“The TV debates were a tipping point in how we do politics” according to Alastair Stewart, who made history as moderator of Britain's first ever televised election debate between the three main party leaders. And having experienced in the flesh the effervescence of the man himself, I couldn't think of anyone better to do so.
For Gordon Brown, there was much to fear from a new spotlight on his persona. For David Cameron, it was a chance to prove his statesman credentials. Nick Clegg would be the new boy with the clean slate, railing against the 'Labservative' duopoly. They had everything to lose, and everything to gain. For the broadcasters, the debates were a long-awaited “alignment of the planets” as according to Ric Bailey, the BBC's political adviser, previous Prime Ministers had refused their rivals an equal footing.
It would have been easy to write off the debates as presidential. But for Stewart, they were a chance to revert to “old fashioned campaigning...when TV meets people who are trying to get your vote”. And it worked. Viewing figures compared favourably with, say a Friday night episode of Coronation Street, with the first debate watched by 9.6 million – and remaining consistently high for the Sky and BBC broadcasts.
The debates came at an opportune time for parties to get their message across when public trust in politicians was at an all-time low, in the wake of a damaging expenses scandal and an enormous budget deficit. Stewart reflected the overall feedback seen afterwards in the press, and throughout on social networking sites such as Twitter. Brown came across as “ill at-ease, and made no 'killer' points”. Cameron “hadn't a clue what he was doing”, but Clegg “shone from the outset, with a natural, compelling narrative”.
“The penny dropped in enormous numbers” as the public fell for Clegg's seemingly invincible message. Joint favourites of the 2010 General Election had been the Tories and 'change' – and the result fulfilled a general desire for a hung parliament. But as Stewart said, “the real impact didn't change the outcome” - but did confirm the perception of politics as presidential...the brutal ideological battles are now struggles of the past”.
In articulating party policy, those “three to four minutes of interplay were better than reading out verbatim statements on policy” and for Stewart, from that “brash, commercial channel”, prime time viewing figures were encouraging: “We got 10 million people to watch a TV show about politics – and I'm personally very proud of that.”
Stewart's perception of the debates was unsurprising. And, like Stewart, I'm only partially in agreement with Andrew Rawnsley in that the TV debates dominated to such an extent that they 'sucked the oxygen out of the rest of the campaign'. It could be the fault of the parties themselves, for not creating enough 'real' events. Arguably the only other exciting element of campaign in 2010 was Brown's infamous encounter with Gillian Duffy, which benefited Labour ultimately as they snatched the seat from the LibDems. Might the campaign have benefited from more unscripted encounters? Maybe. “Television has to reflect the tussle that's going on” said Stewart, and, what's more, “there were lots of local candidates who were not being covered by national TV. Local TV needs to work better.”
And, having delivered his script, in true TV style this seasoned pro shuffled his papers as if signing off from the evening bulletin. I half expected the lights to go down and a rousing theme tune to play him out...