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Broadcasters need the tension and drama of the leaders' TV debates too much to let them go

Those who believe a "chicken" Prime Minister won’t go in for the televised leaders' debates are living in cloud cuckoo land.

You would think live televised debates between the party leaders had been around since the time of the Great Reform Act such has been the furore of recent days.

Funny then that so many of us see them as part of the campaign furniture after making their debut just five years ago. Perhaps that is because they were such a runaway success back in 2010, with the (short-lived but memorable) outbreak of Cleggmania.

Nine and half million people watched that first debate as the Lib Dem leader looked down the camera lens and spoke solemnly about “an alternative . . . to two old parties who’ve been running things for years.”

This bravura performance from the rank outsider won an astonishing on-the-night victory with 43 per cent audience approval in the immediate aftermath. It also confirmed that the debates – first mooted by Harold Wilson back in 1964 – were a more than welcome addition to the long slog to polling day.

Crucially they are a direct conduit to power, a high stakes means of instantly connecting with millions of voters in an age of political disillusionment. David Cameron and the rest of the leaders know this perfectly well, as do the broadcasters themselves.

It’s often overlooked but despite living in a television age most TV journalists are often way behind the written press when it comes to actually breaking stories.

The single biggest worry for editors during my many years at the BBC was if the newspapers had arrived late – or worse still not at all – during those still dead hours of the night shift. That would always ensure managers were hopping mad.

With these debates it’s different, the broadcasters themselves are centre stage. Lights, camera, action equates to tension and drama. When the credits roll at the close the spin room whirls and thereafter the 24-hour news cycle is devoted to the fallout from these set-piece dustups. In short, it’s pure razzmatazz and feeds directly into the acute adoration of American media and politics which so many British TV executives possess.

Therefore the broadcasting fraternity are unlikely to easily give up their fight for a repeat screening and can be expected to dig their heels in over Cameron’s refusal to take part unless the Green Party are included.

That is why the “fully committed” line from at the BBC, Sky, ITV and Channel 4 is so telling. You see it dovetails ever so neatly with the “empty chair” scenario advanced by Labour, Ukip and others.

Don’t be fooled, this is not a kite-flying exercise by the opposition parties. At a very high level indeed they and the broadcasters are in cahoots and happy to flex their muscles.

There will be many more secret meetings, emails and phone calls between the stations in the days ahead and all concerned will be mighty slow to spike the notion of debating sans-Cameron as they know he would be terribly damaged if that were to transpire.

The Prime Minister, once so supportive of debates, is being ultra-canny. The incumbent has much to lose and one slip on live TV could be telling. Indeed the Conservatives are convinced that last time around these events cost them an overall majority.

Also just look at the series of clashes between Nicola Sturgeon, Alex Salmond and their Unionist opponents in the run up to Scotland’s independence referendum. Only once in half a dozen debates did the Better Together campaign come out on top – and this when Salmond started talking about aliens and pandas.

In effect the debates of 2010 were an aberration, but surely broke the mould. Gordon Brown, behind in the polls and with little to lose, chose to take the plunge.

This time Cameron may ultimately be forced to the podium by a cocktail of opponents, broadcasters and public opinion. Should he do so under such circumstances it would be a much weakened Tory leader who took the stage.

Douglas Beattie is a journalist, author of The Rivals Game, Happy Birthday Dear Celtic, and The Pocket Book of Celtic, and a Labour Councillor based in London. He is a former BBC staffer.

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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.