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Tories put democracy at risk with debate brinkmanship

Broadcasters have threatened to ‘empty chair’ David Cameron. Pedro Moura Pinheiro, CC BY-NC-SA

The spat between the prime minister and the major broadcasters has deepened, with Tory peer and former television boss Michael Grade accusing the stations of “playing politics” over David Cameron’s refusal to participate in all three planned TV election debates.

Cameron had previously delivered an ultimatum to the broadcasters about his participation – saying he would appear in just one 90-minute debate between seven party leaders. The prime minister justified his decision by putting the blame on the broadcasters for a “deeply unsatisfactory process”.

Cameron’s bold move did not come out of the blue. He has previously protested against the prospect of going up against just Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage, insisting on including the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett. Cameron has also repeatedly voiced his conviction that the 2010 debates “sucked the life out of the campaign”.

This is a major change of tune from five years ago, when he described the introduction of debates as “a step forward for our democracy”.

‘Take the hit, Dave’

Miliband accused Cameron of “ducking and cowering” from a head-to-head debate, and later displayed his own brand of one-upmanship by promising that a Labour government would make the leaders’ debates a permanent feature of the campaign.

Clegg in turn accused his coalition partner’s position as “arrogant and unacceptable”, offering to take his place in a confrontation with Miliband. Farage appeared on ITV’s Loose Women, and amid rigorous questioning about his drinking and smoking habits and the state of his marriage, suggested the PM was “running scared”.

Cameron is certainly at odds with public opinion – a fact that also received significant media attention, after a YouGov poll showed 69% of voters believe debates should be held, and 57% that they are good for democracy. Two in five (39%) said the 2010 debates helped them decide who to vote for.

As a strategy, Cameron’s move is risky, and much of the coverage has been devoted to speculation over why he is afraid of the debates. There was widespread agreement that the 2010 debates hurt his standing in the polls, as he lost ground to an energised Clegg who received a boost from his performance in the vital first round. Matthew D’Ancona, writing for The Guardian, summarised Cameron’s stakes as follows:

Cameron grasps that the incumbent has much more to lose than his opponents – especially if his principal opponent is believed to have the leadership qualities of a melancholic lemming. He also knows, from the Farage-Clegg debates last year, how effective the UKIP leader’s populist sloganeering can be. Why, then, subject himself to such odds? His pollsters have told him that a few days of scorn is better than three events that might cost him the election. Take the hit, Dave – and move on.

Common sense would tell us that an election debate comes with dangers for incumbents by placing them on an equal footing with their electoral opponents who may otherwise suffer from a lack of exposure.

This might be particularly true for David Cameron and his Conservative Party. The Conservative “party agenda is on far safer territory in national newspaper coverage than on TV”, according to Stephen Cushion, writing on The Conversation. Conservative voices are heard more than those of any other party in the newspapers, and the party’s views tend to be represented positively in leader columns.

Misplaced fear of ‘left-wing’ broadcasters

Certainly, mistrust of the broadcasters appears to be a major factor in Cameron’s refusal to play game. Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg defended his party leader on the basis of allegations of political bias:

You have to ask what the broadcasters’ motive is. There are a lot of left-wing people in the broadcasters, including James Purnell, head of strategy at the BBC, the BBC is well-known for its left-wing views and it seems to want to have sets of debates that support left-wing parties.

Yet as a study we carried out in 2012-2013 demonstrated, there is in fact a significant over-representation of Conservative views and voices in BBC broadcasts, which led the BBC’s economics editor Robert Peston to suggest that the broadcaster is “obsessed” with following the lead of the right-wing papers.

And research on debates demonstrates that they do not disadvantage incumbents, even if smaller parties may have more to gain from the exposure. They can significantly shape the campaign narrative, but do not have an impact on voting decisions for the majority of voters.

What scholarship teaches us, then, is that while the media see them as game changers, they will usually have a very limited effect on the ultimate election outcome.

Although Cameron’s anxiety might be understandable, there is another, more fundamental issue at stake. His reluctance to engage in further debates makes him look, as Jane Merrick so vividly put it in the Independent on Sunday, like “the aristocrat sitting in the library at Downton Abbey, whisky in hand, loftily trying to dictate the terms”. The 2010 debates were heralded as the major innovation, adding excitement and spontaneity to the campaign.

Lord Grade: not worried about the Tories looking like aristocrats. Ray Collins/The Sun/PA

The debates were watched by 22m people, and engaged young voters who turned out in the highest numbers since 1997. As Dominic Wring and David Deacon wrote on the Conversation, it “would be a retrograde step if this innovation was abandoned after having attracted millions of viewers”.

Debates have a high symbolic significance: they demonstrate the candidates’ willingness to subject themselves to the scrutiny of the public on the issues that matter to us all. Contemporary election campaigns are fought in and through mass media, and are increasingly personalised and presidentialised precisely because of the distinctive affordances of the media. If election campaigns are part character test, part degradation ritual, the debates are perhaps the most important stage on which these are played out.

Placing them at risk – as Cameron has done – raises troubling questions about the health of our democratic life at a vital moment.

Karin Wahl-Jorgensen would like to acknowledge Steven Buckley for assistance in carrying out research for this column.

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