I expected little of the debates. I thought they’d slot into the campaign like all the other more-or-less artificial election media gewgaws and gimmicks: like party leaders going on kids TV or trying to skateboard or shear a sheep or whatever. I expected a slightly embarrassing, highly stage-managed performance. Something a bit cheesy and certainly not a source of information.
So, like everyone, I was surprised when the debates turned out to be:
A source of comparative information about the candidates and their positions. Honestly, we’re so accustomed to the idea that you can’t derive useful information from a politician’s raw discourse – that it’s all spin and that you have to pass it all through some kind of media-provided filter to get to the truth – that we all assumed the debates would be like that, only more so. And they weren’t. Something about the format, something about putting the three of them up against each other, something about hearing their statements together, seems to provide more genuine understanding. As a viewer, at the end of the first debate, I felt I’d been able to hold up and compare both the substance and the presentation of the three leaders’ positions in a way I’d never done before. Blimey.
A genuine alternative to a monstering from Paxman. The debates, in fact, seem to make the grillings dished out by Humphrys, Paxman, Boulton et al seem clumsy, unproductive, old-fashioned – just as Robin Day and his 1960s school of combative interrogation made the old, “anything to add, Minister?” deference seem old-fashioned in its day. If the three-way debate with its strict rules actually catches on, I think the broadcast bruisers are going to have to update their technique: being more systematic, less arbitrary, less keen on the sound of their own voices. This might yield an improvement in the heat:light ratio, if nothing else.
Real democratic events. Appointments with the democratic process, made voluntarily by unfeasibly large numbers of willing electors. In the three debates British electoral politics got its Dr Who moment – millions gathered round the TV, popcorn and beer at the ready. And if these media milestones are going to become regular occurances (a bit like Harry Hill’s fights). And if the whole electoral process is going to pivot on these shiny floor democratic events and the frenzy of concurrent chatter on the soc nets, then the shabby, stage-managed electoral communications of old (the pressers, the back-of-the-bus briefings, the clunky daily ‘narratives’) will have to be modernised sharply.
Genuinely Influential. Can you think of an election media event from your lifetime that has moved the polls and changed perceptions so sharply? Jennifer’s ear? The Sheffield Rally? Chicken feed: irrelevant by comparison (although I guess I ought to wait for the result…). The liberals are in the race in a way that no one could possibly have predicted. All bets are off.
Panic inducing for the media. Even from the outside, the last-days-of-Saigon hysteria in the newsrooms and boardrooms of some of Britain’s national papers after that first debate was obvious. For the election to run out of control, to jump the rails in the way it did would have been hard to bear in a good year but with the print media’s relevance already tumbling faster than ever it must have been a cruel few days for editors. The lucky few journalists who could boast a handful of top liberals in their speed-dials jumped in prestige over night and decades of deliberately ignoring the party began to look less wise for the others.
I don’t want to overstate this. An election result and a week or two of elapsed time will put the debates in their proper context. They might turn out to have been a gimmick after all. I honestly can’t wait to find out.