TV Political debates with a candidates ‘Question Time’ format are fast becoming the norm. Last night on BBC1 there was a by-election debate in the Rochester and Strood constituency (available here on BBC iplayer).

Such TV exposure is unusual for a by-election and as a result the Rochester and Strood constituency candidates were exposed to a medium that offers new opportunities to reach a wider audience but brings with it real dangers of misconceptions as content is inevitably overshadowed by other factors that the less experienced are clearly not used to. Reading a speech or writing an article doesn’t really give much away about an individual but responding to questions whilst under extreme visual scrutiny creates an impression instantly as all the non-verbal signals are in play as well. From the first few utterances a TV audience will make a whole host of decisions about the speaker as a part of natural and automatic human judgements and getting this part wrong can put the speaker at an instant disadvantage. Nigel, of course, is a natural at doing this and whilst an inner talent for getting people on-board is hugely advantageous it is also a skill that can be learned and improved upon with practice.

This is important because the TV environment, although artificial to a degree, is a highly purposeful platform and has, for some time, been an electoral tool for high profile politicians. Now, it seems, everyone seeking office will need to learn how to perform in front of a camera and that’s a skill which, judging by this programme is sorely lacking. The first and most important point to remember is that, from the producer’s point of view, this is principally entertainment and content will always be subjugated to that overriding requirement.

Televised debates would generally benefit from a formal structure that prevents dominance and helps to keep things on track. It can be aided by a forensic chairperson who listens to what is being said and interjects when unfounded assertions are made or when further clarification is needed whilst keeping some order between inexperienced and squabbling participants. This particular debate suffered a little from a lack of such management despite, I suspect, Polly Evans’ best intentions. It’s a tricky balance because, necessarily, some answers need background detail but as an entertainment program presenters are only too aware that most of the audience switch off if any detailed explanation is embarked upon so the general level of the debate has to remain in ‘front page’ language hence the curtailing of informed answers.

One prominent example of this chairperson thinking about something else during a highly relevant part of the proceedings was when a member of the audience asked Mark Reckless a direct question incorporating much of what is misunderstood about immigration and the effect of the EU on British jobs. His potential reply and the enlightenment that would have followed was promptly interrupted by a distracted Polly and an answer to the most material question of the evening was lost to everyone. Of course, this wasn’t the only time that happened.

As for the UKIP performance Mark Reckless came across as serious, thoughtful and courteous, though he is no inspirational orator by nature. The other participants were, by comparison, quite unconvincing, mostly pandering to their own supporters and constantly interrupting each other, a behaviour which is rarely perceived graciously by an audience.

I’m not sure that anyone is wiser as a result of this debate but, then again, that’s not really the point of them. We remember the ‘I agree with Nick’ debates of the last election and the failure of the Liberal Democrats to turn a polished TV performance into votes so initial assessments of winning and losing aren’t, perhaps, the most reliable measurements of electoral success. Nevertheless, as I said, they are here to stay and we had better learn how to get the best from them.

Probably the most impressive performance of the night was from the Green party candidate Clive Gregory. A serial interrupter, he managed, in magnificent fashion, to skip through the entire debate without once mentioning Green party policy. I take my hat off to him, particularly as he managed to convince at least one audience member, a self confessed ‘floating voter’, of the Greens governing credentials whilst avoiding any hints at all at his party’s policies. Apart from demonstrating an uncontrollable urge to persistently talk over anyone else who happened to be speaking, Gregory made some astounding statements none of which were challenged. Apparently, there is no need for governments to curtail expenditure at all according to him (and presumably the Green party), as all our desires will be handsomely paid for by ‘rich’ people.

Clive Gregory has an engaging manner, speaks eloquently and with sincerity and would have done even better had he been able to resist interrupting. These are useful qualities in a TV arena as they are part of the instant assessment that viewers will make but eloquence in spouting populist slogans is no substitute for thoughtful and rational policy. Just because one can present nonsense eloquently doesn’t make it any the less nonsensical. This type of typical low level political mischief included attacking ‘soft’ targets (it’s all the banks fault) and pandering patronisingly to those who prefer not to think too deeply about issues (‘the scam of austerity because it’s not really a genuine requirement’). With some poor supervision he avoided the need (and was allowed to get away with it) to present any coherent options.

It’s important that we remind people that the Greens are a radical hard left party supporting massive increases in taxation and uncontrolled government spending. UK bankruptcy, mass unemployment and depression await the citizens of those who completely deny the significance of unsustainable and rapidly increasing deficit and consequent national debt. Don’t be fooled because they hide behind a fluffy exterior of tree hugging earth lovers who also have well meaning and populist social pretensions. So far and largely because of their electoral insignificance the Greens manage to avoid too much scrutiny on what they would do in practice and the economic havoc that would wreak.

To host a TV debate well a chairperson must challenge even the most unlikely candidates when they utter untruths and fail to respond to clear and material questions. The Greens aren’t going to win this by-election but they could take votes from well supported candidates if left completely unchecked.

Photo by (sara)

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