Why we should not have TV debates

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May has called an election for 8 June, but says that there will be no TV debates between the party leaders. 

This is exactly the right decision—not just for her and her party, but for the UK. Why?

The idea of TV leaders’ debates goes back to the 1960 presidential election in the United States. A debate between the two main candidates, Vice President Richard M Nixon and Senator John F Kennedy, took place on 26 September. Radio listeners thought that Nixon was the outright winner; but a majority of those who saw it on TV thought Kennedy was. That is the importance of body language: Kennedy looked neater, younger, cooler, more self-confident. Nixon had five-o’clock shadow (it was a problem for him: he had to shave twice a day), looked older, sweatier, unstylish, and much less at ease with the cameras.

Whatever you think of Nixon and Kennedy, that words/pictures divide is the first point against TV debates in elections. The very nature of TV favours smooth performers who are confident on camera, not experienced candidates who will be competent in office. The inevitably rushed, superficial, quick-response nature of TV debates deepens the divide. Indeed, good potential candidates who are not comfortable on camera do not even put their names forward.

Even among seasoned performers, TV debates do not serve every candidate equally. They favour underdogs. That is why UK opposition parties called for them for years before David Cameron agreed to one. But his short-sighted decision backfired because it gave the LibDem leader Nick Clegg—another self-assured TV performer—a huge boost, and led to Cameron having to share power, with dismal results. 

Having agreed to TV debates in 2010, Cameron had set a precedent—he had no grounds to refuse them in 2015. That time he won, though by a wafer-thin majority. 

By then it was clear that TV debates were having a major effect on UK elections. But that was not an entirely positive constitutional change. Perhaps electors should make their choice on something more profound than a much-hyped and stilted media extravaganza—to decide on what all the candidates say and do during several weeks of campaigning, not on how a handful of party leaders happen to perform in a TV studio on a Saturday night.

That points up the next argument against TV debates. They might be fine for US presidential elections—which are elections between single individuals. But UK general elections are different. You are voting for a Member of Parliament to represent you in Parliament—to represent you, indeed, against the power of the Executive. TV debates turn UK elections into presidential contests—into elections for the leader of the Executive. Since Walpole’s time, many people have believed that Prime Ministers have too much power in Britain. By raising party leaders' profile yet further, TV debates simply add to that personal power. 

It is as serious as that. TV debates turn UK elections into something that, constitutionally, they are not. They turn elections into contests between TV personalities, rather than contests between concepts, ideologies, strategies, visions and policies. They promote the rule of individuals over the rule of law. They are a very bad idea.