Televised Debates


Written by Amiera Sawas
23 Friday 23rd April 2010


British politicians have decided it’s time to move into that mass communications medium we call the television. Fifty years behind the US's first official televised presidential debate; on Thursday 15th April 2010 our 3 hopefuls took to their podiums in the strangely backwards looking ITV studios to debate home affairs in front of the British public. The Kennedy/Nixon debates played a pivotal role in the 1960 US presidential election. They said if you listened to the radio you thought Nixon won and if you watched it on TV then Kennedy won, owing to his healthier, attractive aesthetic and Nixon’s overactive sweat glands.
This highly anticipated move into mass-media has been praised by the Westminster elite as well as national journalists alike. Not to mention the post-debate ‘Cleggmania’, with headlines calling Clegg the winner and drawing comparisons with Obama in his style of engagement.
Let’s get real for a moment:  UK voter turnout sits at around 60% (and only 37% of 18-24 year olds). 10.3 million people tuned into the first debate. 18.3 million people tuned in to Susan Boyle’s finale episode on Britain’s got Talent. Seeing a pattern here?
There is wide recognition that something has to be done to engage that 40% of the population who don’t vote. Using television to reach those apathetic groups seemed a great idea. People who would never dream of watching Prime Minister’s Question Time would be able to access and assess their potential PMs. Infact,  the political campaign has seeped into all sorts of new media including Facebook and Twitter; politicians are getting exciting and patting themselves on the back, but are you excited? I’m not.
What went wrong?
The first debate consisted of three very sterile performances; the second wasn’t much better. Three similarly dressed, similar looking, white middle class men on three podiums, blurted out their PR controlled, rehearsed catchphrases. Oh, and don’t forget the body language training (Smile at the camera Gordon!). Despite being live, these ‘debates’ could not have been more controlled and more phoney. It became clear in the second debate that the leaders even had to rely on their notes to produce any signs of wit!  This is the last thing apathetic populations want to see and for many, just makes them want to switch-off.
Trust and the reputation of politicians lies at the forefront of everyone’s minds. For many of us, we need a leader that we can believe in. Barak Obama’s ability to grab the trust of millions of disenchanted voters was the key to his success. Obama used new media and he used it well. Of course he had PR consultants, of course he considered carefully everything he said, but what he said felt passionate and it felt real. Clegg, Cameron and Brown come across as polished Ken dolls (Okay, perhaps not Gordon), lacking the passion and charisma to inspire.
The small circle of Westminster and the national press have obsessed about the social media ‘debate about the debate’. Amazement at the average rate of 21 tweets per second during the first debate has spurred them to comment on a radical change in British politics. Sorry to be a wet blanket, but a large proportion of those using Twitter at the time were political party members! John Prescott, Iain Dale and Eric Pickles can tweet as much as they want, but I’d be surprised if any non-partisan 18-24 year olds give a shit, or even know who they are, to be frank. In an attempt to grab hold of the social media compass, politicians have thrown themselves in headfirst, without really thinking about how they should use it. It seems to be just another platform to spout out their views in endlessly boring fashions.
What could they do better?
It’s a broken record but UK politicians should take a page out of Obama’s book. He used a plethora of online communities to interact with and understand the apathetic generation. He gained 5 million supporters through social networks. In over 15 online communities, he and his core team engaged regularly with voters. He asked questions as well as providing answers. He managed to inspire voters to drive a grassroots movement, leading to 120,000 offline events organised by students, young people, minority groups as well as your standard middle class voters. His ability to engage through new media was the crux of his winning campaign.
I doubt we’re going to see Dave, Nick and Gordon get real and inspire in this way. We can only hope that they start to use the new media more to pay attention to the disengaged voice in the UK, rather than attempting to use it for spin. What’s more scary is that there are probably more young Britons who know who Sarah Palin is and what she is about. Yikes!
There are two leaders debates left; tune in and let us know what you think!
1. Third debate – economic affairs. Date: 29 April 2010; 20:30. Channel: BBC One, BBC HD, BBC News Channel
2. Fourth debate – financial debate “Ask the Chancellors” with Alaistair Darling, George Osbourne and Vince Cable. Date: 29 March 2010; 20:00. Channel: Channel 4
For more information about the leaders debates and the general election, please go to

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