Steve Richards: The last thing we need is a televised election debate

None of the issues would get a look-in; the event would be the only talking point
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The Independent Online

Here we go again. A debate erupts over whether there should be a debate between the leaders during the election campaign. Peter Mandelson suggests Gordon Brown is willing. David Cameron wonders mischievously whether Labour is divided over the debate about the debate. The august Hansard Society declares a willingness to help facilitate the big event. Various broadcasters stir, sensing glory and, of course, because they wish to serve the democratic process.

We have been here many times before. Tony Blair wanted the televised extravaganzas when he was Leader of the Opposition and then lost interest as a prime minister. Margaret Thatcher was a fan in the 1970s and became a firm opponent from the lofty heights of No 10 during the 1980s when Neil Kinnock called on her to take part. David Cameron is enthusiastic now and would turn against the idea if he were to win, at which point the next Labour leader would become an enthusiast.

This time it is just possible that Gordon Brown will agree and we will get the battle as well as the usual preliminary skirmishes. In his Newsnight interview earlier this week, an important exchange for those wishing to get a sense of how Labour will attempt to fight back after the summer, Mandelson described his party as the underdogs. He claimed they will fight as the insurgents in government. This is relevant to the televised debates; underdogs tend to support them.

As a leader with nothing to lose and seeking a game-changer, Brown might be tempted. Brown is deadly cautious until he decides to make a move, and then he can be quite bold. He is convinced that Cameron is a public relations lightweight with right-wing instincts that fly in the face of the public mood. Perhaps a debate or three would give him the chance to expose his apparently invincible opponent. I sense it is possible he will go for it. In which case the next election campaign will be an even bleaker prospect than it already looks like being.

Over the next few months, we should be debating which party has the best solutions for guiding Britain towards an economic recovery and better public services and which has the most constructive foreign policies, not least in relation to Europe. We need to examine in more detail how the parties have responded to the economic crisis so far. Given the gravity of the situation, the election is arguably the most important since 1979.

If there is a series of televised debates, none of these issues will get a look in. The event, or events, will become the only talking point. Right away there would be a major debate about the format of the debates. Should all three party leaders take part? What about the other leaders of smaller parties? How much time should each of them get? Will there be a studio audience? The answers to these questions would take up a thousand front pages and, come to think of it, quite a few columns.

Next there would be a row about which broadcaster should be in charge. Never knowingly understaffed, the BBC would set up a leaders' debate unit with an army of managers trying to seem busier than they really were. During the 1997 election, I recall someone with the title of Acting Deputy Head of Labour's Rebuttal Unit telling me one manager at the BBC had phoned him to complain that the party had not complained to him; it had complained to the wrong BBC managers.

I dread to think how many managers would get involved in the preparations for a televised debate. ITV has given up with politics and so has Channel Four, unless it is to commission films arguing with a gormless lack of originality that politicians are liars, the theme of its last two campaigns. But Sky will flex its muscles, wanting to be the driving force. That will be a quite a spat, Rupert Murdoch's Sky versus the BBC.

Next there would be the battle over the presenter of the debates. This will dominate the front pages for weeks. Jeremy Paxman will be in the frame. Perhaps Nick Robinson would like to do it; Adam Boulton of Sky certainly would. Maybe they could do one each. But then there would be a row about the lack of women. Three male leaders chaired by a man would get the thumbs down. The media would be in uproar: bring on Kirsty Wark! Hold on a minute, what about Martha Kearney?

Once all those rows had been resolved, we would move on to the events themselves. The previews would be intense and extensive, like the build-up on FA Cup Final Day, which is always more exciting than the match that follows. There would be quite a focus on what the candidates might have chosen to wear. Would Brown wear a red tie, or that blue one he has taken to putting on when he seeks to play the apolitical father of the nation? Would Cameron wear a tie at all? Would Nick Clegg change his hairstyle again to look more or less like Cameron?

There would be long features on those advising the trio. Gordon would have Peter training him for the event. Dave would have Andy Coulson and George Osborne, a trio at least as fascinated by the game of politics as they are in the more complex business of policy-making.

Then the event would take place. We know what would happen. Overall it would be hopelessly constrained because of the broadcasters' obligations for precise balance in an election campaign. Brown would be wooden and wary of saying anything that might produce a damaging headline. Goodness knows what he would be like during such a high-stakes media event in the middle of an election campaign.

Cameron would be nimble footed and would superficially convey a youthful Blair-like prime ministerial aura without saying very much. Clegg would be the anti-politics candidate, despairing at the orthodoxies of the other two. That would be it. Thank you and good night.

But of course that would be far from the end of it. The reviews of the performances would begin. Pundits would declare who had won and who had lost. There would be slow-motion replays of key moments amid a general view that the event itself was something of an anti-climax. Still the post mortem would not be anti-climactic. Too much airtime would have been given up in advance. Fashion experts would be summoned to give their views on the leaders' outfits. Media columnists would declare how the presenters had performed. Perhaps more pundits could give their verdict on the punditry.

In the meantime, the minor matter of whether the Conservatives would make the economic situation even worse or whether Brown's policies are to blame for the recession would get lost in the drama. Do not believe for one moment that the televised debates would do anything to enhance Britain's fragile democracy.