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Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Could TV debates be the next X-Factor?

  Glasgow University Union debate

    My latest ChangeScotland article is up on a subject previously discussed. If you want to comment please do so there. The broadcast media having refused to explain why they refuse to have such debates so far it will be interesting to see if any of them have any answer now.

Incidentally the poll on whether people would watch this is still running and you can vote here. Currently it looks like real debates would be more popular than Question Time (the political programme to aim at for popularity) .It would also be much popular than X-Factor though I suspect I may not be reaching a typical audience.

Could TV debates be the next X-Factor?

IT WOULD be astonishing what a high proportion of our national leaders first cut their political eye teeth in university debating chambers if it were not obvious what a vital role such organised arguments play.
Formal debating, normally two teams of two or three people each speaking in turn for around five minutes before an audience, is a formalisation of how non-dictatorial or monarchic governments are supposed to work and sometimes do. At least this has been the experience since the time of the ancient Greeks.
It is how Britain used to be run before three-line whips removed the power from Parliament and transferred it to the Cabinet, inner Cabinet and ultimately the Prime Minister and close friends.
In the Greek democracies debates were heard and judged by an assembly of the citizens (well the male, adult, free citizens). In Victorian Britain debates could only be heard in Parliament, a very small proportion of the population, thus Parliamentary sovereignty became the dominant ideal.
In the 20th Century the technology of radio and then TV made it possible for political discussion to be heard and judged in real time by the entire community, even more so than in ancient Greek times. But such open debate did not become the norm, except very occasionally in Presidential debates where, because not limited to one issue, they tended to turn into popularity contests rather than settling issues.

Also, because broadcasting was then a natural monopoly, they tended to come excessively under the control of central government. From Hitler, broadcasting his rallies, to Roosevelt's fireside chats to the BBC reporting "climate change" those expressing opposing ideas have been relegated to minor or zero coverage.

Which brings me to the subject of this article.

I propose that one or more of our broadcasters test runs weekly debates, normally one hour long in a slot similar to Question Time. The proposition should be drawn from those submitted online by the public. The choice need not be always the most popular, since some motions could not provide a balanced debate, but the popular vote should be made transparently public.

Assuming three speakers per side, the first speakers of each side have six minutes to present their constructive cases, or in the negative's case a rebuttal. The other four speakers each have five minutes to deliver a speech supporting their team's main arguments. There is also an allotted three minutes after each of the first four speeches for cross-examination, during which the opposing team has a chance to clarify what was stated in the preceding speech. There are many variations in format and so long as they have general acceptance, no one format should be set in stone.

The popular decision could then be determined, X-Factor style, by phone votes. These, like Crimewatch "results" could be broadcast later.

This is not and should not be in any way authoritative - it is simply TV.

I am sure there would be paradoxical results. For example one week the majority would vote for more government spending and the next for tax cuts. Though it should be pointed out that politicians show no particular consistency in such promises either. I would not be surprised to find viewers showing more responsibility than our current political class, so many of whom have never held a job not paid from taxes.

I have previously sent this suggestion to all our broadcasters, none of whom answered (though ITV and C4 promised to do so). No independent company responded either. Clearly either there is an overwhelming reason why this is less commercially viable than present political coverage, so obvious it is not even worth mentioning, or there is some other agenda at work.

It would, however, be an incredibly inexpensive programme to produce. The moderator need not be drawn from the channels' expensive stable of talent, indeed the ideal moderator is almost invisible. No Dimblebys; no dog and pony team trailing round the country; little more than a couple of cameras and a venue. A comparison is with the BBC's Northern Irish alternative to Question Time, broadcast every fourth week and made in-house. Northern Ireland has 3.3% of Britain's population so this must be one of the least expensive shows on TV.

Indeed with the X-Factor voting option I suspect the debating programme would be in profit even on a budget of zero.

Another requirement is that the teams be transparently chosen as the best available to debate the subject under consideration. I remember being in the audience of BBC Scotland's last relatively real debate. This was on "Scotland's Energy Future" in which one team called for far more subsidised windmills and the other for nothing but subsidised windmills. This was less than a full discussion.

Would it be popular? While that cannot certainly be told without trying it I have run an online poll (still going here) which shows a potential audience approximately matching Question Time's normal three million, which is about as popular as politics on TV gets.

The important reason for doing this is not finance, that is merely to prove there is no commercial reason for not doing it, but that it would, using modern technology, allow the citizenry real access to political decision making, in a way not technologically possible since the supercession of the Greek city states and Roman Republic.

It would be uncharitable to assume the big media ignore this because they think it would have work and I await some other explanation, from them or anybody else, that satisfies the facts.

In any case we live in a world where media is no longer a monopoly. If this is indeed a commercially viable project then it may turn into another case of online players cutting off the media dinosaurs at the knees.

"Debate" on TV currently consists, at its best, of four people and a moderator, with the "official" view, taking on one with a different one, with discussion limited to a couple of sentences before interruption. That is why elections are now about "soundbites" rather than real issues, which in turn explains why our governance is so abysmal.

We know there is an audience to watch Anne Widdicombe dance or George Galloway play a cat. I believe there would be one to watch them debate positions they understand and believe in. Our present "democracy" is conducted rather as if Athens had told Demosthenes he was not allowed to debate but it would find time to let him juggle. Surely we can do better than that.

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The problems are a few:
1) Find the politicians willing to do it (and representative of their party)
2) TV is for the masses, there are economic reasons because theis will not be a popular enough format to be justified

If you want be more revolutionary, record the debate and post it to YouTube in some channel.
For the reasons I have given I think it could be popular, at least compared to other political programmes or to any other programme not much more expensive to produce.
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