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.

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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.

Douglas Beattie is a journalist, TSSA union officer, author of The Rivals Game, Happy Birthday Dear Celtic, and The Pocket Book of Celtic, and a Labour Councillor based in London. He worked at BBC News for 12 years.