Three-D Issue 24: The debate about the debate about the debates

ColemanStephen Coleman
University of Leeds

Forget the televised election debates. The debate about the debates is much more revealing. The pitiful ‘will they-won’t they’ saga that’s been played out in the past few months offers a telling insight into the assumptions of elite political communication and the grounds upon which so many people choose to disengage from it.

Secret meetings in an unknown location between party spin doctors and broadcasting executives are perhaps not the most auspicious launch pad for a democratic national debate. Who spoke for the voters in these protracted negotiations? At what point did the negotiators draw on research to discover what people might actually want to derive from the debates – or whether they wanted them at all? Whose job was it to tell the politicians that election debates should amount to more than a Machiavellian competition for votes in which calculations of partisan advantage determine willingness to participate? Whatever took place in those closed rooms, in which ordinary voters only ever entered to serve the sandwiches, there eventually came a point at which the broadcasters decided that they had something to announce. In a well-publicised media launch last October, the broadcasters proposed running three debates: one with just the leaders of the Conservative and Labour parties, a second also including the Liberal Democrats, and a third including UKIP.

The Conservatives, as the incumbent party of government with most to lose, and an enduring irritation at their leader’s failure to ‘win’ the 2010 debates, became very nervous, not least about the prospect of having to tussle with UKIP for the mantle of party of unadulterated nationalism. In one of the more disingenuous statements of his premiership, the Prime Minister insisted that he would only take part in the debates if the Greens were also included. This forced the broadcasters to ask why UKIP and the Greens should be in the debates if the SNP and Plaid Cymru, with more parliamentary seats, were not. In January 2015 the broadcasters proposed running two seven-way debates including representatives of the Conservative Party, Labour, Liberal Democrats, UKIP, Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru and a third ‘head-to-head’ debate between the Conservative and Labour leaders.

This was followed by a strange stand-off. The Prime Minister, having said in the House of Commons that he wanted a head-to-head debate with the Labour leader, then refused to participate in more than one seven-headed debate. The broadcasters threatened to run the debates with an ‘empty chair’ for any of the leaders refusing to attend. Michael Grade, former Chair of the BBC Trust – and a Conservative peer – told the broadcasters to ‘get back in their box’ and accept that it is up to politicians to decide whether the debates go ahead or not. As I write, there is an impasse, with some possibility of the Conservatives accepting an invitation to participate in a ‘digital debate’ run by a consortium involving The Guardian, Telegraph and YouTube. Rumours have it that the empty chair is seriously contemplating whether it would be in its advantage to take part.

Debate as a cultural phenomenon

This whole sorry fiasco reflects a deeper cultural uncertainty about what it means to have a serious debate of ideas on television – a subject about which I have written elsewhere.1 In an age when Ministers saying ‘We need a national debate’ really mean that they and their Shadows should tour the broadcast studios exchanging facile soundbites, the very idea of a direct, forceful clash of ideas seems somehow exotic. The policy wonks who now dominate the party machines have little or no experience of debating with people from beyond their own narrow and self-referential circles. They regard themselves as experts at imagining how real people think; probing citizens through controlled exercises such as opinion polls, focus groups and ‘nudge’ initiatives; and inventing ‘media narratives’ that they believe can serve as effective substitutes for two-way communication. The idea of having to present convincing arguments to a critical public – and in the presence of opponents whose arguments have to be confronted reasonably – strikes the political wonks and fixers as a nightmarish encounter. The indeterminacy of real, live debate frightens them.

Having led the research team that evaluated public responses to the 2010 election debates2, I shall be conducting similar research this time. In addition to this, Giles Moss and I have conducted focus-group research exploring public expectations for the 2015 debates. With colleagues at the Open University, we have designed a new technology intended to capture viewers’ instant feedback to what they see and hear in the debates and a platform that will allow people to replay the debates aided by a range of additional features, including fact-checking, argument-mapping and linguistic analyses of the debaters’ speech acts3. The guiding assumption of our research project is that democratic debate should belong to citizens rather than elites. Rather than asking how well voters absorb what the politicians and broadcasters think they should learn from the debates, our question is, how can the debates help people to realise democratic capabilities that will allow them to become the kind of citizens that they want to be? In short, how can election debates empower the electorate?

Few would disagree with us that asking people to vote without offering them resources that enable them to deliberate upon the options before them is hardly democratic. That being so, we want to explore ways of enabling voters to take away more from the election debates than politicians want to offer them.


1. Coleman, Stephen. “Debate on television the spectacle of deliberation.” Television & New Media 14.1 (2013): 20-30.

2. Coleman, Stephen, ed. Leaders in the Living Room: the Prime Ministerial debates of 2010: evidence, evaluation and some recommendations. Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford, 2011.

3. See

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