TV leaders’ debates must be compulsory (From South Wales Argus)


IMAGINE if football’s Premier League were played out with the top two teams refusing to have their matches broadcast live, indeed, insisting that they be played behind closed doors.

The only chance that fans of the so-called Beautiful Game would get to see Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur – to compare and contrast their performances – in these circumstances would be via carefully selected highlights.

These would doubtless be televised at some ungodly hour when most of us have either fallen asleep in front of the TV, or have done the sensible thing and retired to bed.

The political equivalent is happening in the current General Election campaign – and never was this more apparent than during the so-called Leaders’ Debate, which ITV had the unfortunate task of broadcasting earlier this week.

Top-of-the-table clash? Hardly. With respect to Luton Town, Exeter City, Carlisle United and Blackpool, this was strictly League Two play-offs standard.

The blue-tinted arrogance of Theresa May, and the frankly inexplicable ‘if you won’t, I won’t’ complacency of Jeremy Corbyn in refusing to appear in the debate, may well be painted as masterstrokes of political tactics behind the closed doors of their respective party headquarters.

Of course Theresa May, with a hefty lead in the polls, and both feet pretty much back inside 10 Downing Street already, does not need to expose herself to such televised scrutiny.

But that does not excuse her of appearing arrogant for refusing to. Is she too good for such of-the-moment cut and thrust?

She performs very well in the bear pit of the Commons, so it cannot be that she is unsure of coming across with authority.

Her mantra for this campaign has been “strong and stable.” But the decision not to participate in live TV debates is wrong and feeble.

As for Jeremy Corbyn, one might almost think he doesn’t really want to be prime minister.

It is highly unlikely that he will be after June 8. But surely it is incumbent on the leader of the party likely to form the official Opposition to prove, in Mrs May’s absence, that he is willing to propel himself into the front rooms of the United Kingdom, in the close verbal combat of debate?

Declaring that he won’t take part in live TV debates if Mrs May will not, also suggests that he does not consider the other party leaders worth bothering with. Given his position in the polls that smacks, to me, of arrogance and complacency.

This is being flagged as the most important General Election in a generation, and given the Brexit-dominated issues at stake, that is a fair shout.

All the more important then, that the two people most likely to be Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition stop acting all aloof and haughty when it comes to televised debate.

These days of course, we the electorate are soundbitten to within an inch of our lives pretty much 24/7, by anyone with an opinion on anything – and during a General Election campaign, the swarm of verbiage grows ever larger and louder.

But despite this, we ought to be able to see and hear those who aspire to rule us, in the unsparing cauldron of debate.

Increasingly, besuited nobodies purporting to be aides interrupt voters and the media when uncomfortable questions are asked.

That is not democracy in action. That is the technique of strong-arm spin and avoidance allowed free rein.

If I had my way – and I sincerely, fervently, hope that I am not alone or in a tiny minority on this – it would be a legal requirement for the leaders of our foremost political parties to submit themselves to the unsparing roil of televised debate during General Election campaigns and other key polling occasions.

Mrs May can bring as many expensive handbags to the studio as she would like. Mr Corbyn can, if he wishes, bring his Labour-liveried beard trimmer.

Whatever helps them get through the night.

But they should not be allowed to simply say ‘no’. If they want the right to govern us for the next five years, then they should, as part of earning that right, subject themselves to our scrutiny onscreen, as equals.

In the absence of such a legal requirement, it is high time that television companies acted on calls to ‘empty chair’ political leaders who refuse to take part in these debates.

There were plenty of calls for such action to be taken when Theresa May first indicated she would not participate, and again when Jeremy Corbyn followed suit.

It didn’t happen and to my knowledge, it has never happened.

But it ought to. To be more accurate, non-attenders should be ‘empty lecturned’.

After it has been agreed which party leaders to invite, lots should be drawn as to who stands where, and if someone refuses to take part, they should be represented by an empty lecturn with their name on it.

That would be a very powerful image – of arrogance, complacency, hubris, whatever you like to call it. But it would not be a positive one.

Of course, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have agreed to appear on BBC Question Time programmes during the campaign, but only one after the other.

Pretty pathetic really. Considering they will soon be facing each other again across the Commons’ despatch box, avoiding each other like the plague for the duration of a General Election campaign appears petty at best.

And so, we must live in a country where the two most influential politicians of the day will not engage with each other, or the people whose votes they crave, in televised debate.

Extraordinary, ridiculous, and concerning.

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