There’s no de­bate, our lead­ers must face the peo­ple

JOHN RYLEY, head of Sky News, ar­gues the case for an in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sion that puts politi­cians to the TV test


WHEN Gor­don Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg lined up in April 2010 to de­bate who should run the coun­try it felt like a wa­ter­shed mo­ment. For the first time, the lead­ers of Bri­tain’s ma­jor par­ties were go­ing head-to­head in live TV de­bates to dis­cuss the is­sues that mat­tered to vot­ers at elec­tion time.

Those of us in­volved in mak­ing those de­bates hap­pen hoped they would be the first of many. Un­for­tu­nately they have proved, so far, to be the first and only.

In both 2015 and 2017 events were held which pit­ted party lead­ers against one an­other. But be­cause of a lack of po­lit­i­cal will, no sub­stan­tive head-to-head de­bates be­tween the main party lead­ers – the can­di­dates to be prime min­is­ter – have taken place.

This needs to change be­cause the pub­lic must be able to see their lead­ers, lis­ten to their ar­gu­ments and hear them be­ing chal­lenged, be­fore choos­ing who to vote for. They need to be able to eval­u­ate the per­son­al­i­ties and the poli­cies on of­fer.

Never has this been more im­por­tant than now, with the United King­dom leav­ing the Euro­pean Union and the whole coun­try di­vided over our fu­ture di­rec­tion. The world is more com­plex and un­cer­tain than for decades.

Lead­ers’ de­bates hap­pen in elec­tions across the world. They are a reg­u­lar fea­ture in Canada, the US, Ger­many, France and most of the rest of Europe. But not in the UK.

We need reg­u­lar de­bates, or­gan­ised well in ad­vance of a gen­eral elec­tion and fairly man­aged. It is for this rea­son that Sky News (which led the way in or­gan­is­ing the de­bates in 2010) is propos­ing an in­de­pen­dent Lead­ers’ De­bate Com­mis­sion (LDC) as part of its Make De­bates Hap­pen cam­paign.

This would be an in­de­pen­dent body, com­prised of ex­perts, which would con­trol the process. They would de­cide on for­mat, par­tic­i­pa­tion, rules, tim­ing and or­gan­i­sa­tion. It would be en­dorsed by par­lia­ment and funded by broad­cast­ers. Sim­i­lar bodies ex­ist else­where, such as in the United States. This would take the de­ci­sion-mak­ing about these events, which have the po­ten­tial to be elec­tion-defin­ing, out of the hands of politi­cians and broad­cast­ers.

No longer, as in the past two elec­tion cam­paigns, would politi­cians be able to duck out be­cause it didn’t suit them. De­ci­sions would be taken in­de­pen­dently of par­ties, while ob­vi­ously in­volv­ing them, well be­fore any cam­paign got un­der way, re­mov­ing the op­por­tu­nity for one side to play the sys­tem or veto the whole thing.

All sides would agree to the prin­ci­ple of tak­ing part, with the de­tails worked out fairly.

Just as im­por­tantly, a Lead­ers’ De­bate Com­mis­sion would take the power of or­gan­is­ing elec­tion de­bates away from broad­cast­ers. To be clear, this is not about Sky News’s com­mer­cial in­ter­est, nor the in­ter­est of any other broad­caster. It is not about rat­ings or money. It is also not about giv­ing us more power. In fact, the op­po­site is true.

This is about re­mov­ing de­ci­sion-mak­ing from or­gan­i­sa­tions on both sides and vest­ing that power in an in­de­pen­dent body which ex­ists only to en­sure the pub­lic are best-served when mak­ing their demo­cratic de­ci­sion.

This needs to be done ur­gently. The great ben­e­fit of a com­mis­sion is that it de-politi­cises the process by hav­ing de­ci­sions made in­de­pen­dently and well in ad­vance of elec­tions. If we wait un­til the next vote is called, it will be too late to re­alise these ben­e­fits.

The Make De­bates Hap­pen cam­paign has al­ready re­ceived huge sup­port. More than 100,000 peo­ple have signed our pe­ti­tion, and you can join them by vis­it­ing Now we have reached the 100,000 tar­get the pe­ti­tion should be con­sid­ered for de­bate by par­lia­ment. It would be rare for this not to hap­pen but the more peo­ple who pile in, the greater the pres­sure will be.

Many high-pro­file politi­cians have backed the cam­paign, from Con­ser­va­tives Boris John­son and Am­ber Rudd to Labour’s Jeremy Cor­byn and Tom Wat­son. Lib­eral Demo­crat lead­ers past and present, Sir Vince Ca­ble and Sir Nick Clegg, are on board, as are the SNP and the Greens. So, too, Ed­die Iz­zard.

The op­por­tu­nity to see our lead­ers chal­lenged is a pre­cious one. Those who watched So­phy Ridge on Sun­day on Sky News two weeks ago will have seen how valu­able it is. So­phy ques­tioned, sep­a­rately, Theresa May and Jeremy Cor­byn and that al­lowed view­ers to com­pare and con­trast the lead­ers di­rectly. We should see this more.

But in a gen­eral elec­tion it must go fur­ther. We must see politi­cians bat­tling for the key to No 10 de­bat­ing head-to-head, live on TV. Only that way can the elec­torate prop­erly weigh up the op­tions be­fore them and make an in­formed de­ci­sion.

The past fews days have high­lighted the need for an in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sion. The Prime Min­is­ter, who re­fused to take part in TV de­bates in 2017, is seek­ing a tele­vised de­bate to put her case for her agree­ment on Brexit to the big­gest pos­si­ble au­di­ence be­fore the big vote by MPs a week on Tues­day.

Again the politi­cians and broad­cast­ers can’t agree: Theresa May prefers the BBC’s pro­posal, Jeremy Cor­byn is keener on ITV. And there will be no ad­vo­cates of ei­ther the Peo­ple’s Vote or a no-deal Brexit on stage. Some ar­gue it’s a stitch-up be­tween the two to ex­clude those who dis­agree with them.

The sen­si­ble, ma­ture way to man­age this is through an in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sion which re­moves the power from politi­cians and broad­cast­ers. Please sign up. You won’t re­gret it.

TV TIMES: David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gor­don Brown on the BBC in 2010

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