Leading Article: It's time for our leaders to face trial by TV

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The Independent Online
In the early hours of yesterday (our time) the first televised debate took place between President Bill Clinton and his Republican challenger Bob Dole. It did not make for compelling viewing - except for students of the political process, who will have been counting the thousands of staff hours that must have gone into preparing two candidates who for all their political skills are neither natural television performers, nor polished debaters. By all accounts the result was nil all. Bob Dole failed to land one on the President or force him into error; Clinton avoided stepping into the mire of allegations about drugs or personal life. Likewise the septuagenarian kept his end up without betraying the meanness of spirit that has, till now at least, been his stock in trade. So the judgement might be that this was hardly an exalted occasion in the history of American democracy, and surely not an example to be followed here as we stumble towards our general election. Wrong, on both counts.

The televised debate does the United States credit as a functioning democracy adapting to the modern world. Only a hair-shirt purist wedded to some mythical Athenian model of open-air franchise can object to the rapprochement of the electoral process and modern technology. Voters do not just need to see candidates on television and judge their performance on the medium, they are entitled to it. It is important neither to exaggerate the psephological effects of television in elections, nor to underestimate the many ways in which pictures of candidates feed into beliefs and voting decisions.

Tricky Dicky Nixon was wrong to blame the medium for exposing his blue chin in the 1960 presidential election when he engaged in television debate with JFK. There is little American evidence, then or since, that performance on television as such has determined an election outcome. Neither Gerry Ford's defeat nor Ronald Reagan's victory four years later was the result of television debate. Bill Clinton did not thwart George Bush's bid for a second term because he outshone him on the box. Television has none the less become an essential vehicle. It captures moments, reinforces an impression, reflects and sometimes compounds a candidate's weaknesses or ambiguities. The television debate, three weeks or so before voters decide, has now become an informative ritual from which candidates shrink at their peril.

But that is the United States. Here we are not (yet) electing a president. But television already plays a huge - if little understood - role in political choice, British calculations being so much more difficult to make because of the weight of our partisan press. Use of television (which may often turn into use by television) is nowadays part of the governing process. What minister can hope to put over a controversial policy to the House of Commons alone, without attempting to persuade and inform in the television studios? Even their own backbenchers judge them as much by their performance on TV as on their performance in the debating chamber. Now that the proceedings of Parliament itself are televised, and now that politicians are so comfortable with the grammar of the medium and its opportunities for attack and defence, it is only logical to do what the Americans do and bring the party leaders into a formal televised election debate some weeks before polling. The Hansard Society has recently been thinking about logistics.

Here is our plan. It is for two or three substantial debates in which participants are allowed to cross-question each other, perhaps around a theme such as Europe or tax. The debate itself could be led, as in the United States, by panels of journalist-interlocutors chosen broadly to reflect the balance of opinion in the country. Though Messrs Major and Blair would not like it, these debates ought to be three-handed. This is not out of some instinct of kindness to the underdog. Ross Perot would have enlivened the presidential debates in the US for the same reason Paddy Ashdown could make the difference between TV liveliness or boredom here. With two participants there is a danger of set-piece speeches dominating the event. With three there is greater opportunity for spiky cross-reference, with the man never likely to reach the top office setting barbed traps for contenders anxious to stay on the straight and narrow path to Number Ten.

John Major should give the proposal serious thought. He is better in micro than in macro. It would probably be to his advantage to engage in such face-to-face discussion. Tony Blair, the contender, ought to welcome every opportunity to challenge the incumbent. One of the sessions should certainly be devoted to Europe, so that we can see how close the two may actually be, once they are outside the artificial contention of Prime Minister's Question Time.

We do not need to read Dickens's account of Eatanswill in Pickwick Papers to be reminded that the open hustings of yore were rarely a means of informing voters. And yet it is hard to resist the attractions of seeing the principal candidates in the flesh doing what comes naturally - advancing their cause by word and gesture. The camera's electronic eye is hardly fool-proof. But it can see embarrassment, shilly-shallying and evasion. It gives a fair guide - to an audience now thoroughly schooled in the nuances of the medium - to sincerity and trustworthiness. It does not replace manifestos. It cannot obscure the faults or attractions of others in the ministerial team. It certainly will not confound the brute facts of economic history and policy competence. But it might add a useful occasion for seeing leaders in action. The capacity to perform on television is now, for better or worse, an essential ingredient in the make-up of a successful democratic politician.