Thursday, 15 April 2010

The power of debate

There is nothing the media likes more than stories about itself. So to be able to have not one, but three TV debates has meant a positive orgy of excitement on the broadcasts, as they salivate at the prospect of their being centre-stage with the three party leaders playing their assigned walk-on parts. That said, it is good that the debates are happening: they provide some focus to an otherwise tedious national campaign. There is plenty being said about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the leaders on TV. But let's not beat about the bush on this ahead of tonight's first debate. Nick Clegg is already a winner, simply by being there. David Cameron should walk the contest between himself and Brown: he can only lose if he allows his smug arrogant side to come across too obviously, and he imagines his sneering PMQs tone will work here. But as a consummate PR man who knows - and exudes - the value of style over substance, I would be astonished if he allows that to happen. Brown has the most to gain, and to lose. The campaign is being more closely fought than the heirs apparent at Millbank Tower assumed, and a strong performance would defy expectations though it is still unlikely to be a game-changer. With just 60 seconds to make points, this is a format for those who are better at mastering shallow soundbites rather than detailed debate. It will be an uphill struggle for the PM to gain the advantage in those circumstances. But while the significance of these debates is not nearly as great as the media self-obsessives would have us believe (TV was still relatively new during Kennedy-Nixon, after all) it is still an important step forward for British elections.

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