TV debates transform Britain's election landscape

30th April 2010, Comments 0 comments

Whoever wins Thursday's general election, one success of the campaign is already clear: the first ever TV debates between party leaders, which have galvanised voters and thrown the race wide open.

While some had predicted that social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook would take centre stage in an online ballot battle, British voters have been gripped by a TV format which is old hat in many other countries.

The three live television shows have given Britons -- many fed up with politicians after a scandal over expense claims -- rare, unspun access to their potential prime ministers and forced parties to switch their campaign tactics, experts say.

"I think the debates have dominated the campaign very much for the good," said Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at Oxford University.

"It excites a lot more interest in the election than there might otherwise have been".

"The political fates of the party leaders -- and the future of this country -- have been profoundly affected by these debates," The Times newspaper commented after Thursday night's final debate.

Eight million viewers watched the debate on the BBC -- far more than the 6.7 million who tuned in to popular soap Coronation Street, and the 3.4 watching the Europa League semi-final football clash between Liverpool and Atletico Madrid.

The first debate, on April 15, triggered a spectacular surge in support for the Liberal Democrats -- Britain's third party -- after a strong showing by leader Nick Clegg.

The party is now second in most polls, ahead of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's governing Labour, and could hold the balance of power in a possible hung parliament, which looks likely for the first time since 1974.

Not everyone has been keen on the debates, though. Despite agreeing to take part, Labour complained that the focus on the three broadcasts had "dramatically reduced" the media's scrutiny of actual policies.

"The usual specialist examination of specific policy areas has not been done," it said in a draft letter to broadcasters penned after the second of the shows on April 22.

But the debates, focusing in turn on home affairs, foreign affairs and the economy, have covered a broad range of subjects and some suspect Labour of downplaying the amount of substantial coverage there has actually been.

Charlie Beckett, director of journalism and society think-tank POLIS, said there had been a "reasonable amount of policy coverage" but noted the format of the television debates had not suited the notoriously stiff Brown.

"Sure, they are rehearsed and some of the jokes are scripted, but the public can tell that and prefers candidates who speak from the heart and without prompts. That hasn't helped Gordon," he wrote on his blog.

Objections or not, the debates look to be here to stay, although Brown and David Cameron of the Conservatives may have been "taken by surprise" by how Clegg managed to capitalise on them, Bogdanor said.

"The two major parties might be wishing they had not given the Liberal Democrats such a good platform," he added.

The success of the broadcasts has also quashed talk that 2010 would be Britain's first Internet election, following in the footsteps of Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign in the United States.

Political parties have largely been shy of using Facebook and Twitter to spread their message, particularly after one Labour candidate was dropped early in the campaign over swear-word studded postings on the latter.

Ironically, Twitter's biggest impact on the campaign race seems to have been as a way of politicians and commentators posting their reactions during and immediately after the television debates.

Kate Stanley, programme director at the Institute for Public Policy Research, said the debates would change the way parties chose their leaders.

"You're not going to see anyone getting to be leader of a major party who is not a great debater, who is not a great public speaker, who isn't terribly successful in that kind of format," she told AFP.

"So the likes of Gordon Brown in the future, it's not clear whether he could make it to the leadership in this new age."

© 2010 AFP

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