Now we've begun TV debates, let's make them even better

Democracy can benefit even more in future elections, says Adam Boulton of Sky News

In the dying minutes of the third and final UK leaders' debate I was moved by something Gordon Brown had to say.

The Labour leader has come under fierce criticism for not connecting to real people and the real world, but he made an observation that will resonate long after 2010's political point-scoring is forgotten. "I want to thank everybody who's been involved in these debates over the last few weeks," he said.

Moments later the cold figures of the "instant reaction polls" fell in on him, but for me it was a timely reminder of the respect we owe to all three party leaders this year for the courage they have shown in seeing through the debates.

It's too presidential, our election is fought in the constituencies, you're reducing it all to the X Factor, and what about the other parties? There are plenty of easy excuses that could have been deployed to duck TV debates. But, in spite of some grumbling, this year Brown and Cameron chose not to deploy them – the first pairing of incumbent prime minister and opposition leader not to do so. More courageously – foolishly many of their supporters would say – neither camp baulked at including Nick Clegg on equal terms. Instead, both manifested a statesman-like acceptance of the realities of multi-party Britain.

Snobs and insiders may carp at the TV debates and some ordinary viewers may profess themselves less than enthralled, but the fact remains that the TV debates have brought election politics to the people in a way never achieved before in this country. Millions tuned in and registered an immediate and unprecedented swing in the polls.

As the novelty wears off there may be a certain sense of "as you were" in terms of expectations for Thursday's outcome, yet more voters and young future voters have been engaged in the debate on the issues as never before.

Late on Thursday night I interviewed Dan Rather, America's anchorman emeritus. Our British debates have been carried in the US on C-Span, the public service cable channel. The American consensus seems to be that our politicians are more weighty debaters than theirs but the consensus on outcome is the same – Cameron first, then Clegg, and then Brown.

Dan Rather startled me by suggesting that my boss, John Ryley, head of Sky News, should be put forward for a knighthood for kicking off the campaign that resulted in the debates. Such sycophancy is way above my pay grade. Once Sky News's initial thrust cut through the Gordian knot of inherited red tape that had prevented debates in the past, the real point was that all the broadcasters – BBC, ITV and Sky – worked together constructively to ensure that they happened this time.

It was fortuitous that rather than a uniform debates commission, each TV company was able to take possession of its own debate and stamp it with its own personality. The rules of engagement were common for all three debates, but audiences were offered variety of the location, theme, moderator and style. At Granada Studios in Manchester, ITV evoked its proud heritage of popular television. In Bristol, Sky News took a brasher, bolder and more focussed approach, building continuous wraparound coverage as only a rolling news channel can. In the great hall of Birmingham University, where Mastermind and Question Time have gone before, the BBC honoured its motto to educate, entertain and inform all under the baton of a national treasure, the hereditary Dimbleby.

Since they were proffering debate virgins, the parties were understandably cautious about what they would agree to this time. All three wanted to restrict the role of the audience and the moderator. Outsiders are dangerous, as Gordon Brown proved yet again in Rochdale last week.

Now the TV companies have proved that they can play fair, I hope that the rules will be relaxed and varied for future election debates. There's no reason, for example, why the BBC shouldn't be able to use its tried and tested programme formula for a Leaders' Question Time. More lively town hall formats could be tested, though having chaired two looser debates in Scotland and Wales this year, I reckon that applause can get in the way of interaction between the debaters.

It would be good if at least one debate included the nationalist leaders and it would be great to see some women on the stage (Kirsty Williams and Cheryl Gillan certainly brightened up the Sky News Wales Debate).

The debates have been an important stage in the evolution of British factual television. They should be a fixture for the future.

Adam Boulton will anchor Decision Time on Sky News HD, Sky channel 517 (501/SD) from 9pm, Thursday

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Database Executive - Leading Events Marketing Company - London

£23000 - £25000 per annum + 25 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: Databas...

Recruitment Genius: Publishing Assistant

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for a...

Guru Careers: Graduate Account Executive / Digital Account Executive

£20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Graduate Digital Account Exec ...

Guru Careers: Print Project Manager

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: A Print Project Manager is needed to join one...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk