Wednesday, 2 September 2009

US-style TV debates: real progress?

This morning's news reported that Tory leader David Cameron has agreed to participate in a pre-general election TV debate on Sky. Lib Dem Nick Clegg is also said to be keen on taking part, although there was no word on Gordon Brown's thoughts.

My initial reactions were that this would be a fantastic idea. You know, interesting political discussions on policy coming to a TV near you! It might even create some public enthusiasm in elections, which doesn't appear to be is short supply in the States.

There would be benefits, of course. The main one being that it would allow the public to make potentially better-informed decisions on the leaders' merits. It may also, hopefully, lead to politics becoming more about issues and policy rather than with personalities and tribalism, but I won't hold my breath!

But I have very real concerns about the way this has come about. If there is to be a TV debate it will not have be as a result of political concensus in regards modernising politics, but because Sky know they can make a buck or two out of it. I'm not convinced that Mr Murdoch is simply trying to do his bit for democracy. It would be very worrying if political TV debates became the sole preserve of Sky, especially as many people do not subscribe to Sky. If we're going to move forward into televised debates, then it should be accesible to all.

My principal concern though is about how this would marginalise minor parties such as the Greens, UKIP, Respect, Plaid Cymru or the SNP (the largest party in Scotland, but would still be excluded). The electoral system as is stands already denies these parties a real voice - a TV debate of three parties would exacerbate the problem further.

We have to ask ourselves about how best TV debates can contribute to democracy. I am not necessarily against them - I am sure they would be of enormous benefit to the Liberal Democrats and Nick Clegg personally - but Sky's self-aggrandising plan isn't the way to improve our democratic process. There are many problems with the UK's democratic system but there are too many financial interests that could be described as "vested" in Murdoch's "solution" for it to genuinely enhance democracy.