the same time politicise the role of the Commission by establishing a link between citizens and the Commission President.

Instead of a ‘Brussels bubble’ debate, viewers in the UK were treated to a clash between the Lib Dem’s Nick Clegg and UKIP’s Nigel Farage. Discussions focused on a premature EU in-out debate. Not directly linked to the European elections, and importantly to the outcome of the elections, the PM and the leader of the opposition chose not to take part.

And rightly so. A television debate ahead of any election should focus on and reflect a potential direct outcome of the election. Throughout the independence debate, Salmond was vying for independence while Darling was aiming to dissuade voters from separation. No spoilers here, we all know the result. While it may not be ‘case closed’ on the issue, the debate reflected the vote.

In the 2010 leaders’ debate, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg pleaded for votes on three separate occasions. The prospective chancellors also had the opportunity to set out their stalls. We all know the outcome, a result reflecting the nature of the debates.

Last year, while many other European countries and their respective main broadcasters aired debates focusing on the policy direction of the main European political parties, we sat down to watch a heated debate on whether the UK should remain part of the EU. Interesting, but a bit off-topic. Bear with me here.

Voting UKIP or voting Lib Dem in the European elections will never secure a result on the UK’s membership of the EU, either way. It won’t even take us a concrete step closer. Not wanting to delve into a critique of UKIP’s policy strategy, the main idea is that we were watching the wrong debate, a debate not reflecting the reality of the European elections and their potential results.

As if we aren’t passive enough about ‘Europe’ and when most people risk slipping into a coma when European elections are brought up, it’s a dangerous game to plant a seed in people’s mind which connects this particular debate to this particular election. This debate was for another day.

The question remains then, why didn’t the BBC show the other debate at primetime, instead of airing its own? Was the recipe not right? Would it have left a bad taste in viewers’ mouths? The risk was that people would switch off. Why?

For a start, the debate was between five candidates from four different countries, none of whom were widely recognised by viewers. In a line-up, only a Europhile would be able to name a single one of them. Candidates also spoke in English, French, German and Greek, with interpretation available. A turn-off for audiences, above all in the UK where dubbing is, well, foreign to us.

The format in Brussels was also quite restricting, with five candidates allowed a minute at a time to ensure parity. This disrupted the debate and limited the depth to which viewers could get a grasp of the candidates. Parity is important but needs to be applied with a degree of flexibility on the part of the moderator.

An important point of view, held by David Cameron as head of the UK government, is that it is by the EU leaders, not by European political groups, that the commission president is appointed. This meant that candidates presented were by no means guaranteed to get the top-job. Even after the elections, the pool of candidates could extend to…anyone. So long as most EU leaders agree following closed-door bargaining.

Finally, the complex processes being discussed would have required extra airtime to explain what is debated, what is being talked about and what job the candidates want to do. Also, what’s this thing the ‘commission’?

So, were the Europe-wide debates a lot of hot air for nothing? There was a great deal to be learned for viewers in the UK, Europhile (see endangered species list) and Eurosceptic alike. If anything, it would have been good to see a debate on Europe without Nigel Farage.

Changes are important for future formats, but the televised debate would have been a good start: a solid and more realistic introduction to European policies, with not as much focus on the personalities of politicians. Indeed, the candidate arguably with the least personality during the debates won in the end. This is a lesson to be learned if we repeat our 2010 experiences.

Do TV debates, which have seen their débuts in the UK and at EU level over the last few years, have the potential to engage more voters? In 2010, turnout increased in the UK General Election by four per cent[2]. In 2014, the European election turnout saw no noticeable change either way Europe-wide[3]. The figures in fact don’t tell us much.

Any attempt to increase voter turnout and engage voters by tapping into media outlets such as television and social media is to be welcomed. TV debates are here to stay, so let’s use them appropriately by making sure they reflect the election at hand and the potential result.

 

Sources:

[1] BBC press office http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2010/11_november/25/audience.shtml

[2] http://www.ukpolitical.info/Turnout45.htm

[3] http://www.ukpolitical.info/european-parliament-election-turnout.htm