Leaders’ debates are themselves tricky poltiics

I’m not at all surprised that the SNP are threatening a legal challenge to the historic decision to have three-way leaders’ debates in the UK general election. In 1995, like most London-based BBC editors I was taken aback when, after an injunction the BBC pulled a Panorama interview with the PM John Major a few days before Scottish local elections. The contexts seemed so different that we didn’t suspect a clash but the ruling went against us. Nick Robinson, then the programme deputy editor, relives the moment. The ground will be better prepared this time. Being able to stick my neck out further than Nick, I expect the SNP to back off or lose, after getting their whack of publicity. Scotland now has a full political establishment. Separate debates will follow in the three devolved capitals. Perfect symmetry is impossible. Leaders’ debates in a non-presidential, parliamentary system unlike the US or France is a minefield. But surely the only valid criteria for taking part in the main shows are (a) whether a party is fielding enough candidates to form a government – and crucially – (b) recent history shows it has at least a remote chance of doing so. This latter point is loathed by the minor parties but it is a guard against reverse discrimination of the major parties and prevents broadcasting bedlam. I’ll hold off a final verdict on the prospects of leader’s debates themselves until I hear the format. Tim Luckhurst a former BBC Today programme duty editor and briefly editor of the Scotsman thinks a straight confrontation between Brown and Cameron – i.e no Clegg – would be much better , a contest between the two potential Prime Ministers. He’s right of course. But the problem is, how to devise another forum that doesn’t seriously disadvantage the Lib Dems in what is still a parliamentary democracy where we don’t directly elect the PM. Will they be “ debates” worthy of the name or resemble the American nodding donkeys, where the greatest highlight was nearly 30 years ago, when Reagan punctured the over-earnest Carter with a sorrowful nod, a little laugh and: “ there you go again”. The big thing to look for is whether the leaders will be able to interrupt and put points to each other directly. Better also to leave the public out of it at least for putting questions. Unlike Question Time the questioners would have to be rigidly balanced, pre-selected and robbed of all spontaneity.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London