The leaders debate: style matters

There has been previous analysis of the leaders debate but one part which I found interesting was the presentation. Clearly no slick presentation can make up for a poor performance but good presentation can make a significant difference. The classic example of this was that John Kennedy in 1960 was generally reckoned to have won the first debate with Richard Nixon by those watching the debate on television. However, amongst those listening on radio a fairly equal proportion felt that Nixon had won. Nixon looked tired, refused make up; even appeared to his mother to be ill. Of course it is correct that in some ways the camera did not lie: after all Nixon was pretty dishonest; not that Kennedy was much better. However, after that episode great care has been put into the preparation of the candidates for US presidential elections.

It was fairly obvious that similar care had been put into appearances for the Prime Ministerial debates here for this election. Not only was there careful rehearsing of the candidates positions but also care had obviously been put into make up, clothes and lighting. The BBC had a programme about the issue on 12th April and there are actually fairly simple rules which are available multiple web sites saying much the same thing:

The candidates should wear sober clothes. Anyone who thinks this is nonsense should remember that Ruane was castigated for her dress sense at first and it is notable that although her policies have not changed someone in Sinn Fein has had the sense to take her shopping. Apparently pin striped suits project badly on television and should be avoided. Again think of some of Edwin Poots’s clothing choices. If anyone thinks all this stuff is froth and nonsense: of course it is. However, two pairs of words Michael Foot: duffle coat.

In our debate on UTV it was clear that Sinn Fein had got the message at least as regards Adams. Long gone are Gerry Adams’s jumpers and whilst people may deride the armalite to Armani transformation the simple fact is that although few of us run around all day in Armani suits (I prefer Paul Smith) it seems that voters expect politicians to appear in expensive dark suits: a message Adams got ages ago, along with the trimmed beard, hair etc. Margaret Ritchie, however, seemed to have got it all wrong on presentation. Not only the issue of looking at notes which Garibaldy has pointed out but she merged with the background. It is such a simple issue to have established what colour the background of the set would be and choose colours appropriately. Again this has been known since 1960 when Nixon’s light coloured clothing seemed to merge with the set on the black and white televisions of the time. Clearly having chosen better clothes would not have made Ritchie win the debate. However, it all smacks of a pretty amateurish approach. For a party which contains some PR types this was pretty stupid: admittedly not as stupid as not having the opening remarks so rehearsed as to allow Ritchie not to need her notes so much.

Peter Robinson of course has had a significant make over from 10-20 years ago and again either knew the rules himself or had someone with sense to advise him. He was his usual sober suited (with bright tie) self. It was generally felt that Reg Empey beat Robinson but Reg had a few presentational issues: the suit was light; look at the Prime Ministerial debates, the US debates: the suits are always dark ever since Nixon back in 1960 to which I alluded above. If the UUP have gained presentational skills from the Conservatives someone forgot that bit. No it is not terribly important but in an election do every little thing you can: even something utterly trivial might be worth a few votes.

What the election debates showed more than anything else is how relatively amateurish our politics are. One might suggest that they are actually about the issues and not the optics but that would probably be very optimistic. In reality we had UTV doing a rubbish broadcast with excessive ad breaks, politicians who had clearly not bothered enough or were too nervous to remember their opening lines, others who forgot basic rules of presentation and some who just coasted through. Had any of them been in a job interview one might have expected considerably better. Hardly inspiring was it?