Political jockeying over TV election debates risks a return to the historical pattern of failure to ensure the debates reach our screens, according to a House of Lords Communications Committee report.
The Committee argue that this would be regrettable in light of powerful evidence that the public expects the debates to happen again. Research also shows that the debates helped to energise and engage the public in the electoral process, with the most striking impact on the young and relatively disengaged.
The Committee also argues that speculation over who can participate in the debates is sometimes misinformed. A proper account of the legal and regulatory framework around broadcasting, which the Committee sets out in their Report, is important in answering some of the questions which have been raised about who can participate and the way the broadcasters reach this judgement.
Finally, the Committee propose a number of reforms to the debates under the continuing editorial stewardship of the broadcasters. If the debates take place again in 2015 and beyond, the broadcasters should make more of the opportunity to encourage the public to be interested in the electoral process; they should establish an online portal or hub for the debates to ensure their easy discoverability alongside other election resources; and they should make sure to consider the balance of gender and ethnic diversity among the moderators.
Chairman of the Committee, Lord Inglewood, said:
"We only have a year to go before the next general election and what has been made very clear to us is that most people would be interested in the debates happening again. We hope that this will make it harder for any reluctant party leaders and their strategists to withdraw.
There is already a great deal of speculation about who should be allowed to participate in the debates. Under the current arrangements, the important point we make is that there exist a whole series of legal and regulatory safeguards and rules to ensure that all political parties are given due weight by the broadcasters during an election period. This applies across the whole patchwork of coverage relating to the election, of which the debates are just a part.
Suggestions have been made for the establishment of an idependent body to oversee the organisation and arrangement of debates. We see no need for that but we do think that the broadcasters could collectively do more to inform voters and encourage the public to be interested in the issues and the process. We already know that 87% of 18-24 year olds – traditionally the demographic most likely to experience voter apathy – said that the debates led to them discussing the election and relevant issues with their peers.
This is exactly what we need to capitalise on and why, although we emphatically do not want to interfere in any way with the editorial independence of the broadcasters, we believe our Report is timely in order to provide them with food for thought in considering how to build on the success that the last general election undoubtedly achieved."