Election Notebook

Diminishing returns

Why voters are switching off from the TV debates

A marked trend is already observable during this election campaign. Measured by audience size, interest in the televised debates is waning.  

The first debate (ITV’s head-to-head in Salford between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn on Tuesday 19th December) attracted 6.7 million viewers. Had all of these viewers been adults (clearly some will not have been) then that represented about 15 per cent of the potential electorate. 

This proportion compares unfavourably with viewing figures for American presidential debates. Three years ago, about a third of the American electorate watched the televised duels between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Although an improvement upon immediate predecessors, even this figure was a shadow of former glories: in 1980, over half the American electorate watched the sparring between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. 

Whatever else may be said about the UK general election of 2019, the two main parties could not be accused of fielding colourless leaders unable to generate clear popular reactions.

In fact, that first debate on ITV represented a peak that the sequels have failed to replicate. Three days later, when the circus moved to Sheffield for the BBC’s Question Time format (and with Johnson and Corbyn joined by Nicola Sturgeon and Jo Swinson) popular enthusiasm was already waning. A third fewer than ITV’s opener, only 4.2 million watched it. The best that can be said is that this was double the number that watch Question Time normally when a junior Cabinet minister may be topping the bill. 

This week, an envisaged Sky leaders’ debate was quietly put to sleep and the only newsworthy component in Channel 4’s Climate Emergency debate was that the Prime Minister had better things to do with his time than turn up for it and that Channel 4 preferred to represent the Conservatives with a melting ice sculpture rather than with Michael Gove. A favourite on social media, the stunt will have garnered far more attention than the actual programme.

The following night it was Cardiff’s turn for the BBC’s seven-way election debate. Jo Swinson, Nicola Sturgeon, Plaid Cymru’s Adam Price, Richard Tice of the Brexit Party and Caroline Lucas of the Greens were joined by Labour’s Rebecca Long Bailey and the Conservatives’ Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Rishi Sunak. 

Sunak is one of the Tories’ coming men, but he failed to show star quality on this showing. He exuded an over-rehearsed lack of spontaneity that brought to mind the double-entendres of the more knowing contestants who once graced Cilla Black’s Blind Date. Either he needs to be taught to be himself, or he should conclude that this sort of popular entertainment is not his metier. Sunak performed like a man reading from an imaginary autocue.

By contrast, both Adam Price and Richard Tice, the Chairman of the Brexit Party, came across as natural, confident, and articulate speakers. Tice, indeed, made a far more robust advocacy of Conservative Party policy than the wooden Sunak managed. The trading of mutual contempt between Tice and Sturgeon over who was the bigger liar was the only memorable moment in an otherwise wholly forgettable evening.

It is the gladiatorial head-to-heads between Corbyn and Johnson that make for watchable entertainment

We await the viewing figures, but they are certain to be poor. One interpretation of fairness dictates that every major party should get their chance to appear. But the reality is that this game show contestants-style line-up offers neither the congenial banter of the game show format nor the in-depth inquiry of serious public service broadcasting. 

By contrast, it is the gladiatorial head-to-heads between Corbyn and Johnson that at least make for watchable entertainment (if not elucidation). For this reason, the only remaining debating fixture that is likely to get any real traction with the public is the showdown on Friday 6th December between the Big Two. 

Before which, if we are treated to an interview between Andrew Neil and the Prime Minister then that will certainly make for compelling viewing. In the Cardiff ‘spin room,’ I asked Conservative Party chairman, James Cleverley, whether that interview (or any other like it) might go ahead. He answered that it was still to be decided. It cannot be said this answer gives grounds for heady optimism. 

As for the audience-question format, these leadership debates need to be re-thought before there is another election. Neither the excessive quantity of them in this campaign, nor the way they unfold, are working. In his closing statement, it fell to Plaid’s Adam Price to hit the cliché on the head with his parting platitude. He promised “a future better than our past.” This says it all.  

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