Wednesday, 8 October 2008

The American Presidential Debates: Time to Let the British in

BBC America is running an advertising campaign at the moment in which it characterizes itself as The Birthplace of American TV, citing great British programmes like Life on Mars, which are now being remade for an American audience. Britain's most successful imports, though, often carry over key personnel to make sure that they survive the transition. American Idol, the hugely popular American TV series, is a version of the British Pop Idol, and carried with it Simon Cowell. I have just finished watching the second of the presidential debates between candidates Barack Obama and John McCain, styled as a "town hall" debate, and I think the time is ripe for the injection of some British television expertise to refresh what has become a tired, over-rehearsed, over-polished and frankly tedious format.

The fact is that candidates for the presidency do not at any point face a decent public grilling. They are not held to account or pressed on issues of importance. They are allowed at these debates to give a series of mini-presentations, the over-rehearsed nature of which only presents itself when the candidates trip over a phrase, or introduce the second half of their response too early. Each debate has a "moderator" but this figure is essentially a facilitator, a coordinator who provides invitations for the candidates to begin each of their mini-presentations. There are rarely serious follow-up questions and rarely the encouragement to get the candidates actually debating with one another. On one occasion tonight, the moderator, Tim Brokaw, acted to close down debate at a moment when there was a flicker of interest, as Obama asked to respond to McCain and Brokaw pleaded time constraints.

It is time, then, for the injection of some British expertise and experience. At British General Elections, all candidates, and especially potential prime ministers, will expect to be get some serious grilling from the masters of the art. Let's bring Jeremy Paxman over for several weeks before each presidential election, and let's test each candidate's mettle. Let's find out what they really think about the key issues, with every dodge exposed, every evasive manoeuvre challenged, every question repeated until we get either an honest answer or an embarrassed candidate. Just as Simon Cowell was imported to give wannabee American idols a hard time, let's import Jeremy Paxman to give the presidential wannabees an even harder time.

Jeremy Paxman: the new Simon Cowell?

The success of this move will reignite interest in the presidential debates and will encourage more of the same. Once Americans have got used to Paxman, we can introduce them to John Humphrys. British politicians are afraid of Humphrys. They would rather do anything than be interviewed by him, and yet they know that they cannot duck their responsibility to the British public to be held to account by him. Give the candidates an hour with Humphrys and then we will have a serious test of character and a genuine series of searching, rigorous questioning.

John Humphrys: how would McCain and Obama cope?

The injection of this kind British expertise into the the race for the White House would serve to knock the candidates off the stride of their prepared answers, allowing the voters to understand what makes their potential presidents tick. And having strong British interviewers could add some extra distance from the all too easy clich├ęs of the candidates' appeals to the American "middle class" (everyone in America is apparently middle class). Presidential candidates talk over and over again about "Americans"; a non-American interviewer could press them on international issues in a way that could dismantle these easy appeals.

Tonight's debate was billed as a "town hall" debate. This means that there is some input from members of the public. But the handful of questions that come from the audience, like the moderator's questions, act only as prompts for the candidates to give mini-presentations on the broad subject. The lack of applause or broader audience participation leads to an eerie, unreal kind of stage-managed experience that cannot engage the viewer. The audience are waxworks, everything is restrained. Sometimes politics needs passion. If new voters and apathetic voters are to get energized, the current format is missing the mark. If there is going to be an audience in a "town hall" format, let's bring on David Dimbleby and let's have a full Question Time style programme, with a large, intelligent, passionate audience, allowed to speak, allowed to ask follow-up questions, with strong chairing and holding to account from Dimbleby.

David Dimbleby: could he show them a passionate "town hall" debate?

Good politicians have nothing to fear from robust interviewing and thorough grilling by professionals who represent the public's interest. In a world where politics is becoming ever more glitzy, ever more stage-managed, thorough and rigorous debate is more important than ever. Strong, honest, passionate debate should be at the heart of our politics. If we are committed to democracy, it is too important to neglect.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So will you be watching the 3rd debate tonight?

In the Time magazine last week it was pointed out that the only way you get any hint of some decent discussion about the candidates views are on the more light weight shows like the Daily Show, The Colbert report and the the View. Yes that's right the View!

I really don't see anything changing in this election as I have sadly come to the conclusion that the actual American system of being in constant tug of war between the houses with the President being the person in the middle, real change will never be allow to happen.

On the current poll numbers, Obama should have both houses + the presidency which would be a very rare event, allowing for real change (if his party lets him) and probably only last for 2 yrs when the next election occur (which means in essence, 12 months before the election bandwagon gets into gear again). However, given the report last night that many whites/independents will not vote for a black man despite saying so, those poll numbers put even that in doubt.

Whoever, ends up as the President this time (I am hoping Obama, to be honest, even if I don't have a vote), he will have a hard time given the mess this President has left behind. A bit like how Brown has been left by Blair in the UK.

Must admit I missed the hum dingers that you would listen to in the commons debates when people seem to make the most outlandish statements sometimes and even get thrown out by the Speaker of the House. That is real debate at its best!