Published on January 23, 2015

The televised election debates need a more imaginative approach

By Amy Pollard

Dr Amy Pollard is Deputy Director at Involve. She has over 10 years experience working on accountability, policy and power, and a passion for using effective public engagement to drive positive change.

Time to think outside the box?

Time to think outside the box?  Image credit: Randy Cox

Great news this morning that the deadlock around the televised electoral debates has started to creak open. Thus far, political parties of every colour have been setting out with an approach that may risk them losing the debates before they have started.  At the heart issue is a collective action problem here:  Whilst the format and line-up of the debates matters hugely for individual political parties in terms of any advantage (or disadvantage) they are at in terms of the others; every single political party will be tarnished if they aren’t able to collectively find a way of presenting the key electorial issues in front of the country.  Even the Greens, who until now (ironically) benefited from their exclusion from the debates, need the bigger democratic boat to stay afloat.

Events so far have done little to dispel the popular caricature of Westminster as a self-interested shambles where parties would rather fall into power through a collective shrug of the shoulders, than be the losers in a keenly fought campaign which genuinely captures the public imagination.  Whilst there’s plenty to say about which party has done better or worse on positioning themselves in relation to the debates, it’s hard to find any party to praise in terms of moving the situation forward as a collective action problem.

I can’t help wondering if there has been an imagination failure here.  There are a lot of different ways to organise a debate; and strong facilitators prove day-in-day-out that a meaningful and effective discussion doesn’t have to be structured in single, blue-print way between a maximum of two people.  And you know what?  It might be a thoroughly good thing if the televised sessions didn’t feel like the debating chamber of the Oxford Union; didn’t feel like the US presidential election debates; and didn’t feel like the multi-party debates in other countries either.

Perhaps it’s time to consider something different.  A little bit off-beat; a little bit British.  It seems that the broadcasters currently hold the cards in terms of setting the terms of what might happen.  The politicians are falling over themselves to say how up-for-it and unintimidated by the other parties they all are.  So, broadcasters, why not challenge them a bit?  Drawing on Britain’s fine televisual history, here are three quirky ideas to liven up the TV debates:

  1. Don’t forget the public!
    Do you remember Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush?  Twenty years ago, participation pioneer Chris Evans used the only participative technology available in every household in the land – the lightswitch – to play a Saturday night game where viewers flashed their living room lights on and off, and then a flashing house at chosen at random to play for prizes.  In the age of Gogglebox there are no end of technological possibilities for enabling the public to comment on the debate as it unfolds.  An element of the debating broadcasts should include views from ordinary people speaking from the territory they are most comfortable in:  their own homes.
  2. Take me out of Westminster
    It’s fair to say that ITV’s candy floss dating show, Take Me Out, has not contributed a huge amount to our political culture thus far.  But it might be fun to see an audience of the public watching the politicians debate with an individual light that they could turn off and on.  There could be cut-away interviews with members of the public when they turned their lights off?  There is a democratic path through the ‘too many speakers equals not enough time’ problem:  Perhaps the amount of time that each politician got to speak could be determined by how many of the public kept their lights on for them.
  3. Big Brother Broadcasters
    Most importantly, The BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky News should be live-streaming their editorial meetings and planning sessions where they discuss and make decisions on the TV debates.  We have been pioneering this kind of radical transparency through NHS Citizen, and it’s a very different (and challenging) way of working.  But when the stakes are high and the impartiality of those designing ‘process’ is under serious scrutiny, the best way to safe-guard that agencies are acting in the public interest is to keep their decision-making in public view.

I’d suggest that one path through the collective action problem of these televised debates might be to make them a bit more fun.  If you are taking the model of a dry ‘debating chamber’ type event then advantage can be weighed and measured by seconds of airtime; and you end up having a conversation about who’s podium is higher which makes everyone look rather pathetic.  If you take inspiration from our rich tapestry of broadcasting history you’ll find there are a lot of ways to steal the show.  As you make a debate more open and less predictable, the possibilities for any party to make it ‘their night’ are only limited by imagination.

There’s an opportunity for broadcasters to apply a bit more creativity to this problem, to give these television debates a unique British flavour, and to breathe fresh life into our political debates whilst they are at it.

 

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