Imagine if Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative Party press offices got together and determined the running order and format of Newsnight, night after night. The show would lose its edge, its reputation and, rapidly, its audience.
This may sound like a paranoid nightmare of the future of broadcast political journalism. But it’s a rough-and-ready précis of what happened in the “prime ministerial” debates during the election campaign. The broadcasters, keen to secure the holy grail of a series of debates, ended up with a format where no audience interaction was permitted. Furthermore, the same format prevailed for three debates, wasting many of the talents of the respected and impartial moderators.
Alarmingly, it looks as if, even at this early stage, the parties seem happy to repeat the process next time round. At the launch of Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh’s magisterial 2010 Election Guide last night in Westminster, the Lib Dems’ chief election strategist, Danny Alexander, Labour’s election planner, Douglas Alexander, and Andrew Cooper, founder and director of Populus Polling and a former adviser to the Conservative Party, all agreed that the formats had worked pretty well, thank you very much.
Douglas Alexander suggested that Labour had benefited from giving Nick Clegg the chance to “cannibalise” David Cameron’s “change” appeal, but all were content with the format, citing high audience viewing figures as evidence that the arrangement wasn’t broke, so they weren’t minded to fix it.
The message, from these trusted party figures, was clear – come the next election, normal service, determined by a cartel of party negotiators whose cautious instincts often coincide, will be resumed.
Viewers and broadcasters should not be content with this. Even in April, the debates seemed, at times, like a slightly quaint British impersonation of an American innovation – with Clegg and Cameron competing to be the fresh-faced JFK to Brown’s jowly Nixon. In five years’ time, such staged encounters will look absurd, and they risk wasting the unique potential that live television has in providing an opportunity for scrutiny of those who aspire to positions of political power. Faced with a format which hasn’t moved on in five years – should this parliament run its allotted course – voters could decide to switch off.
If television is to retain its position as the pre-eminent medium for political interrogation, it needs to keep politicians on their toes, and, as in every other area, think of the viewers, rather than the participants.
Next time, broadcasters need to stick to their guns and be ready to insist on a more variegated set of debates. After all, debates, like the election itself, belong to the voters. They don’t belong to the politicians.
Instead of following America, which beat us to the televised debate punch by a mere half-century, British broadcasters could innovate. Imagine Clegg, Cameron and Ed Miliband sitting down in a room, After Dark-style, with, say, David Aaronovitch, Steve Richards or Laura Kuenssberg to keep things moving. No time limits or gimmicks, just the normal rules that govern normal human conversation. Or whatever. Let the best brains in broadcasting and politics aim for a set of different formats that deliver something different for the voting viewer.
I can already feel cautious media advisers in Westminster baulking at exposing their leaders to such a range of formats. They should relax. The truth is that all of the current party leaders are natural communicators, at ease with more naturalistic formats. Stripped of the need to stare down the barrel of a camera to fake an emotional connection, or to cram in anecdotes within their allotted time limit, they would be free to behave and come across like the normal human beings they are – which is surely the aim of every modern politician.
David Mills is a former Labour special adviser and TV producer.