Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The dubious importance of TV debates

The British media are once again talking of live television debates following Conservative leader David Cameron writing to Gordon Brown asking for one. Little is said of his reasoning, though I will indicate why I think Cameron wants one, but once again it seems the incumbent prime minister, the man with most to lose, is opposed to the idea.

The idea of the big public debate is to provide a level platform for all candidates, and so allow the viewer to compare them on a range of policy initiatives. US Presidential candidates always have one, and arguably they have decided contests, particularly the youthful John F. Kennedy's defeat of Richard Nixon in 1960 (right); the Democrat candidates have already held a Youtube debate, and French Presidential candidates Royal and Sarkozy both debated live on television.

But research in the US indicates that these debates do not encourage voters to compare potential presidents on policy, it is image. Cameron is only the clear favourite among voters when asked about likeability, so clearly a debate could benefit him. But should voters decide on who sweats the most, who looks better on camera, all the peripheral cues that give impressons of a person but say little substantive about how they would manage government. While it is impossible to exclude perceptions and impressions of candidates for leadership from an election it would be intrestign to see what woud happen if we had an election where image played no part.

If voters were simply given a list of policies on election day, each party providing a list of the key iniatives as a package, and voters were given time to read it and then voted for the package they thought would be best for the country at that time, what would happen? Could voters be deceived as easily as when they select the 'nicest guy' who appears most 'authentic'? Would it make voters see a clearer link between promises and delivery? There are a lot of questions, but it seems that the promotion of image erodes both the ability to gather information on candidates and make choices too simlistic to be meaningful.

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