As I mentioned in last Sunday’s paper, I think there’s a real danger that the much-hyped TV election debates could be a disastrously damp squib. The “debates” will consist of each leader in turn speaking without interruption for a total of six minutes on each question (one minute each for answers, then another minute each for rebuttals) before they get to the four-minute section where they are actually allowed to, well, debate with each other.
There will be no follow-ups from moderator or audience and no audience reaction is permitted. Each of the questions will have to be applicable to all three leaders – no questions targeted at a particular leader will be allowed. So, at least in theory, there will be no chance to ask Gordon Brown why he kept people like Damian McBride around, or question David Cameron on his links with European far-right parties, or ask Nick Clegg who he would side with in a hung parliament.
The debates are already being used by both Brown and Cameron as an excuse to get out of potentially much more revealing, uncontrolled confrontations with Newsnight’s Jeremy Paxman. For all the talk of “historic breakthroughs for public engagement,” these events really could be a step backwards for democracy.
If the rules are strictly applied, and if the format does turn out as stultifying and dreadful as I fear, the interesting question will be whether the TV news people will call attention to that fact. They’ve all invested huge amounts of time building up the “historic” nature of the debates – the BBC, it’s reported, is going to present its entire main news bulletins around its debate for two days. Sky News played a major part in campaigning for the debates in the first place. The broadcasters may be reluctant to acknowledge that they have given birth to a stillborn child.