MPs have responded to a Sky News campaign for mandatory televised debates with party leaders at election times by saying it is “inevitable” and “vital” after the growth of fake news and the 24-hour news cycle.
But the Government remains resistant, saying decisions over live TV debates should remain with the broadcasters.
Sky News launched its Make Debates Happen campaign in September last year with the aim of establishing an independent commission to organise the events, taking decisions out of broadcasters’ and politicians’ hands.
MPs debated the proposals yesterday after an online petition set up by Sky News’ head of newsgathering Jonathan Levy gained more than 135,000 signatures.
Conservative MP Steve Double (pictured), who opened the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee, said: “I do believe that this petition is very timely in coming to this house at this time for us to debate because there is no doubt that the nature of politics in this country has changed considerably in recent times.
“The growth of the 24-hour news cycle and the development of social media means that what the public have come to expect from our political leaders has changed.
“We now generally expect our political leaders to be much more visible and much more accessible than they were in previous generations and I believe that it is in this context that the matter of holding leaders debates must find its place.”
Double pointed out that just last month, a proposed debate between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn fell through after “various to-ings and fro-ings” which meant it “proved very difficult to find agreement”.
“I’m not sure that what we saw take place last month around that actually reflected very well on our democratic process,” he said.
Double said he believes it is “probably inevitable that debates will become a regular feature of our elections in the future”, as after 2010 there is “now an expectation among the public that those debates will happen regularly”.
“And I am of a view that it would be better to embrace that expectation and put a proper process in place for those debates to happen rather than go through the dance that we have seen recently at every election,” he added.
Three leaders’ debates took place in 2010 between David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg but there were no head-to-head debates before the 2015 or 2017 general elections after broadcasters and politicians failed to agree terms.
In 2015, there was only a seven-way debate with all the party leaders, while last year May refused to debate with Corbyn or any others, sending then-Home Secretary Amber Rudd in her place.
Difficult job but vital
Labour MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi said Sky News’s proposal was “entirely sensible and inevitable” while his colleague Graham Stringer also supported the idea, saying TV debates can help challenge lies and “fake news”.
“It is going to be a difficult job for any regulatory body that is set up, but I think it is vital,” Stringer said.
“It is not just that there are a lot of different outlets for information nowadays. We have coined the phrase ‘fake news’ for a lot of the information that has been used in elections and referendums, because of the internet.
“One of the great things about a debate is the ability to challenge lies.”
On 15 March MPs will debate the second reading of a private member’s bill brought by Conservative MP Peter Bone who makes similar proposals to Sky News.
Bone’s bill calls for three debates ahead of a general election: one with the leaders of every party represented in the House of Commons at that time, and two head to head events between the Prime Minister and leader of the opposition.
Speaking in yesterday’s debate, Bone said: “I am very grateful to Sky News, because it has done something really useful: it has got the wider public thinking about these debates.
“We cannot arrange them two or three months before a general election – we have to have an independent commission, because the problem is that the party with the advantage does not want to have a TV debate.”
Bone praised Sky News editor-at-large Adam Boulton who he said was “always fair and balanced when it comes to Brexit”, while Labour MP Kevin Brennan said the broadcaster had provided a “valuable public service in trying to take the party politics out of the process of election debates”.
TV debates feel ‘old hat’
Not every MP was in favour of the proposal, with Conservative member John Lamont criticising Sky News for choosing to “report constantly on its own campaign, as if it were actual news rather than simply an attempt to gather more signatures”.
He added that leaders’ debates “suck the oxygen away from local campaigns” and turn journalists into “commentators at a boxing match”, taking their attention away from the issues at hand.
Conservative Peter Heaton-Jones, a former BBC journalist, said TV debates feel “a bit old hat in 2019”.
He added: “There are many more ways through which we can and should encourage people to access the democratic process, as they are already doing.
“There are any number of social media platforms where, in my experience from the last general election, the real policy debates seem to happen. I am not sure that, in 2019, mandating a TV election debate in prime time is really looking forward at all – it is probably looking backwards.”
Government has ‘no plans’ to change law
Representing the Government, Chloe Smith, Parliamentary Secretary for the Cabinet Office, said that although TV debates can be a “useful democratic exercise”, she was “not persuaded” that mandating them was the best way forward.
The Government has already responded to the petition, saying it has “no plans” to change electoral law to make TV debates mandatory.
Smith said the “current arrangements between political parties and broadcasters work”, debates are “already happening”, and it “would not be right” to take the decisions over how to successfully deliver such events from broadcasters.
“In what we are discussing, we come close to matters of editorial independence, which we should of course leave with broadcasters, as well as the ability to organise and deliver TV election debates, especially given that we are talking about the costs residing with them. One might argue that the costs and the delivery should stay in the same place.”
She added she was not convinced TV should be privileged above other methods of campaigning, saying: “…television broadcasters are quite simply losing favour with the younger generation as their source of news.
“Why should we legislate at this point for a medium that will not necessarily remain favoured among those who are, and those who will become, the voters in elections to come?”
Smith concluded: “Participating in TV election debates should continue to be a matter for political parties, and we should continue to view that as a two-way relationship, with the encouragement of voters.
“The delivery of such debates should remain in the hands of broadcasters, other publishers and, indeed, the public themselves, through social media and the other media of the future.”
Writing after the debate, Sky News chief political correspondent Jon Craig said “…this is not the end of the campaign. Far from it”.
Picture: UK Parliament