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Wednesday, 22 November, 2000, 16:46 GMT
Do TV debates work?

Tony Blair and William Hague could be seen in confrontational US-style TV debates during the next general election campaign.

In the US, they are carefully stage-managed affairs, often criticised for being more about form than substance.

In 1960, the televised debates were said to have helped JF Kennedy defeat Richard Nixon. This year they appeared to do nothing for either Gore or Bush.

British Prime Ministers have so far seen them as politically too risky.

Are TV debates good for democracy? Do they raise important issues and change voters' minds? Or are they just TV entertainment?

This Talking Point is now closed. A selection of your e-mails are posted below.


Contributors seem to be missing the point that at a UK general election, people vote for a local representative to parliament. Having said that, the political parties seem to have forgotten that as well. However, TV debate would be worthwhile as PMQs in the Commons allows for no cross-questioning, and providing someone like David Dimbleby were there to moderate and press the leaders for substance, it should enhance public interest and knowledge in the election.
Andy Heeps, UK

I'm not in favour of TV debates... They will inevitably be turned into a giant PR stunt. After watching parliamentary 'debates' over the last year I think a TV debate would just turn into playground bickering.
Alex White, UK

Warning: Don't ruin your elections by Americanizing them. It's too late for us, but you should learn from our legion of systemic errors. It should be about policy, not slick celebrity presentation. Recall that Nixon won on argumentation; his lack of TV "look" ruined his viability as the Superficial Age dawned in the U.S.
Ron J. Montgomery, United States

TV debates provide a forum where each candidate can present his or her own positions, criticise those of their opponents, and respond to this criticism for the benefit of the voter. It also can give the voter a sense of intellect and personality of each candidate. Unfortunately, inflexible debate rules or a biased moderator can hamper the usefulness of debates. In the recent US Presidential debates, the candidates were disallowed from directly addressing and questioning each other, which resulted in 90 minutes of the candidates delivering memorized phrases and mini-stump speeches.
John, USA

Unlike the US, the UK has "Prime Minister's Question Time " in the Commons ... as near as one is going to get to a "real" debate in politics. If one wants to test the mettle of the candidates, that's the place.
Mark M. Newdick, USA/UK


I can't imagine what's wrong with actually seeing the personalities of the people who want to be Prime Minister

Duncan, USA
I do find it interesting that people in the UK seem to put more importance on the party machine than they do on the individual. Perhaps a legacy of socialism? Personally I can't imagine what's wrong with actually seeing the personalities of the people who want to be Prime Minister. After all these people will represent your country to the rest of the world. It isn't being petty to want to see how they handle themselves in a public debate.
Duncan, USA


Another victory for style over substance

Rob, UK
To Geoff Tomlin, I'd rather have Gordon Brown for prime minister than David Beckham, any day of the week! Which brings me to the point of this debate - the biggest problem with TV debates is that it plays into the hands of the slickest publicity-hungry campaigners, while playing down the important issues. Another victory for style over substance.
Rob, UK

I don't see why not. Televised debates allow the people to follow elections closely and they're "the nearest thing" to Athenian-style direct democracy. Furthermore, they allow people to take an active role in choosing their leader. Full steam ahead, as they say.
Peter Bolton, UK in US

I think a series of TV debates that showed the public the intent of the two leading political parties would be very beneficial for the electorate. It would be ideal if the party leaders were able to show what their spending plans were and where the money was to come from. If they introduced stealth taxes during their term of office then they would be easily shown up as breaking their word and could be voted out at the following election.
Gavin Pearson, Detroit, USA

Live debates between the leaders are of course good for democracy, especially leading up to an election with so much froth surrounding their policies. Will the debates reduce the froth? - I don't know - but an hour of political knock about is always good TV. Let them go ahead and debate it live, one on one - Then we will be able to see who has the clear long-term policies and who jumps on bandwagons.
Riad Mannan, UK


They may not be of utmost importance, but they certainly add to the electoral process

David, USA
The main argument against debates is that the candidates are too well prepared and try not to make any mistakes. Maybe so, but that's not the point. The point is for a large portion of the populace to see the candidates' position on the issues, controlled by a neutral moderator. They may not be of utmost importance, but they certainly add to the electoral process here and in Canada.
David, USA

Not everything that comes from the USA is good. Maybe we should come up with our own ideas rather than always copying the Americans?
Ali, England

A debate is only worthwhile if it is genuine. If it is stage managed with prepared responses, then it is a total waste of time.
David Ho, UK

The presidential elections in USA are (allegedly) about voting for an individual (whereas British parliamentary elections are about voting for parties - aren't they?).
Lee, England


It would be a very sad day if we went down the USA road

Geoff Tomlin, UK
You cannot compare the political approach in the USA and the UK. Firstly, we are not electing a president, not even a Prime Minister, but one person to represent us in the House of Commons. Secondly, a head to head would only cause the electorate to select by personality of one person and not by the strength of the MP for your district. It would be a very sad day if we went down the USA road. Thirdly, our Prime Minister can change without any election taking place, so what is stopping a party selecting a well loved person as leader, for example, David Beckham, and after winning the election replacing him with say, a Gordon Brown. What a thought.
Geoff Tomlin, UK

Having thought deeply about the possible showdown of parties, it seems to me more of a ratings winner than anything else. Some may argue that getting more people interested in politics is a good thing, yet if this 'punch and judy' battle is the only way to get people interested, what is the point for real political process? In America, debates on TV seem a good idea, but after the spin, editing, rehearsal you forget what politics is about and decide on who is the better performer in front of a camera. Surely this is why it cannot happen in the UK? The sad fact is politics is not the most interesting subject, but it shouldn't try to be anything else because you lose the real issues which shape the UK and beyond.
Ben Cox, England


I want a PM who can govern

Mike H, England
Please no! I want a PM who can govern, not some slick wide boy with a good line in patter and witty ripostes. Not that it makes a great difference how most of us vote anyway, the election will be won and lost in the marginal seats as usual. The USA aren't the only ones in need of meaningful electoral reform.
Mike H, England

We do not have to take any guidance from the USA on this one! The British electorate, I feel sure, would like to se an unscripted, unspun and spontaneous debate between William Hague and Tony Blair. Kennedy is, of course, an amusing irrelevance in all this. In general, the electorate has residual discomfort about the Conservatives and active distrust in everything Mr Blair says. Take them both away from their spinners in front of a genuinely impartial referee and let us see what happens.
David K, England

I do think that public opinion is the most important form of scrutiny of the government. Of course the multi-party issue needs to be addressed, but if we have our own UK-style debates, surely this would only serve to make the public more aware? Having said this, I agree that we do not want to turn into another America!
Jane Orton, UK

I for one am looking forward to seeing our 'leader's grand ideas get torn to shreds by Hague. That said, he should be used to it by now. I doubt he'll have the bottle to go through with it unless Alastair Campbell can hold his hand and whisper the answers to him.
Karl Peters, UK

If they were held in the UK running up to a General Election, Blair would be full of figures and policy but would probably get bogged down, Hague would appear glib, humourous but shallow and with little substance, Charles Kennedy would probably come off best as he is the wittiest, and, as he has little chance of being PM, the most direct. I'm not sure how democracy would be served but at least people would see how smug, annoying and shallow Hague is.
Neil, UK

TV debates have no reason to exist as the participants do not intend to change their mind. So, there is no reason to watch them as you can hear the same things during the pre-election campaigns.
Panagiotis, Greece


Acting ability, debating skills, "charisma" or other tele-visual qualities are not relevant

Paul C., England
When I vote, I vote for a party and for a team which should have the combined skills, knowledge and competencies to deliver what its manifesto describes. Acting ability, debating skills, "charisma" or other tele-visual qualities are not relevant to leading a team in order to achieve results in government. The fact that some people think they are is moving us out of the realm of politics and into the morass of personality.
Paul C., England

It might be useful but only when the two party leaders truly represent their parties, agree to answer questions rather than avoid them, and agree to be chaired by the formidable lady who took Margaret Thatcher to task on TV over the Belgrano.
Harry, Germany

All opposition leaders, including Mr Hague, call for a debate but all prime ministers refuse to have them. What would be interesting to know is whether the opposition leaders have really wanted them, or just called for the debate in the hope of showing the PM as weak but knowing full well he/she would decline anyway.
Steve, UK

The debates would be good in as much we might see Blair having to think for himself, now that would be a first. No army of spin doctors and aides to provide him with ad libs and relevant data.
Keith Stuart, England

Surely there is nothing wrong in principle with using the TV debate medium to bring politics to a greater proportion of the masses? That the debate is a good one and not stage-managed is another question entirely.
Richard N, UK


Our party leaders get ample chance to debate their respective policies in the House of Commons

David Hazel, UK
We hear (or are supposed to hear) political debates between these two every Prime Minister's Question Time. Given that this event always seems to descend into a slanging match, why should we believe a TV debate will be any better? The reason why US Presidential candidates have TV debates is that the two people contending rarely participate (against each other) in such debates in the normal course of things, so such debates add to the decision making process. In Britain, our party leaders get ample chance to debate their respective policies in the House of Commons, so why should some other forum be needed?
David Hazel, UK

It should be interesting to see how Mr Blair answers questions without Alastair Campbell telling him what he should say
Matthew Hughes, UK


Surely we already rely too much on media image and slick presentations

Paul Sullivan, UK
Surely we already rely too much on media image and slick presentations to select our leaders. TV debates can only make this worse and make proper scrutiny of manifestos by voters less likely.
Paul Sullivan, UK

They diminish the whole process. It ends up in the minds of so many voters coming down to the better televisual side of the politician. The automatic assumption, in many minds, is that the debate will be between TWO people. How will we ever get away from the two party system when such debates only reinforce the two party idea?
Mike, England

I'd like to see TV debates between the 3 main political parties. I'm not sure what it might achieve, but provided the politicians don't have pre-scripted texts or lookup notes (W bush), it'll make an evening's entertainment.
Colin, Netherlands

Alastair Campbell says that a US-style televised exchange between the PM, William Hague and Charles Kennedy may happen, but adds that the media should "avoid cynicism". If the electorate are to be offered Hobson's choice of seeing and choosing between freemarket politicians, what justification is there to insist journalists and broadcasters must not expect the worst when voting inevitably results in one or other business stooge winning power?
Max Hess,


Tony and William on Have I Got News For You could be good though!

Tim Miller, England
They certainly can't have the same format over here as they do in America. The two-party bias over there is far more extreme, and simply excluding parties is very unfair - if anything, it will only diminish votes to the smaller parties, who need everything they can get. Tony and William on Have I Got News For You could be good though!
Tim Miller, England

I'd heard that the BBC were re- launching Bill and Ben - is this what they had in mind?
Stuart Denman, UK

I have been "subjected" to TV debates in both Canada and the USA. They are in my humble opinion, TV entertainment of the worse kind. My advice to the UK is don't do it. From now on I'd rather watch paint dry.
Peter Brewer, Canada

We already have this once a week at Prime Ministers question time, if they want to make a soap of it fine, but I think they should both drink 14 pints of booze before hand and then thrash it out with one another. Now that would be entertainment!
Michael, UK

I can see why UK politicians would be reluctant. Their usual face-to-face debates happen in the House of Commons, where debate regularly descends to kindergarten level.
Mark B, UK

It is about time that we actual saw our politicians in action rather than the soundbite culture we have at present. The changes to Prime Ministers' Question Time and the use of spin by the government have significantly reduced the opportunities for proper debate on the subjects that really matter. A chance to see the leaders of the main parties debating the main issues of the day in a during an election would be welcomed. It would also be a chance to see if Blair was able to defend the record of the worse government in living memory.
Nick Evans, UK


All we saw was two boring people being very careful not to make any mistakes

Graham, USA
The debates this year were not even good TV entertainment. All we saw was two boring people being very careful not to make any mistakes. I believe Al Gore lost the election in the 2nd debate, he should have nailed Bush on foreign affairs but failed to do so. The debates did not raise any issues that we were not bombarded with in commercials every night. To have an entertaining debate take away the moderator.
Graham, USA

Since the American system is based on an election contest between two individuals, there is a rationale for holding a televised debate. However, the success or failure of the exercise depends on the personality (or in the present case, lack of it) of the protagonists. Under the UK system the televised debate would be between the leaders of the main political parties, with much more at stake for themselves and the country. If these debates were encouraged one can only conclude that, for self-preservation, both leaders would insist that they were rigged and the whole thing would be completely pointless. The inevitable consequence would be an even more disillusioned electorate and lower turnout at elections.
Andrew, UK

Surely we should not confuse politics with entertainment. The problem with the US elections is that it has become a popularity vote rather than a political election. To be honest the Yanks may as well have voted for celebrities. Surely we do not want to make the same mistake.
James Rushmere, UK


In theory, the UK already has a TV debate - Prime Minister's Question Time!

Deekay, Nigeria
In theory, the UK already has a TV debate - Prime Minister's Question Time! The public are able to see either side literally play to the gallery and try to appear the more confident. Tony Blair was able to win the last election mainly through his active image and aggressive debating style and being able to outshine the grey and dull John Major. TV debates are a good way to see if either side can handle the pressure of being unprepared and totally unscripted and most of all completely and utterly alone. Until then, we will be able to see what they really think of each other's policies and more importantly, each other.
Deekay, Nigeria

The idea of TV "debates" sums up everything wrong with British democracy. Just like Prime Minister's Question Time, it's an excuse for two immature party leaders to have a public slanging match. Ultimately the public suffer, as the end result is that both major parties produce policy based on nothing more than what their opposite numbers say - either the contrary of the other, or the same but more extreme.
Julian Hayward, UK

Is now the best time to consider borrowing election ideas from the USA?
Toby Jones, UK


These TV debates do nothing for democracy

Colin, England
These TV debates do nothing for democracy. Style is assessed over substance. In 1960, the US radio audience felt that Nixon had come off best in the first debate with Kennedy, but the TV verdict was that JFK won, based on Nixon looking sweaty, unshaven and changing weight from one foot to the other. In most debates, both candidates "play safe", and the result is normally equal, although advisers and the Press put their own interpretation on events; the UK Tory press claim that Bush "won" the most recent debates. The last time a TV debate had an obvious winner was between the 1988 Vice-Presidential candidates Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle. That showed Quayle as a buffoon, yet the Republicans still won the White House!
Colin, England

Of course they are useful. They allow the public to see past all the spin and realise for themselves just how phoney our Tony is. When he has to fall back on his genuine thoughts rather than carefully drafted press releases I suspect he will crumble - Hague repeatedly gives him a pasting in the Commons.
John B, UK

Both sides want to win the debate. Both sides will avoid any issues which neither can answer. An unbiased interviewer should pick the questions, not the politicians!
Clive Mitchell, UK


One to one debate is won and lost on the strength of the argument

Gerry Anstey, England
Yes they work. It removes the element of stage management from both sides and the public can judge for themselves the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments as well as the protagonists. In stage-managed speeches and interviews the salient points are often avoided or watered down either by the politicians or a biased interviewer. One to one debate is won and lost on the strength of the argument and the debaters' ability to put it across.
Gerry Anstey, England

Your headline sums it up! They are stage-managed and the substance is not there. Each candidate is too concerned about their appearance on television and it takes on the trappings of a "Hollywood" production. I would advise, do it very differently from the US model, or don't do it at all.
Charles Porter, USA

How can you say that the debates did nothing for Bush? He was significantly behind before them and marginally ahead after them. The average analysis is that Bush 'won' the debates. This 'proves' that debates are important. Perhaps the reason that the PM and the Opposition Leader shun them, is that they can't be bothered to come up with a cohesive stance on any issue!
Smitty, UK

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16 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Blair and Hague set for TV clash
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