Friday, 27 March 2015

What did we learn from the first (non) debate?

1) That holding this programme before the manifestos are published made for quite a bad programme.  This wasn't the broadcasters' fault; David Cameron ruled out any sort of debate during the campaign "proper" as well as any sort of head-to-head debate with Ed Miliband, so this was what they were left with.  But it made for an uneven programme.  Neither leader had a final manifesto to promote or defend so instead, Cameron was primarily asked to defend his record, while Miliband was asked to defend his personality and image.  Both were challenged - perhaps a bit too much during the Paxman interviews if we really wanted to learn anything about policies - but about rather different things. It also meant that Miliband - who I don't think I'm being too partisan if I describe him as the deeper thinker of the two - had to spend most of the time batting away tabloid gossip (some of it pretty nasty and personal), while Cameron (other than the occasional inexplicable breakfast cereal question) had to talk about food banks and zero hours contracts.

2) That commentary about "who won" is completely pointless. Of course we all called it for one or another leader (I'll put my hand up, I called it for Ed) but there is nothing more irritating than watching politician after politician queuing up to say why their guy won it. It's slightly more interesting to hear how members of other parties saw things, I suppose (although their motives might be questionable).  Twitter was full of each leader's "fans" retweeting every supportive or critical tweet, and each poll result as if it presented some unquestionable proof that their guy had "won". It wasn't a football match.  It wasn't even a debate.  Nobody won, though I suspect Miliband was probably the happier of the two at the end.  Cameron struggled with Paxman but seemed pretty assured with the audience.  Miliband probably exceeded many people's expectations but needs to be able to give clearer (quicker) answers on austerity and spending. It was notable that Kay Burley didn't really understand his answer about an EU referendum so he has to think whether he's pitching all his political explanations at the right level for the casual viewer.

3) That the Paxman-style interview (whether delivered by him or not) is inappropriate for this sort of programme. We didn't have very long and we wanted to know what these two men proposed to do should they lead the next government.  Paxman's trademark of asking the same question repeatedly (even when he knows it's a question that no political leader could reasonably or responsibly answer, such as the first one he asked to Miliband) ate up the time and produced little of consequence.  Of course, once a debate had been ruled out there had to be some challenge for the leaders and not just a platform for them to outline policies and slag off their opponents, but we probably heard more from Paxman than from his interviewees.  The media needs to challenge powerful people, but they need to do so on substance, not just for the sake of being challenging.  Perhaps this particular style of interview has had its day?

4) That none of the planned programmes are likely to have a "game changing" moment.  In many ways this is a bit of a relief, because if a television programme were able to make or break the result of the election then that is too great a power for it to have.  David Cameron will probably feel he could have performed better, but I doubt he lost any voters from this programme.  Ed Miliband probably felt quite pleased with his performance and might have turned a handful of waverers and is certainly unlikely to have lost anybody.  But nothing that is planned is likely to be too different.  We saw enough from Miliband to be pretty confident that, while (in the absence of Cameron) he will be ganged up on in the "challengers" debate, he is unlikely to seriously mess it up.  There is no reason to think the Question Time Special will be especially different to the first event.  So after election debates arrived with a bang and a fanfare in 2010, 2015's version are unlikely to live long in the memory.  (Famous last words!)

5) That a head-to-head debate would have been interesting.  Finally, while I was ambivalent about the debates in 2010 (not keen on turning the General Election into a presidential race or too much Americanisation of the process) a proper debate would have been preferable to what we got and might well have been rather interesting.  However, we shall never know.

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