Four months of electioneering – but less than five hours of debate

Moan, moan. “Four more months … Four. More. Months,” grumps the Times.

Expect more “slip-ups, sideshows and silly controversies” than ever, snarl US election reporters testing the democratic weather on both sides of the Atlantic. Get ready for “a journalistic Lord of the Flies”, wails Politico. And so to the great debate debacle.

At which point a few facts help. There is no “tradition” of leaders’ TV debates in Britain. It’s happened once (2010). There is no overall authority for monitoring such events. The Electoral Commission isn’t so charged. Ofcom, full of clauses about fairness, balance and “major” players for party political broadcast purposes, has no remit. (Nor has the BBC Trust, though it tags along behind Ofcom on coverage quotas.)

Debates are an ad hoc, free-standing proposition for broadcasters to propose and politicians to accept; or not. The fact that the BBC, ITV, C4 and Sky have negotiated a three-show package, doling out goodies among themselves, is laudable enough: but compromises between competitors are no more than that – not holy writ. Moreover, the chop-logic of the stitch-ups grows perplexing as you travel through elections past, party membership totals present and accumulated polling data.

It was relatively straightforward in 2010. There were two big party leaders and the Lib Dems had enough parliamentary clout to join in because they offered the most obvious coalition possibility. If you wanted to decide who to vote for or understand what might emerge, those three debates were designed to help. But 2015 is different. The polls stubbornly point to a standoff. The Greens have more members than the Lib Dems or Ukip. The SNP has more than the Greens and Lib Dems together – and the polling possibility of 20-plus nationally vital seats at Westminster. Scotland, you may recall, is part of our United Kingdom.

So in simple public service terms, they ought all to be in. What’s the problem? Endless politicking from the politicians, naturally enough. But also a TV format – three 90-minute bursts, just as in 2010 – that is foolishly constricting. Well (the memorial words), that’s all we’ve got time for … No, it absolutely isn’t. Maybe the ratings will suffer a bit. Maybe two hours of Midsomer Murders seems more appealing than two of midwinter Farage. Maybe unpicking cross-channel agreements is a nightmare. But the broadcasters, if they’re serious, ought to think again.

Powered by article was written by Peter Preston, for The Observer on Sunday 18th January 2015 00.05 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010