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What format for the political leaders’ TV debates?

February 8th, 2010Posted by in Broadcasting, Editors' pick, Journalism

So what format will the first televised leaders’ debates take?

The Guardian today reports that, amid lengthy negotiations, “some of the parties, notably the Liberal Democrats, have been pressing for a BBC Question Time format in which questions are not just asked by an experienced chairman, but also by the audience”.

And it sounds like the BBC host David Dimbleby would prefer something more Question Time, than his Sky News counterpart Adam Boulton.

In an interview with the Independent’s Ian Burrell, Boulton said:

Some of the print comment is seeing this as a bear pit, you will have the leaders and set the audience on them in a kind of Question Time. Certainly my vision is that it will be a very different thing from that.

The problem with those shows is that sometimes you get a common view emerging from the panel – or in the case of Nick Griffin, the panel and the question master and the audience all against one person.

Well, if we get a group thing from the three leaders it will be a disaster. The point is to get them to differentiate themselves from each other in front of the audience rather than circle the wagons against the audience.

But Dimbleby, speaking on BBC Radio 4 Front Row on 26 January, said that he’d like to see an element of Question Time, if not the “whole hog”:

[Listen to interview here]

(…) I would certainly favour – not going the whole hog of Question Time and having a kind of mixed audience asking questions – but the kind of thing you could do – I don’t say it will happen – is to divide the audience into three groups so the viewer knows exactly who they are: Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour and allow those people perhaps to put the occasional question, or applaud (…)  somehow we’ve got to get it beyond the sterility of the American debate, or people will be bored by it and it will be a pity.

Stirring things up a little more, Boulton took the opportunity during the Independent interview to criticise Dimbleby’s handling of the BNP leader’s first appearance on Question Time in 2009:

I have to say that I did feel David Dimbleby got too involved and seemed to be operating as a panellist. I think if I had been doing that I would have tried to move it along so it wasn’t 50 minutes talking about the BNP. I would have tried to have got the BNP talking about law and order, Europe, foreign affairs, whatever.

But Dimbleby, speaking on Front Row last month, defended the style:

[Once it was agreed] it then of course became complicated because if you put the BNP on, people don’t want to talk to him about the post office strike, they want to talk about race, they want to talk about immigration, his views on that. They want to talk about the connections with the Klu Klux Klan, all those things.

We realised the audience would come, as indeed they did – it was a London audience – with a whole load of questions on race so we stuck with that. I did a lot of work with the producers on chapter and verse on everything that Nick Griffin had said.

I thought we did it the right way and I think it worked well.  [The fact that] in the end something like 10 million people saw that programme – either when it went out or afterwards, is the vindication of it.

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