British Try First American-Style Live Debate on Television
LONDON - The closest British election in decades could hang on a controversial new import from U.S. politics: the televised live debate.
Millions of Britons are likely to turn on the telly today to watch Prime Minister Gordon Brown take on Conservative Party leader David Cameron in the first such televised debate in British history.
Even a slight misstep on camera could be costly. Polls indicate the election May 6 for all 650 seats in Parliament is so close that it may result in a rare "hung Parliament," in which neither Labor nor the Conservatives win a majority. Sixty percent of Britons polled by research firm Ipsos MORI said the leaders' performance in the debate (and two more in coming weeks) will be important to their vote.
Some say U.S.-style TV debates have no place in Britain. "What is the point of trying to take serious issues to the public using a medium that has the attention span of a gnat?" Bernard Ingham, former spokesman for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, wrote in The Independent newspaper.
Brown agreed to a debate last year when polls showed Labor trailing badly. The jowly 59-year-old prime minister is known for losing his temper in the weekly debates in Parliament, so going before the nation on screen is a risk, some say.
As columnist Matthew Norman put it, Brown is "a telly catastrophe."
Cameron, on the other hand, is charismatic and youthful at age 43. He "has the style. He's good at rhetorical flourishes," says Tommy Tonner, a former judge of international debates.
"Given how close the election is, anything that changes votes could have a big impact," says Anthony Wells of opinion pollster YouGov.
In the USA, debates have often left indelible impressions:
Seven debates in 1858 between Republican Abraham Lincoln and Democrat Stephen Douglas for Senate vaulted Lincoln to the front of the anti-slavery movement and presaged the famous arguments he'd make for war against the Confederacy.
The first televised presidential debate in 1960 had a well-informed but haggard-looking Republican Vice President Richard Nixon appearing to lose to the less experienced, youthful Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kennedy.
Mike Smithson, founder of the website Political Betting, says expectations for Cameron are so high he may end up disappointing viewers, while the reverse is true for Brown. As for style ruining the election, Smithson says, voters always vote based on "how they feel about this guy."
Some Britons agreed. The debates are "a good thing . . . because there are a lot of people like me, sort of disillusioned with the political game," says Brighton resident Paolo Zaffiro, an administrator at a credit card company.
Rowena Power, a receptionist and London resident, says she'll watch. "It will be good to see them in debate - instead of just being interviewed by journalists - and being put on the spot."
Others disagree, pointing out that Britons do not vote for the head of their nation as Americans do. They vote for their member of Parliament, which then selects the prime minister.
A recent survey commissioned by The Independent found the Conservatives would win 295 seats, 31 short of a majority. If neither Labor nor the Conservatives win a majority, one of them might be forced to seek an alliance with a minority party.
Critics of the Yank format say it favors style over substance. "You're boiling down the parties and all their policies to one man," says Steven Fielding, director of the Center for British Politics at the University of Nottingham. "It's all about their hairstyle . . . and how they pronounce things."
Televised debate "is very much a part of American political culture," says James Panton of the University of Oxford. "But then, American politics has tended to be far more personality-based for far longer." Panton says the debates probably won't give viewers the information they need and will be so stage-managed the public will be turned off.
"The real losers will be the electorate," he says.