No easy choices in the politics of election broadcasting

I admit I’m looking forward with uncomplicated pleasure to the “historic” UK leaders’ debates which will shape and dominate the election campaign. Here, the BBC’s Ric Bailey only reveals the tip of an iceberg of tortuous negotiations. All three debates will be shown on all three bidding channels. I only hope the live audiences used to Question Time defy the politicians’ gagging rules and rough them up a bit. Super-controlled US presidential debates would send you to sleep and are more about avoiding banana skins than scoring points. The promised local debates are something to look forward too. Will they take place in an atmosphere of calm or crisis? Unfortunately they’re hardly likely to contribute much to working together but at least we can assume sitting together won’t be the problem. Jim Allister vs Paisley Junior(?) will be a huge constituency story – but how will the TUV leader figure in debates? At the top table or in a round-up of minor parties with Alliance and the Greens? The rules and procedures are tough on new parties. Normally a party’s role in election broadcasting depends on a mixture of its past performance (fifth place with 13.7% in the Europe elections but no seats won), and the number of candidates standing. I guess we can rely on Jim Allister QC to make the loudest possible case for equal treatment, as in his recent Question Time appearance when the panel was expanded by one to accommodate him, as the representative of the only formally anti-Agreement party.I can only presume planning is well advanced although I haven’t heard a word. Five main debates with five parties taking part, plus one interview programme for minor parties would follow the UK national principle but seems too many. Two debates would suffice I suspect. After all there’s still only one burning topic. Belfast-based broadcasters have at least been spared arguments from local parties for a place in UK-wide debate. This is because national UK parties aren’t remotely serious rivals to local parties (nor are Dublin-based parties for that matter). I doubt whether the Ucunf ticket will seriously alter this. But the GB nationalist parties think differently.

The SNP and Plaid Cymru are crying foul at being denied a place in the main debates. Their argument is that leaving them out unfairly discriminates in favour of their local main rivals, Labour the Lib Dems and the Conservatives, who now get two bites at the cherry with national and local debates. The only answer to that is that on the national topics chosen – home affairs (mainly but not exclusively English), foreign affairs and the economy – it’s the three main parties who mainly decide.(Oh really, do the Lib Dems decide on anything? ) Yes I agree, no argument is perfect. But then again, it would be equally unfair and a pain for the great majority of (English ) viewers, if the SNP and Plaid muscled in on the national debates on the basis of their tiny UK wide support. In the end, you know it makes sense to leave them to the their home bases.

  • Prionsa Eoghann


    Your last paragraph saddens me, why are you happy for democracy to be played with here? Effectively you are happy that around 15% of the population are being disenfranchised. The sooner that people in Scotland get it through their thick heads that they are not equally British the better. I know most Unionists will forever be happy with scraps from the English plate but *shrugs* what to do?

  • FitzjamesHorse

    Obviously “unionists” who opposed Welsh and (particuarly) Scottish devolution are delighted at this quasi-Presidential debate.
    It would be nice if in the old days of terrestial channels, Scotland & Wales could just opt out of the network link.
    It does obviously provide a boost to the British paries in Scotland.
    Effectively for years we have had these kinda debates locally and it doesnt matter locally that the Afghan War or the Banking Crisis is discussed by Browne, Cameron, Clegg.
    It wont influence a single vote.
    The “integrationist Crossmaglen is as British as Chelmsford” Overclass wont like that of course.

    The Audiences will be key. As has been oft proved……the worst possible people to interview politicians are Journalists. That woman (Diana Gould???) who pestered Thatcher over the Belgrano or that other woman who tackled Bliar at the NHS Hospital. They are the real stars. So hopefully another will emerge.
    I suppose the three presenters will allow their “ego” to get in the way. Each hoping that his “show” will be the one where Brown lost his temper or Cameron blew it or Clegg said something interesting.

    Nice to look forward to it in Belfast, Dungannon or Ballymena. A bit like watching Argentina and Brazil play in a World Cup Final. As footy fans/political anoraks its interesting and we know the result wont actually affect us.

  • Prionsa Eoghann


    The SNP have a choice to make here along with Plaid and even the DUP and SF (forget the stoops) as these are all designated political parties in their respective countries along with the English 3. Ofcom have a duty to uphold political fairness over the airways. There is precedent and although it could get messy vis a vis the British media hammering the SNP(plus ca change) it is likely that these ‘presidential’ debates will be stopped.

    We have a Parliamentary system in this country ffs, we don’t vote for PM’s!

  • FitzjamesHorse

    Prionsa..please dont call me “Fitzy”. No offence
    Yes Offcom do have a responsibility but Ofcom is an “establishment creation” and it will do what the establishment wants.
    And it wont give SNP an even break.
    Rather like pre Troubles BBC Norn Iron was an establishment creation (which it cant fully break because of things like covering the “traditional Twelfth”).
    Paradoxically its in SNPs interest NOT to get justice on this one. SNP can use that sense of injustice. The obvious unfairness can work in SNPs favour depending on their skill at using it.
    Might have been even more helpful if the BBC is gearing up to cover England in World Cup.
    As any nationalist/republican in Norn Iron recognises the future of (nationalist) Scotland is vital

  • Prionsa Eoghann

    Prionsa..please dont call me “Fitzy”. No offence

    No offence taken Horsey :¬) You tell me what you want to be called and I’ll do it!

    >>Yes Offcom do have a responsibility but Ofcom is an “establishment creation” and it will do what the establishment wants.< >Paradoxically its in SNPs interest NOT to get justice on this one. SNP can use that sense of injustice. The obvious unfairness can work in SNPs favour depending on their skill at using it.<