BBC/Jeff Overs

Where has the ‘debate’ in TV debates gone?

We’re now under one week from the general election, and the campaign is at fever pitch. After 24 hours or so of feverish speculation, Rishi Sunak announced an election as dark clouds, quite literally, gathered above Downing Street. Channels from the BBC, to ITV and Channel 4 then rushed to throw together an eclectic schedule of political debates, panel discussions and interviews. It is undoubtedly the case that television plays a pivotal role in what feels like the long few weeks between Parliament being dissolved and voters going to the polls.All of the major TV debates have now taken place, including two seven-way party debates and at least two head-to-head debates between Keir Starmer and, if all the recent polls are to be believed, the soon to be outgoing Prime Minister. Whilst the way the election campaign is presented on TV is very important, the increasingly low-quality exchanges we’ve seen in recent weeks have only confirmed that robust and respectful debate is under threat from superficial soundbites and repeated mistruths, both fuelled at least in part by social media.

Unlike in the US where presidential TV debates have been well-established for some time, with the first actually taking place in 1956 and not 1960 as is often thought to be the case, the first one in the UK didn’t take place until 2010. Then labour PM Gordon Brown went head-to-head with David Cameron and Nick Clegg for the Tories and Lib Dems respectively. With figures showing 10.3 million people tuned in to this first debate on Sky News, it is clear to see why the TV debate specifically is a format broadcasters have been keen to reproduce. In addition to the several classic debates where politicians stand behind podiums, there has been a set of BBC Question Time specials, most recently on 28th June when Nigel Farage, representing the Reform party, faced questions about the racist and anti-migrant comments made by some of his party’s volunteers and even candidates. 

Politicians across parties have chosen to lean into the quasi-theatrical spectacle that this format encourages

The purpose of adapting debates for television has meant particular emphasis being placed on relatability to those in the audience and people watching at home. This was especially clear in the recent Starmer vs Sunak debate on 26th June. Both leaders seemed to interact and engage with the audience, including trying to make their responses more personal by addressing them directly to ‘Sue’, ‘Mary’ and others in the studio audience. It serves as a reminder of one of the key challenges with TV campaigning, namely that leaders want to deliver a strong and memorable message to the majority who are watching at home, without seeming impersonal or detached from the studio audience there in the room. This seemed to be a problem for Rishi Sunak in his televised Q&A session on the BBC’s Question Time, when his exchanges with the audience were tense, bordering on angry, perhaps hoping that risking a spat with the audience over leaving the ECHR was worth it in order to make his policy on this hit home.

If the success of TV debates is at least in part judged by how ‘watchable’ or entertaining they are, it is not surprising that politicians across parties have chosen to lean into the quasi-theatrical spectacle that this format encourages. In the ITV seven-way debate, for instance, the Conservative MP Penny Mordaunt resorted to dramatically pointing at each of her fellow debaters to accuse them of wanting “higher taxes”, as if pointing and repeating them enough times would somehow make the Conservative party’s soundbites more ‘true’. In one other debate between Sunak and Starmer on the BBC, the Conservative party’s campaign team actually rebranded their X/Twitter profile mid-debate to “Tax Check UK”, in what looked like a misleading attempt to hide party political messages behind the veil of objective commentary. 

Complex and important issues are being shoehorned into relatively short segments, with debate moderators themselves even asking leaders to ‘be brief’ in their responses

If success in TV debates relies partly on the ability of politicians to differentiate their party from the other(s) on the stage, like Labour is seeking to do by naming their entire campaign “Change”, then this is also reflected in their reluctance to prioritise working together. Even being asked to “say something nice” about one another seems to have become a difficult question for those debating; it too requires a delicate balance to be found between not having anything to say and thus upholding the division in political debate, and agreeing with or even praising one’s political opponents. Sadly, ever since the first TV debate held in 2010 when Brown and Cameron each said “I agree with Nick”, admitting that you agree with your fellow participants in a debate seems to have become something of a blunder, a sign of weakness rather than an acknowledgement of the fact that parties working together and sharing ideas can only be a good thing. When this question appears at all, it is often tagged on as a tokenistic addition, somehow not as important as the ‘big’ issues, even if cross-party cooperation is arguably what is needed to provide answers to difficult policy areas like social care. Making TV debates a little less partisan to begin with would help.

Finally, one of the downsides of the TV debate format that we’ve seen during this campaign is that complex and important issues are being shoehorned into relatively short segments, with debate moderators themselves even asking leaders to “be brief” in their responses, as if viewers don’t want or need a properly-developed answer. One such example from the seven-way leader’s debate on ITV saw the host asking participants to give a reductive ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to rejoining the EU single market, ignoring that this is a nuanced issue that single-word answers cannot do justice. Whilst it’s understandable that they do this from the purely practical perspective of time constraints, and preventing the debate being dominated by overly long monologues, it is still astonishing that politicians are effectively asked for short answers, more likely to oversimplify complex issues like reducing small boat crossings by migrants. 

Parties favour a sort of pseudo-debate in which there are enough soundbites and slip-ups from the other candidates to provide catchy content for X (formerly Twitter) and Instagram

The demands of social media, embroiled in its own ‘culture wars’, are such that parties favour a sort of pseudo-debate in which there are enough soundbites and slip-ups from the other candidates to provide catchy content for X (formerly Twitter) and Instagram. Here, even the smallest misstep on live TV can turn a politician into a laughing stock. This brevity of TV debate is part of what makes it so surface-level. So many important issues have not even received a single mention in the questions and answers of the past four weeks due to this. To name just one, the BBC’s health editor Hugh Pym found that there is scarce mention in manifestoes of a plan to tackle the high levels of obesity among adults in England. Broadcasters are only now starting to realise that you simply can’t have a meaningful debate in a restrictive 60-minute slot, prompting longer formats of 75 and 90 minutes.

If what we have got from the TV debates in this election campaign is, I would argue, best summarised as a mishmash of slogans, questionable figures portrayed as facts, and dodging of the actual questions, then this does not discredit the format as a whole. There have been some praiseworthy examples of how debate can be conducted in a more meaningful way, like the BBC Question Time specials where leaders being interviewed separately reduces the likelihood of them resorting to a ‘get-out’ strategy of attacking the other parties. Instead, they are forced to clearly outline for voters what their plans for government are and respond to audience scrutiny.

A 2017 research poll found that “two-thirds of the UK public (67%) either don’t read manifestos, or don’t know what they are”. This makes it even more essential for debates on television to reach these voters, and to function as a platform for policies to be scrutinised. Campaigning on social media has been a part of election campaigns for years now, but its emphasis on going viral and generating reactions is feeding into the theatricality of the TV debate, now a stage in which politicians turned actors repeat an inauthentic flurry of scripted lines and pre-prepared responses. In these final few days before 4th July, TV is going to be front and centre in party political campaigning. It’s a shame the same can’t be said for meaningful debate.


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