The way the upcoming UK general election is covered by the broadcast media currently appears to be a bigger issue than any actual policy debates. There is a considerable amount of foot-stomping from various party leaders who all (naturally enough) think it is an outrage that they have not been invited to participate in the TV debates being cooked up by the broadcasters.
The trouble is that they all have a point. Each of them can make a pretty strong case. So where do you draw the line?
David Cameron and Ed Miliband are the two people most likely to become prime minister. Nick Clegg is the current deputy prime minister and leader of the third largest party in the House of Commons.
Nigel Farage’s Ukip recently topped the poll in the European parliament election and currently fares much better than the Liberal Democrats in opinion polls. But Natalie Bennett’s Green party at least has an MP, which Ukip does not.
Meanwhile, the SNP is comfortably the most popular party in Scotland, and may well hold the balance of power in the event of a hung parliament. And if you invite the SNP it follows that you may as well invite Plaid Cymru.
And that’s before we consider parties in Northern Ireland, where the first minister Peter Robinson has also started throwing his weight around regarding the televised debates.
The British political scene is pretty vibrant at the moment. With the popularity of the three main parties all running low, smaller parties are making unprecedented gains.
The problem is that this just highlights why the leaders’ debate is completely the wrong format to represent British politics.
A simplistic format
It is tempting to suspect that the fixation on the head-to-head debate format is a sign of an inappropriate trivialisation of politics. Broadcasters want a punchy, populist format that will draw in big audiences.
Naturally they have adopted a headline-making format that works well in the US. Presidential debates in the US make headlines worldwide and set the tone of the campaign in the US. They are perfect for the presidential system, where voters genuinely do vote for the leader of their country. It also helps that the US has a genuinely two party system, which makes the head-to-head debate participants a formality to select.
As appealing is some might find it to replicate the debate format in the UK, it really is a square peg in a round hole. Leaders’ debates simply cannot reflect the true nature of our political system. The approach is just too simplistic.
The parliamentary system in the UK means that voters are only voting for their local MP. The prime minister is effectively chosen by the MPs that we vote for. But voters do not have a direct say in who becomes prime minister.
This fact is often forgotten in the media coverage which appears to be increasingly fixated on party leaders alone.
The UK is also far from a two party system. There are increasingly large disparities between regions and nations as well, meaning that any one debate will inevitably fail to reflect the full, complex tapestry of British politics.
Learning lessons from the indyref
The Scottish independence referendum was not without its coverage controversies. But there was a lot to admire in the way Scottish broadcasters covered the biggest political event in Scottish broadcasting history.
Head-to-head debates between Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond grabbed the headlines. But they were ill-tempered affairs. Generating more heat than light, they were a poor advert for politics.
But there was a plethora of other political programming, much of which reflected a fuller picture of the complex debate. Politicians from smaller parties, such as Patrick Harvie and Ruth Davidson, were not necessarily well represented by the official yes and no campaigns. But nevertheless they were able to state their case and raise their profile in the many TV and radio debates that took place in the months leading up to the referendum.
A range of formats were used. Some focused on younger voters. Others looked at specific topics. This approach came closer to doing full justice to the complex reality of the political debate.
Broadcasters should look beyond the leaders’ debates
If broadcasters fixate too much on leaders’ debates, they run the risk of distorting the entire general election campaign. Giving such prominence to the party leaders is inappropriate for the multi-party parliamentary system we have. It risks undermining the integrity of the whole election debate.
Instead, broadcasters should explore the issues with a variety of formats, and invite a wide variety of politicians to participate across those programmes. Why not have individual programmes discussing specific topics, which could include the views of multiple representatives of multiple parties? What about having nations and regions hosting their own debates that reflect the issues in their areas?
Much programming like this is likely already being planned by broadcasters. But by disproportionately focusing their energies on one centrepiece leaders’ debate, which we all know is going to produce more heat than light, risks detracting from the quality of the overall debate.