Battle against the Broadcasters

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This week broadcasters announced their plan for the leaders’ television debates in the run up to next year’s general election. Their decision to include UKIP and exclude the Greens is hugely damaging to democratic process. If we have any regard for democracy, the ability to decide who is included in political TV debates needs to be divorced from those that host them.

These debates are about giving the public the information they need to know in order to decide who to vote for next year. They help voters to distinguish between those people whom they share opinions with and those they don’t. They help identify leadership qualities, inconsistencies in policy arguments, and the ideals that parties are pursuing. Overall, they help to educate us on the issues that define our society so that we can make well-reasoned decisions in deciding who to vote for.

If these debates are really about helping the electorate understand politics and the issues of today, then the entire spectrum of parties should be included. That means UKIP, the Lib Dems, the Greens, and maybe even others. That the broadcasters – BBC, Sky News, Channel 4 and ITV – can effectively decide what sides of the debate the public is exposed to is wrong.

In light of their decision to exclude the Green Party, we have to ask whether these broadcasters favour their viewing figures instead of providing a public service. Fiery exchanges and controversial opinions are entertaining. Sadly, green issues don’t make for the “sexy” TV debates that immigration policy does. Broadcasters’ plans for next year seem to be based more around what makes for good viewing, not what makes good debate.

With multiple and competing broadcasting channels, media outlets need to distinguish themselves to survive. Dramatic and controversial TV attracts viewers. Whilst it may be a misconception, the idea that more parties makes for a more boring debate certainly seems to be one that the media have subscribed to. Nonetheless, broadcasters must accept the influence they have over people. Whilst we can understand, or even sympathise, with their motivation, this makes them no less responsible.

Broadcasters seem ill-placed to make decisions over who should appear in TV debates. Their interests and the need for full and proper public debate do not seem to align. In the run up to the election, airtime needs to be sacrificed for the sake of properly informing the public, regardless of drama or controversy.

Inclusion of the Greens is not just about their how they fare in opinion polls. Irrespective of this, they represent an alternative political position. They should be included because they have important opinions on significant issues and denying their inclusion denies the public access to full information. Without their inclusion, the public simply will not be made aware of some issues and others will go unchallenged.

Likewise, UKIP are a considerable presence in current UK politics – that is now undeniable. Boradcasters rightly plan to include them in the upcoming debates simply because they represent a significant sentiment in the public mood.

Indeed, the growth of UKIP underlines a broader fact about the battle for government next year (and potentially well into the future). We can no longer expect a straight two-party battle between Labour and the Conservatives. The rise of issue politics – environmentalism, feminism, and immigration for example – means that large “catch-all” parties are no longer the monopolising political monoliths that they once were.

If UKIP are seen as pivotal to consideration of government in 2015, then so too should the Greens. In a YouGov poll this week, 19% of voters said they intended to vote for UKIP. 10% said they intended to vote for a party other than Labour, the Conservatives, Lib Dems or UKIP. Only 7% said they intended to vote Liberal Democrat. This shows how different the political landscape now is.

The upshot of all this is that if broadcasters shouldn’t choose who is included in debates then someone else needs to. The influence of mass and social media are undeniable aspects of the democratic process today. We need some agency that can deal with these developments and advise us on how best to preserve the democratic ideals we hold so dear. This agency needs to outline clearly who is to be included in TV debates in the future and crucially what conditions are required for inclusion.

The plan announced by broadcasters this week will deprive the public of the ability to appreciate fully crucial issues in the run up to the election. In doing so, they deprive those same people of the ability to participate properly in our democratic system. This plan needs to be changed rapidly if TV debates are to play a proper role in, and preserve, our democracy.

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