The televised debate that never was

Despite all the wrangling, ultimately the parties lacked enthusiasm. It is in the public interest for the politicians and broadcasters to get it right next time
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A leadership debate has long been the holy grail of British broadcasters. Even in the context of a modern campaign covered by hour after hour of election programming on TV and radio, this would have been the big one - the programme all the broadcasters were convinced would be special enough to attract the parts of the electorate other political programmes couldn't reach and to deliver a mass audience. It could have been the television event of the year and possibly the defining point of the campaign.

We considered that mounting such a debate lay at the heart of the BBC's public service remit and that licence-payers would legitimately expect such a crucial national event to be broadcast by us on both television and radio. It was a strong card. But not strong enough. Some of the comment following the collapse of the talks assumed that the decision was in the broadcasters' hands. It wasn't. In this game the politicians held all the aces. This was the one programme which by definition could not get on screen unless all the parties agreed not only to take part, but to take part on the same terms.

The BBC first wrote to John Major, Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown just before Christmas, and we started talking informally to their representatives in January. From the start the then government wanted a prime ministerial debate - a head-to-head with Tony Blair. For us this was never a starter. We had to be perceived by the audience to be fair. And that meant including the third UK party in a meaningful way and making appropriate arrangements for the SNP and Plaid Cymru. We had strong legal advice that the Liberal Democrats would challenge such a proposal in court and win. But for the BBC, being fair meant more than just avoiding legal challenge in the courts.

Initial contacts were not promising. The Conservative Party told us that they would not be talking to the broadcasters until a decision had been made in principle by the then prime minister. John Major was not interested in a format that included Paddy Ashdown. Labour was happy to engage in discussions, but wasn't optimistic about it taking off. If it happened at all, Labour wanted a negotiated framework well in advance. The Liberal Democrats made it clear that they had every intention of carrying out their threat of a legal challenge to any debate which excluded them.

In March, voices in the Conservative camp in favour of the debate became more audible, and the weekend before the election was declared we set to work on the first of many formats to put to the parties. Sunday 16 March marked the beginning of an intense, exhilarating but ultimately frustrating two weeks of negotiation. We learnt all the routes to avoid the worst traffic jams between Conservative Central Office, where Michael Dobbs was handling the talks for John Major, King's Bench Walk, where Lord Irvine, who negotiated for Labour, had his chambers, and the Westminster base of Lord Holme, the Liberal Democrats' campaign manager. By the evening of Wednesday 26 April we had come very close to an agreement, but on the following day it collapsed.

What went wrong? All along the parties had had a very different view about what a debate or debates should consist of. They did make concessions to each other. The Conservatives, not wanting to submit Mr Major to an undignified bear-garden, had initially been very wary of any audience participation at all. Labour, judging that Tony Blair would perform at his best with an audience, wanted most of the debate to involve, not just be in front of, an audience. The parties disagreed about the length and about whether there should be one debate or two. Our negotiations narrowed the gap considerably on all these points. But the central stumbling block - the role of Paddy Ashdown - remained, and as Labour would not be party to anything which might be subject to a legal challenge, the Liberal Democrats held the key.

Lord Holme was determined to ensure that Paddy Ashdown was not "confined to a corner" of the programme. Michael Dobbs was equally determined that John Major should have the maximum opportunity to take on Tony Blair head to head, with as little three-party interaction as possible. As minutes here and there in the format were traded, Labour lost patience and said it wanted it sorted out one way or the other before the Easter break, and set a deadline of 5pm on Thursday 27th. Michael Dobbs decided that meant, in effect, that the negotiations were over and having been at the centre of the action for the previous two weeks, we stood by helplessly watching the Press Association reports come up on the screen as the parties started to brief the press with their own versions as to why.

Could the debate talks have had a successful outcome? If the parties had met round a table months, even years in advance, as they do in the US, would an agreed format have emerged? If the broadcasters had acted together, instead of in competition with each other, would that have made a difference? These are questions we have been asked many times since the election and, indeed, have asked ourselves. But they presuppose that the politicians really wanted a debate, and shared the broadcasters' enthusiasm to make it the centrepiece of the election campaign. But there is little evidence that they did.

Elections are the point in the political cycle when politicians are least likely to be high-minded about engaging in debate for debate's sake, or making (sensible) negotiated concessions to their opponents. Politicians fight elections to win. If they're in government, why offer opportunities to the challenger? After all, many incumbent MPs see no advantage in taking part in broadcast constituency debates to which, under the provisions of the Representation of the People Act, all candidates must be invited to participate.

In the UK, party managers see only a high-risk strategy when they think of public, televised debates between leaders. To them, such an event, or events, over which they have limited control and which will dominate press and broadcast coverage for days before and after, is more threat than opportunity.

But elsewhere, in the US for example, leadership debates are widely seen as playing a significant part in helping voters to make their choices. Politicians, broadcasters and audiences have embraced them in a variety of formats and locations.

Similarly, we believed - and still do - that such debates are very much in the public interest. In 1997 the parties didn't agree. None of them wanted it enough to make it happen. And so it didn't. But we urge them to reconsider now, while there is time for calm reflection and negotiation and when the balance of party advantage may be less obvious.

If we can find a way through, we believe the public will be better informed and our political system strengthened. We invite the parties to find a way forward with us - we owe it to our audience - but there must be a genuine conviction on all sides.

Tony Hall is chief executive, BBC News. Anne Sloman is chief political adviser to the BBC.