Let’s all take a moment to rejoice, because Scotland has televised leaders debates! This is more than can be said for the people of England, who are, once again, being denied the exciting head-to-head debates, which transfixed the nation in 2010. Although, even I will admit, these debates provide little in the way of substance, and fuel the personality politics which is becoming increasingly prevalent, however, they do have a clear role in our 21st Century democracy. Research has demonstrated that they dramatically increase voter engagement, and they help to provide a greater platform for those views on the fringes. Some of us may dislike the entertainment-style of such a format, but anything that increases interest in politics, and brings the arguments to a wider audience, should be commended as a positive for democracy, which at this election, looks increasingly under threat.
Tragically, this year it is clear that the politicians are, once again, calling the shots, with Theresa May declaring that she will not participate in any TV head-to-head. The 2015 General Election saw David Cameron refuse to debate face-to-face with Ed Milliband, while instead accepting a compromise proposal from Sky News, which would see him answer questions from a studio audience. Now, the broadcasters are suffering the consequences of their mistake; by allowing a shred of leeway, to the demands of politicians, who have the sole purpose of furthering their own agenda, the Prime Minister now views avoiding the scrutiny of the TV studios altogether as a viable trade-off, in this snap election.
Therefore, there is a strong case for a more ridged approach to these debates. Anyone knows that conventions in politics are not birthed overnight, and it takes many years of a tradition, before politicians feel compelled to abide by them. The half-hearted “debates” in 2015 merely set a precedent for leaders to decline future invitations to participate. They provided zero punishment for those who attempted to avoid scrutiny, such as the ‘empty chair,’ which is finally being touted by ITV, and they gave leaders, who were running scared, an environment in which they could foster. Scrutiny should not be a comfortable ordeal. If the media are to truly get on the side of democracy, then they must stop bowing to the political elite. The televised debates should be decided by the broadcasters, and the viewing public; terms, dates, and format. They should be held, every election, regardless of whether certain politicians choose to take part. Only that way, will the right message be sent to Westminster; the public are in control, not politicians.
Unbelievably, Scotland’s debates have not come without their own controversy. STV announced the event would take place, with the leaders of the “four main political parties.” However, social media erupted after it became clear that the Scottish Green Party’s Patrick Harvie would not be receiving an invitation. The exclusion of the Green Party, which already caused dispute back in 2015, when again, the party was not asked to take part, has raised many questions over how media executives come to their decisions on who is allowed to participate.
First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon tweeted, “For those asking, and while I recognise that it’s STV’s decision, I do think Patrick Harvie should be included in the debate.
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) April 27, 2017
Others questioned whether the Liberal Democrats had more of a right to be included, over the Greens.
— pete morrison (@phabbay) April 27, 2017
In a direct response to this question, an STV spokesperson said:
“STV is a public service broadcaster with a strong track record of high quality impartial news and current affairs provision.Elections
We will provide comprehensive coverage of the forthcoming general election throughout the election period of which the leaders’ debate is one part and we are satisfied that our editorial policy is in line with Ofcom’s election rules.”
The snub from STV appeared to many as completely unexplainable, due to the fact that, as of 2016, the Scottish Green Party currently hold more seats in the Scottish Parliament than the Scottish Liberal Democrats, who are going to be included in the line-up for the debate. Moreover, the Scottish Greens are polling consistently higher, for the upcoming General Election, than the “fourth place” Liberal Democrats.
The co-convener of the Scottish Greens took to Twitter to voice his dismay, with a simple hashtag – #InviteTheGreens.
— Patrick Harvie (@patrickharvie) April 27, 2017
When analysing how STV came to their verdict, it is apparent that they completely ignored Scottish Parliamentary elections, and Scottish Council elections, while instead choosing to focus solely on the results of past UK General elections. In the 2015 General Election, the Liberal Democrats faired far better, receiving one seat and 7.6% of the vote, compared to the Greens who did not win any seats, and only managed 1.3%, coming sixth, behind UKIP.
However, this method of selecting participants has the potential to raise quite a number of abnormalities. For example, if the debates were conducted between the two leaders of the two main parties, as seen in the US presidential debates, then this year, Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, whose party currently presides in third place at Holyrood, and in the polls, would be receiving an invitation over the Scottish Conservatives, who are the official opposition in Scotland, and are, at present, polling far higher than their Labour counterparts. Furthermore, even if STV felt compelled to increase the number of leaders participating in the debate, to five, then by their own criteria, UKIP would have more of a right to be included, than the Greens, due to the fact that they polled 0.3% higher in the 2015 election; even although they hold no seats in the Scottish Parliament. Such absurdities raise the need for clear and transparent benchmarks, set by the regulating body, which outline the circumstances in which political parties are asked to participate, rather than the power resting at the whim of TV executives; ultimately, leaving the door open for unscrupulous reporting and bias.
In the United States, the Republican presidential primary debates, which take place between candidates attempting to represent their party into the election, are far more comparable to our party debates in the UK, with many personalities on stage. At the last presidential Republican primary, as many as 10 candidates simultaneously shared the same platform. Crucially, participants in these debates are selected entirely through polling data. Such a standard set for our debates in Scotland would have solved the current crisis STV are now facing over there choice of candidates. However, even in the US, this method has been heavily criticised, especially by the polling company, Marist, whose data is relied on for the selection of participants. Marist claims that the precision of their polls is inherently uncertain, and that the margin of error will result in an unfair disqualification, in a circumstance whereby one of two candidates, who are polling at around the same levels, may be unduly excluded on the basis of statistical inaccuracies. Obviously, such a scenario would gain an equal amount of dissatisfaction, and thus, it is difficult to contemplate broadcasters ever using the same method in Scotland.
Nonetheless, the Republican primaries technique does have some notable advantages. Firstly, the participants are selected based on up-to-date public opinion, vital for the fast pace political climate the United Kingdom finds itself in, where parties can be accelerated from the margins of politics, to very centre stage, in a matter of months. This would remove the situation, whereby “one issue parties,” who gain a significant amount of traction before quickly falling into irrelevance, are awarded a place on a TV debate, five years after they have become unpopular. Secondly, there exists clear, open, and transparent conditions for a debate invitation, which are communicated to all candidates well in advance. Not only does this avoid the unwanted surprise, suffered by the Scottish Greens, when the discovered that they were being excluded, but it also removes the potential for interference and bias from broadcasting companies, who may wish to subtly drive an agenda. Such as in many areas of public life, removing the cloak of secrecy and opening up the process, by allowing everyone access to the rules of the game, is bound to increase public trust in the media, which has been severely damaged in Scotland, in recent years.
There might not be any quick remedy to these issues, however with politicians increasingly using technology for the purpose of digital campaigning, and with our airwaves saturated with endless reels of party propaganda, it is key that these same instruments are used to firmly scrutinise the policies and decisions of those who run our country. Participation in scrutiny should not be a choice, but a requirement, and with this election expected to “coronate” Theresa May as Prime Minister, for at least the next five years, while “crushing the opposition,” there has never been a greater need to effectively hold our politicians to account. TV debates will only serve to be effective if the format, and rules, remain consistent. The flip-flopping and compromises from broadcasters have only contributed to weakening their effect. The public might take them seriously, but politicians must, also. However, STV’s choice to exclude the Greens, will only turn the public against the televised debates as well, and at the very moment we need them most. It is time for a clear, and mathematical, system, where the conditions for entry into the debates, are based on set rules; understood by people, and politicians alike. With a sustainable structure to televised scrutiny, the broadcasters might begin succeeding in effectively holding our government accountable.