Debating the debates

The Prime Minister’s refusal to agree to the broadcasters’ ‘final’ offer on TV debates in the run up to May’s election has been a great political boost for his opponents. Few issues unite Nigel Farage, Nicola Sturgeon, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, but this has.

However, the Labour leader’s latest announcement on the subject, which ensured the issue rolled on in the news cycle over the weekend, has been unanimously panned. He’s proposedenshrining the debates in law, or at least that’s how it’s being reported; the detail remains unclear.

Writing in today’s Telegraph, Graeme Archer calls it ‘totalitarian’. Trying to force the broadcasters to make a particular type of show, or even trying to force politicians to turn up, does at first seem rather heavy-handed.

On the other hand, we already have strict regulations on party political broadcasts. The time allocated is so limited that they rarely have an impact at all, unlike in US elections, where candidates, parties and super PACs relentlessly bombard the airwaves.

Instead, we have the candidates competing for free exposure on the news programmes, which are bound to produce balanced coverage during the campaign. Last time, this was supplemented by the three TV debates, which alongside ‘bigotgate’ probably caught the public’s attention more than anything else in the final weeks of the 2010 election campaign.

It seems strange that Ofcom regulates the relatively unimportant party political broadcasts so rigorously, but there are no specific rules on TV debates, which instead just fall into the requirement for balance across broadcasters’ output. For example, official ‘Major Party’ status affects the number of party political broadcasts you can have, but has no official bearing on debate invitations. Broadcasters are free to decide on the format, invitees and timing, and are subject to legal challenges on this basis.

Thus, the question of what happens if a major party leader declines to attend is not resolved. Fair coverage could be interpreted as meaning that the debates cannot happen unless all leaders agree to attend, or at least that those declining should get some kind of compensatory airtime in another form.

However, the opposition parties, and the broadcasters could also argue that the invitation itself is sufficient. Impartiality cannot possibly mean that if one party refuses to accept air time, no other parties can receive it. What if Cameron decided not to appear on any broadcast media for the next two months, limiting himself to print media? Would the BBC, Sky et al be barred from interviewing any of the other party leaders? Taken to its logical conclusion, a single major party leader could obstruct not just ‘the Debates’, but debate itself.

Instead of legislation, two things need to happen to avoid this ‘will they, won’t they’ saga from happening again. First, criteria for inclusion need to be fixed. Whether it’s based on current polling, number of seats, previous vote shares in a variety of previous elections or a combination, criteria need to be objective and transparent, which they currently are not. Ofcom look at all these things before deciding on Major Party status, but no clear thresholds are set.

Second, these criteria for inclusion, as well as the format and timing, need to be made in the early stages of each Parliament. Three or four years ago, the Prime Minister would not have known whether it would have been in his interests to do a debate, so agreement on timing and format, as well as the criteria for inclusion, would have been much easier to reach. If smaller parties know well in advance what they need to achieve in order to get into the debates, last-minute complaining and wrangling won’t happen.

Regardless of whether Ofcom step in on the debates next time round, or the broadcasters are left to their own devices, clear, transparent and timely guidelines are the key to making sure these debates happen.