So, the broadcasters have put their heads together and come up with the format for the leader’s debates for the next elections – and they are rubbish.
The gold standard, blue chip, don’t rock the boat format is the BBC one – hosted by David Dimbleby, with all three established party leaders there. It could only be more traditional if it was hosted in the Great British Bake-Off tent.
There will then be a slightly trashier one shared by Sky and Channel 4, with hosting duties shared by Kay Burley and Jeremy Paxman – like an episode of Wife Swap from a nightmare. This will feature only Ed Miliband and David Cameron on the stage – on the basis that they are “only two men who could be PM”. While it raises the honest question of “Really, are these two arseholes the best we can do?” it’s not the worst TV debate format.
That prize is taken by the ITV effort. They want the three main party leaders on stage, plus seaside Punch and Judy demagogue Nigel Farage. Now, much as I despair about the rise of Ukip, there’s probably an argument to say they should be included in some sort of debate programme. Of course, once you let in Ukip, where do you draw the line?
Who else should be let in is a vexed question. The trouble is that the arguments that get Ukip’s name on the guest list apply equally to loads of other parties. The assorted nationalist parties – especially the SNP – have far more MPs and have won elections to boot. However, the people who are most shafted by the elevation of Ukip are the Greens. It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that the Green Party has just as many real MPs as Ukip; they also have three MEPs and dozens of councillors. They are also (unlike the nationalists) a genuinely UK wide party, running hundreds of candidates nationwide; it’s worth noting the “Greens for Yes” were a sizeable part of the Yes campaign in Scotland.
It’s true the Greens aren’t riding as high in the polls as Ukip; however, they are frequently polling similar numbers to the beleaguered and despised Liberal Democrats. If polling numbers are what counts, why is Nick Clegg is allowed into a debate?
The simple, depressing truth about why the Greens have been frozen out of this process is their media operation isn’t very good. Say what you like about the intense buffoonery of Ukip, but the people running the show for them – notably their gravel-voiced, scar-faced PR guru Gawain Towler – really know their stuff.
Over the last five years, he has made sure the ’kippers on TV or radio turn up on time, deliver the goods (i.e. an entertaining performance) on air, and are unfailing polite, pleasant and responsive to the TV staff they deal with. Indeed, the left-leaning director of the Nigel Farage Paddy Power advert said to me only the other day that Farage surprised him by being “a total professional and an absolute gent”.
You’d be surprised how far that goes. Talking to people in TV about booking the Greens, they are much less complimentary. “Difficult”, “rude” and “unreliable” were common words used to describe some of the key people in the Green media operation. The current leader, Natalie Bennett, is excoriated as that most fatal of TV words: “dull”.
To an extent, this disparity is where the “the media created Ukip” myth comes from, complete with angry graphs of Question Time appearances. Ukip absolutely prioritise being on telly or on the papers over everything else; perhaps laudably in a sane world, the Greens do not.
I’m sure the Greens don’t agree with the way the media works – but campaigners and politicians need to either accept that it works like that and manipulate it to their advantage or decide they don’t like it and try to change it. They can’t just do what they want and then ask why the media isn’t doing what they think it should be doing. If they are getting left out of political television, they need to ask themselves why.
That’s a side issue though – the point here is that the TV producers making these debates should not be chasing ratings, looking for the best guests – this is TV channels doing a huge public service, not the latter rounds of political X Factor. It wouldn’t be hard to have the Greens on stage – if you look at US debate formats, especially in presidential primaries, they manage to have plenty of candidates on stage.
Once you put a party or an individual on that national debate podium though, it legitimises them in a huge way; and conversely, it delegitimises everyone else who has not made the TV cut. The Greens are a legitimate political party, with real MPs and thousands of voters. To punch down at them while raising Ukip above them would be a horrendous injustice and an affront to democracy. This isn’t just TV, guys.
Update 14 October, 1pm:
A petition calling for the inclusion of the Green Party in the 2015 TV election debates has attracted over 30,000 signatures overnight.