Letter: Back-room deals are no way to organise an election debate

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Sir: Your recent articles and correspondence about the 1997 televised election debate fiasco suggest that the broadcasters and politicians must act sooner to contrive a mutually acceptable deal before the next general election. This misses a significant point: if the public is to benefit from serious, democratic, inclusive televised political debates, then the process of organising them must itself be publicly accountable and seen to be more than merely a back-room deal between ratings-conscious TV executives and political strategists seeking target votes.

In the 1997 debate negotiations the political parties never once met in the same room, around one table, to discuss the proposals from the broadcasters. Each of the broadcasters contending for the debate franchise negotiated separately and secretly with each of the party strategists. This was immensely inefficient in the midst of a six-week national election campaign. It had about it the unaccountable feel of pre-1950s broadcasting deals between the BBC and the favoured politicians. And, given that it was promoted as a means of enhancing the democratic process, it lacked any accountability to the public, who overwhelmingly wanted a debate but found themselves in the role of onlookers at the feudal court, told only after the event of mysterious rival accounts of why the debate did not happen.

For this reason, we agree strongly with Lord Holme and Adam Boulton (Letters, 3 July) that future debates must be organised under an independent aegis. To this end, we shall be launching an independent working party on televised political debates at this summer's Edinburgh Television Festival. Our working party will take evidence from broadcasters, the political parties and the public and will produce questions and proposals to be discussed at a subsequent conference. It may be that the next step will be the establishment of an independent commission to organise future televised debates (similar in intent to the US Commission on Presidential Debates).

This issue goes deeper than the failure to negotiate a Blair-Major-Ashdown showdown during the 1997 general election. Democratic politics needs an abundance of good, open, reasoned debate; without it the political process rapidly degenerates into an exchange of advertising slogans. Televised debates are not simply about creating TV spectaculars at election-time. In the coming years there will be several important referendums; there will be the 1999 European elections; there will be a government with a huge majority and a democratic duty to be seen in public discussion with other parties and, through interactive technology, with the public. Television remains the obvious public forum for such debate.


Director, Hansard Society Scholars Programme


Editor, People's Election Project, Channel 4

London NW3