It’s open to debate as to how the British public would like their politicians to be ‘experienced’: seen and not heard, heard but not seen, or, frankly, neither.
But it appears as though we might be getting the full visual and audio experience in the coming weeks with Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn set to go head-to-head in a televised debate on Brexit.
The Labour leader has accepted the Prime Minister’s challenge, and now the BBC, ITV and Sky are all vying for the rights to broadcast the showdown which has been scheduled for Sunday December 9.
Hang on, What About I’m a Celebrity?
Don’t worry, I’m a Celebrity fans, you won’t miss out on the show’s finale should ITV win the rights, as the debate will start an hour prior to your beloved.
The bad news is that if ITV does win out then an episode of Celebrity Catchphrase would have to be rescheduled. I know: this is truly a cruel, cruel world.
The idea is that the debate would take place just 48 hours prior to the ‘meaningful vote’, where MPs will vote on the Brexit deal in the House of Commons. Unfortunately, there’s no separate poll to send May or Corbyn into the jungle.
It could be a crucial early skirmish ahead of the next General Election, which may well be years away yet but research has shown how influential these televised debates can be.
Academics at Leeds University conducted a study following the debates shown prior to the last UK General Election, with 70% of respondents indicating that they felt they knew more about the party leaders and 60% more engaged with the political process.
So May and Corbyn will need to be on the ball in order to deliver a crunching blow even in this early going ahead of the next vote.
They could certainly learn a thing or two by revisiting some of the most contentious political TV debate moments of all time….
Kennedy vs Nixon
It may not surprise you to learn that the US is rather more bombastic and ‘showy’ when it comes to their political debates.
Even in an age where television was still in its infancy, two of the most famous figures in American history were wheeled out to debate with one another prior to the 1960 Presidential vote.
Those who did have access to a TV saw two contrasting figures in Richard Nixon, the Republican who clearly did not enjoy being in front of the cameras and who was recovering from a recent illness, and the cool, suave John F. Kennedy, who played a blinder and stole a march on his rival courtesy of his performance.
Indeed, it’s said that those listening on radio actually thought Nixon ‘won’ the debate, but that TV viewers were charmed by Kennedy’s relaxed demeanour.
Afterwards, Kennedy secured the presidency by just 0.17% of the vote; perhaps the TV debate was crucial in his charge to the White House?
Carter in the Driving Seat Against Ford
The 1976 race for the White House was the first to feature a televised debate between the two candidates since that infamous Kennedy vs Nixon meeting.
The idea is to come across better than your opponent, of course, but the fundamental achievement of any debate should be to get through it without making yourself look like a bit of an arse.
That, unfortunately, was a slippery slope that Gerald Ford, the then president, fell down.
This looked poised to be one of the closest election results in some time, until Ford made the remarkable statement during the debate that ‘there is no Soviet domination of eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.’
That ‘mistruth’ would prove fatal to his chances of another term, with Carter getting home by just 2% in the subsequent vote.
Let’s Get Physical
Political TV debates are high stakes affairs, where saying the wrong thing is arguably a bigger crime than saying nothing at all.
Mind you, that didn’t stop the Liberal Democrat Malcolm Bruce losing his marbles as he struggled to get a word in edgeways as the chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, duked it out with his shadow Gordon Brown on Channel 4 in 1997.
Bruce’s plaintive ‘do you mind, Gordon’ was met with a shove to the future Prime Minister in one of the worst breaches of TV debate etiquette imaginable.
Le Pen Writes His Name in History
Approximately halfway between the French presidential races of 1981 and 1988, the TV show L’heure de Verité invited fringe politician Jean-Marie Le Pen on for a debate.
Initially though to be a hatchet job based upon the Front National’s rather strong views about immigration and abortion, Le Pen actually shone throughout, and in an impassioned speech about the Algerian War – where he stood up and initiated a minute’s silence for the dead as the show’s presenters desperately tried to retain order – won over the French public spectacularly.
The Front National’s membership rate increased from 15 new sign-ups a day to hundreds, with supporters lining the streets outside of their headquarters to register. “For days, whole mailbags were arriving on rue Sauval after passing through rue de Bernouilli. They were filled with letters from people who had seen the show and expressed their admiration for Le Pen,” one source said.
Le Pen would score 14% of the vote at the 1988 election – huge for a fringe party, and in 2002 he finished second to Jacques Chirac, who had flatly refused to a TV debate with the far right politician.
Get Your Facts Right
You’re on national television in front of an audience of millions….don’t say/do anything that is going to make you appear amateurish.
During the 2012 US presidential race, Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, continuously took Barack Obama to task about his refusal to condemn an attack on a US embassy in Benghazi as an act of terrorism.
As the debate unfolded, Romney once again played his trump card, but a calm Obama simply said ‘check the transcript’. The debate’s moderator, Candy Crowley, did just that, and confirmed that the President has denounced the attack as an ‘act of terror’.
Sheepish and defeated, Romney muddled on with other narratives, but his race was run.