What a way to run an opinion poll

It was supposed to be TV's great public debate but it turned out more like a public bar barney. Michael Streeter reports
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The Independent Online
The Carlton Television programme on the monarchy, which attracted a record 2.6 million telephone calls, came under attack yesterday for both the standard of debate and its boisterous live audience.

Experts who took part in Tuesday night's Monarchy: The Nation Decides, filmed at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, queued up to criticise the "pub debate" level of discussion. The Conservative MP and former minister Stephen Norris, who walked out after half an hour without taking part, described it as "crap".

Nonetheless both television experts and politicians claimed that such mini-referendums filled a gap left by the failure of Westminster to debate key issues.

Across the United Kingdom, the telephone poll registered 66 per cent favouring the monarchy, with 34 against. Only Scotland returned a majority republican vote, which reached 56 per cent. In Wales the split was 59 per cent pro-royalty, 41 per cent against; Northern Ireland, 64 per cent in favour, 36 per cent against; and the English regions around 69 per cent pro, 31 per cent against.

There were complaints from many viewers that they could not get through on the lines - particularly on the "against" line. However, Buckingham Palace described the result as "encouraging".

Carlton and ITV network executives were delighted with the success of the programme, which was watched by an estimated 8.5 million viewers. The format of this kind of television started in the United States and has been operating in UK regional television for five years. Paul Corley, controller of factual programmes for the ITV network, said after the broadcast: "I think this is the sort of programme that ITV should be doing ... I think it was terrific television."

Executives also shrugged off criticism by panellists about the behaviour of the 3,000 audience who booed and heckled speakers, and the constant sparring between experts.

Mike Morley, the programme's editor, said: "We were on new ground here. There were 3,000 people in a live audience and you can't expect them to behave as if they are at a seance." He denied that the audience had been wound up to create atmosphere.

The panellist Claire Rayner was frustrated by the format. "I hoped there would be the chance to really talk seriously about issues, not just this boring old slagging off. It is just a pub debate."

Mr Norris, who steps down as an MP at the next election, said the event was a cross between a rugby scrum and a pantomime. But he conceded that the appearance of such programmes was a signal of a lack of debate in Westminster.

His fellow panellist, Professor Stephen Haseler, chairman of pressure group Republic and professor of government at London Guildhall University, agreed that the programme was symbolic of the failure of Parliament. There was little or no debate between the main parties on the monarchy, Europe, Scotland or Northern Ireland, he said. "No wonder other media are moving into the field."

The Tory MP George Walden called the programme a "substitute for the silence of politicians ... And when these emotions come out they are not always a pretty sight".

The reaction from the television industry was that Monarchy provided compelling viewing, if not enlightening debate. One senior observer said: "These participation programmes are becoming a fad among current affairs producers who have seen that Westminster just isn't talking to the public."

Tom Gutteridge, chief executive of Mentorn Films which produces the phone- in You Decide with Jeremy Paxman for BBC1, said the latter was a much more tightly controlled debate than Carlton's, which was "referendum by TV". He doubted that more than a few hundred thousand people had called in; his experience suggested many people voted several times.

Carlton said last night that it made only a small amount from the telephone lines. But Tony Currie, a television historian, said such revenue would become an important factor for producers. "What we had last night was in effect pay-to-view TV."

The broadcasting watchdog Independent Television Commission said it received 16 complaints from the public on its overnight answering machine; on an average night it gets six.

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