Adam Boulton: TV debates matter - which is why we need to agree the rules

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·6-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

There is a lot riding on next Thursday’s Battle for Number 10 debate at 8pm on Sky News.

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss will have the chance to communicate with the selectorate who will choose between them once the contest has gone live.

By then, voting will be open for members of the Conservative party. The two would-be leaders also have a prime opportunity to tell the wider public - who have no say in the matter - what kinds of prime minister they intend to be.

Properly conducted political debates are vital to our democracy. All the research shows that the electorate sees them as important sources of information.

I'm proud of having been part of the Sky News team which brought about true leadership debates for the 2010 general election. But I admit the reputation of debates has taken another battering during this Tory leadership season with political manipulators and rival media outlets gleefully writing them off.

Conservative party embarrassed by 'pantomime' of past debates

Thursday is an opportunity to re-establish their unshowy usefulness and for television professionals to review what is going wrong and how debates can be improved in future.

The hunt for a new Conservative leader, and UK prime minister by default, kicked off with two scrappy five-person debates which did little credit to the participants or the TV stations, Channel 4 and ITV, which rushed to stage them.

The Conservative party was so embarrassed by the pantomime of blue-on-blue attacks that it quashed the next scheduled debate on Sky News.

Unlike the earlier beauty parades of the little-known this would have been a significant event. The public would have been able to judge which of three candidates should not get the chance to become prime minister.

Instead the two senior veterans of the Johnson government, Sunak and Truss, conspired to pull out, thus denying the oxygen of publicity to the insurgent Penny Mordaunt.

Mission accomplished, Sunak and Truss have already taken part in two head-to-head debates. The first on the BBC was an overproduced, tetchy charade in which pride of place was given to the BBC's economics and political editors rather than the candidates.

Read more:
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace endorses 'authentic' and 'honest' Liz Truss in race for Number 10
Grammar schools, Northern Rail and Love Island - key takeaways from first Tory leadership hustings in Leeds
Analysis: Liz Truss can bask in the glow of a double boost to her campaign after first hustings

The unhappy-looking duo of Chris Mason and Faisal Islam were invited to pontificate first on the programme, sitting in a box like Statler and Waldorf, the theatre critic muppets.

The second head-to-head was The Sun newspaper's Showdown, on Talk TV, a fledgling broadcast branch of News UK. Politely and calmly moderated by my colleague and friend Kate McCann, it was shaping up to be the most constructive and informative debate so far.

Unfortunately, as she subsequently joked herself, Kate was the participant on the receiving end of a knockout blow, when she fainted, much to the evident concern of Liz Truss who was on camera at the time.

The Showdown was called off mid-flow, perhaps to be rescheduled in August, although both Sunak and Truss stayed on privately to talk to the studio audience of Sun readers.

Parties make debates as unlikely to change opinion as possible

Even though they will result in choosing the next prime minister or leader of the opposition, leadership debates are not subject to rules from Ofcom, the Electoral Commission and parliament, unlike debates during a general election campaign.

They are essentially private events conducted by political parties, who do deals with individual broadcasters. Inevitably the TV channels compete to be first and splashiest and, true to the Lynton Crosby playbook, the parties work to minimize risk by making the debates as unlikely to change opinions as possible.

That is why, these days, the politicians like unfocused multi-headed beauty contests and shy away from concentrated three or two person debates, let alone extended one-on-one interviews with the main candidates.

Having "won" their debate, individual broadcasters want to brand their events. This means pushing forward their chosen presenters, placing them prominently on the set. They are encouraged to ask "tough" questions and frequently interrupt what should be a debate between candidates.

This could be avoided if there was an agreed common framework for the organisation of political debates on TV in this country. The broadcasters would also have more leverage collectively over the parties, rather than being played off against each other.

Presenter-dominated staging has become the preferred format

When mutual co-operation was achieved in 2010, Jim Lehrer and Dan Rather, two legendary US presidential debate moderators, gave me the same advice: "It's not about you."

The parties and the broadcasters here agreed 76 rules on how debates should be conducted. Many of them were about restricting the role of the moderators. We were mandated to remain at some distance from the debaters. We were not allowed to ask questions. The Lib Dems even complained when I asked a follow-up clarification but were unsuccessful because that was permitted.

Viewers hardly saw Alastair Stewart, moderator of the first ever debate, by ITV (we drew lots). He stayed in the audience away from Cameron, Brown and Clegg at podiums on stage. For the second debate, by Sky News, I sat - US network style - lower down facing the debaters with my back to the audience. At the third debate the BBC gave David Dimbleby parity; he stood at an identical podium alongside the three politicians.

Since then presenter-dominated staging has become the preferred format for TV debates on British TV. This year Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Julie Etchingham, and Sophie Raworth were all placed standing at podiums in the thick of it. Kate McCann stood at some distance away facing Sunak and Truss. She would have been joined by Harry Cole of The Sun, had he not tested COVID positive on debate day.

Smiling and fully recovered, Kate wondered "why standing?". It is a question worth asking. Moderators are locked into hours of rehearsals before the main show. Nobody here has yet tried the French Presidentielle model of simply sitting the candidates facing each other at a table in a studio, with the moderators fading out of shot in the middle.

The choreography of debates is technical but it matters because it sets the mood. The BBC Question Time format for example puts the politicians in a pit, outnumbered and at the mercy of the audience. Fair enough for an entertainment show but not appropriate for a debate where future prime ministers are challenging each other to explain themselves. Sky's policy is to ask the audience to behave respectfully towards the politicians at all times.

The one and only Kay Burley likes to roam. I expect she'll be on her feet on Thursday but she certainly won't be posing as a substitute would-be prime minister.

No comment on the candidates from me. Whoever wins, Sky's debate is set to be good for responsible journalism and democratic politics.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting