Motion to Take Note
My Lords, in December 2013, the Communications Committee decided to write a short report on broadcast general election debates, which was published the following May. We anticipated that in the run-up to the general election, which we knew was to be held in May this year, it was a topic likely to be controversial and of interest. Even if about nothing else, we have been proved right about that.
We were of the view that the topic was surrounded by misunderstanding, so it would be helpful to the House and more widely to clarify a number of things. We also concluded that it was not an appropriate topic on which to seek a response from the Government, as it is essentially a controversial party-political matter and hence none of the Government’s direct business. As a result, we made this expressly clear.
Secondly, we recognised that, whatever the shortcomings of the present legal and regulatory framework, it would not be changed before the May general election, so while we have made a number of somewhat generalised comments about aspects of debates of this kind, I am not proposing to consider them further this afternoon. They belong to the post-general election political world, and on another occasion.
Thirdly, we do not directly make any recommendations about what might or might not happen over the next few weeks. While, perhaps counterintuitively, there may be a better case for debating this topic in your Lordships’ House rather than the other place, at the end of the day what happens will be determined by the broadcasters, the political parties and the contemporary titans of the political scene.
Finally, I record my thanks to all the members and staff of the House who worked on this report, and in particular Professor Richard Tait, our special adviser.
In this forum, I do not think it is necessary for me to point out that the leaders’ debates in the previous general election campaign were a first in this country, albeit they are long established elsewhere and hence not such a noteworthy element of elections as they were here in Britain in 2010. For example, they have been a feature of United States elections for more than 50 years and are an accepted phenomenon in many democratic countries. Nor do I think it very useful to spend time working out why they have taken so long to be accepted here, save that to comment that in 2010 all the stars came together and so there were three leaders’ debates on ITV, Sky and BBC, in addition to other debates, wider election coverage and party political broadcasts. As a generalisation, it seems clear that they were appreciated by the voting public and achieved very considerable viewing figures, both in absolute terms and in comparison with other electoral programmes.
Evidence was given to us that the debates might dominate the campaign and/or make it too presidential. Certainly, these aspects need consideration. However, last time, it should be recalled, they were a novelty, which invariably attracts attention, but they did not crowd out the rest of the campaign and should not be allowed to do so in the future. They are merely part of the general election campaign and not its entirety, although obviously the public profile of different aspects of any election campaign depends to a great extent on how it resonates with the electorate.
It is clear that broadcasts appear to have added to viewers’ understanding of the issues; to have energised younger voters in particular and helped them to make up their minds; and to have engendered discussion more widely. On top of this, they generate considerable further debate in social media. In the 2010 election, voter turnout increased by some 4% from that in 2005. While there is obviously no direct statistical correlation between the two, it would be surprising if there had not been some connection. Finally, post-2010 general election polling, given to us as evidence, suggests that the public expects them to take place again this year.
I turn from the debates in 2010 to the context of possible debates in the coming weeks. There are two important points from which any discussion must start. First, they are governed by the general law and rules which determine impartiality and, in particular, impartiality in the context of a general election. Secondly, they are television programmes just like any other.
I turn now to the legal and regulatory framework. The only political programmes that have any special legal status are party political broadcasts, which to many seem rather old-style these days. The detail of the rules governing them is set within the framework of the Broadcasters’ Liaison Group under the rules of Ofcom and the BBC Trust. All other political programmes must comply with general rules relating to impartiality and the straightforward rules for the general election.
The entire grid of general election programming falls within this wider framework—not only debates between aspirant Prime Ministers but also other party leaders, senior party figures and all other permutations of programming covering political issues. Furthermore, appropriate coverage and balance are required for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, in addition to the United Kingdom as a whole.
It should be noted that Ofcom has recently issued a consultation, which closes, I understand, on 5 February, about who might be the “major parties”. Such an endorsement, if given, accords the right to at least two party political broadcasts and ensures that their campaign is given what is known as due weight. It has nothing per se to do with any leaders or prime ministerial debates. The BBC, which has a separate but similar—although not identical—system of governance, works somewhat similarly in this respect. We explain the details of this in chapter 3 of our report.
The second important point to remember, as I have already mentioned, is that any debates are programmes like any others. Disregarding any public service broadcasting considerations, much of the original impetus for having the debates in this country was that TV producers thought that they would make good television. From this it flows that nobody can be compelled to participate, even though it does not seem automatically to follow that the absence of any party will veto a debate, so long as coverage across the wider piece is not partial. However, it is worth noting that the evidence we received suggests that the public expect some debates in some form in this general election. They do not, of course, have to be the same as they were in 2010. Provisional ideas from the four broadcasters involved this time—BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4—have suggested a different configuration in response to the current political landscape. However, I do not think that the House needs me to draw to its attention that those ideas have not received universal endorsement.
We have also made a number of suggestions which we feel may enhance their impact on society as a whole and improve their relevance and assimilability. However, again, that is for those who are actually involved.
As I have already pointed out, the 2010 debates engendered a lot of interest over social media, and five years on this is unlikely to be diminished. This secondary consequence, if I may call it that, may well be supplemented in the general election by additional, specially commissioned streamed material, which will of course not be subject at all to the rules on political impartiality.
In parallel to that, general election programming in general provides a whole range of educational and similar possibilities for public service broadcasters and others wishing to add to their range of offerings to the public in the digital space. From this, it follows that broadcasting cover of a general election is not merely a matter of traditional television; rather, it is a much more multifaceted application of a whole range of media tools available today to communicate perhaps the most important date in the democratic calendar, its importance and the issues involved.
As I spelled out in my opening remarks, the Communications Committee, in its report, was not trying to lecture anyone about whether there should or should not be leaders’ debates and, if there are, what form they should take, although it concluded that the evidence it received about a year ago suggested that there might not be electoral benefit for a party walking away. However, that is for the parties and their leaders and not for us.
Rather, as discussion of this topic becomes noisier, we hope and believe that we have laid out the law, rules and context of that discussion, which we hope will clarify matters not only for those engaged in the discussions and arguments but also for all the rest of us who are onlookers, not participants, and for those who will be casting their votes on 7 May. If comments and criticisms at this stage are based on misunderstandings and/or ignorance, their value is diminished and the public are misled.
To conclude, I suspect that a lot will be said, written and, I dare say, litigated about this topic in the next few weeks. When the committee concluded this report, we felt that such an eventuality was highly probable. We have not been disappointed. I beg to move.
My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Lord. He was chair of the Communications Committee and he played a large part in stimulating us to adopt this as a topic for investigation. I think that he was absolutely right to do so. It turned out to be one of the most interesting things that we have done in that committee.
I should like to set the context a little. We are of course in a situation of declining turnouts in elections—I will say a bit more about that in a minute—with the notable exception of the Scottish referendum. It bucked all the trends, and at some other point it may be worth thinking about why that was the case. Another part of the background is that there are fewer public meetings. I remember when there were massive public meetings. We filled Wandsworth town hall to hear Jim Callaghan when he was Prime Minister, and all that added to the sense that an election was coming up and there was a sense of excitement. However, some of that has now gone.
Perhaps I may refer to something that a friend of mine, Chris Mullin, the former MP for Sunderland, said at a book festival in Keswick in the Lake District. He was talking about his remarkable diary, which is good reading for everybody. He is a friend of mine, so I can plug his book quite happily. He was asked by a member of the audience in the theatre in Keswick, “Is the day of the political meeting over?”. He said, “No, it has been transmogrified into the book festival”. He said—I am more or less quoting him—“When I was MP for Sunderland, I had a job to get six people to come to a public meeting. Here, in this packed audience, there are over 200 of them paying £9 a head”. Book festivals are thriving but politics and political debate are not.
Therefore, having looked at the question of the party leaders’ debates, I assumed, along with most members of the committee, that they would happen. Indeed, we said in our report—this was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood—that we thought it would be a pretty poor show if any party leader who had been offered a place in the debates were to climb down and not take part, as he would be seen to be running away. Somehow implicit was our belief that these debates would take place. I should say that the book festival analogy is not that close; I just wanted to mention it as an example of something that is increasing in interest in terms of political debate.
Those leaders’ debates were absolutely compelling. Of course, we all had to stop canvassing during the election to watch them, so they had an effect on local activity. I thought that, by any standards—and this was the evidence that the committee got—the 2010 debates were a success. They worked well; they added something to British politics and campaigning and they were very revealing—as were the debates in Scotland more recently. Of course, as the report shows, they particularly appealed to young, first-time voters, who watched in large numbers. They admitted that the debates had sometimes persuaded or influenced them into thinking hard about policies, and had possibly even helped them to make their decision on how to vote.
Certainly, the majority of people who listened to the debates said that they had a better understanding of the issues, that they learned something and that the debates overall had influenced them to vote. Indeed, many of them watched the whole of the debate; they did not just switch on for 10 minutes and then switch off, as one might expect if politicians are held in such low repute, as they say—but that is a subject for another debate.
I will refer to some of the figures on turnout that are in the report. In 1992, the general election turnout was nearly 78%. By 2001, it was down to 59%; in 2005, it went up to 61%; and in 2010, it went up to 65%. Of course, one cannot attribute the improvement in 2010 to the broadcasts as simply as that: it may be that it was going to be a closer election and therefore there was more interest in it. However, I would have thought that the debates were helpful. As I said, most of the viewers stuck with them right through the period of the broadcast, which was quite long.
It has been said that the debates are helping to make our election campaigns more presidential—some would say too presidential. They would probably have become that willy-nilly, just because of the way the media operates, and so on. It would probably be a pity if we got too presidential, but there is nothing we can do about that. It is also clear that the debates on television tended to dominate the campaign—so much so that some other aspects of the campaign, for example the party leaders’ press conferences, got much less attention. All eyes were on the debates and the media wrote about them, so the emphasis switched a bit. That has happened, but that is not an argument against having the debates.
We did not feel that it was appropriate for us—as the noble Lord said—to specify who should take part in debates in the future. There was, of course, a formula that was used in the past, which was that it should be only party leaders who had a realistic prospect of becoming Prime Minister. I am not sure that that applied last time: with all due respect to the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg was not on his way to becoming Prime Minister. We probably felt that that was too limited an approach.
However, how does one then draw the line in a different direction? If it is done on opinion polls, they go up and down; if it is done on the European elections, they always have a slightly eccentric outcome in terms of who wins. They are more a protest vote in Britain than anything else, so they do not give us too good an indication. Certainly, I assume that Ofcom has taken an amalgam of all these things—an amalgam of Members of the House of the Commons, of parties that secured good support in elections and of opinion polls—so it is a bit of a hit-or-miss system. It was a lot easier when there were just two big parties. It would be very undemocratic to wish that we were back in the two-party system, but these things were clearly easier when we had just two parties.
During the European Union elections, there were two debates between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage. They were not quite party leaders’ debates, but they were an interesting extra. I am not personally sure what conclusions one should draw from them: it is difficult to know, but they were interesting. What they show, of course, is that a minor party gets more of a boost than a major party. That is to say, the protest party gets a wonderful platform, and that has a distorting effect on the way the public see it, because if they are going to make Nigel Farage equal to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Labour Party, that puts him in a much better position. There is, therefore, a downside to this, but equally it would be pretty undemocratic to say that only the leaders of parties with a significant number of seats in the Commons should be allowed to take part. So there is a problem.
In our report we considered whether, if one leader withdraws, the debates should go ahead. We thought that no one would want to do that because of the stigma that would be attached to it, as I said earlier.
I am interested in the formula that has been touted a bit that there should be one debate between the two main leaders, one between the two main parties plus the Liberal Democrats, and a wider debate which would include four parties, or possibly five if the Greens are to be included. I believe in democracy and that there should be one debate at least in which some of the smaller parties can have their say. On the other hand, I am concerned that if there are to be five parties to the debate, would that not, as it were, lessen the tension? Would it not get the main party leaders off the hook because all these people will be having their say and somehow the tension that we have seen in previous leaders’ debates—and we certainly saw in Scotland—would disappear? So if the leaders of the big parties do not want to be under pressure, it might be easier if more parties were there—which may be why David Cameron has said that he wants the Green Party there. I would like to see a mix of participation, some debates with two or three parties represented and some with more. That would be a better way of doing it than simply staying with one formula that would fit them all.
I will make two further comments. The people who moderate the debates are important. We do not necessarily want only white men of a certain age doing this: there should be a mix of gender and ethnicity in the moderators of these debates. That would help to project the debates in a better way and stop them being seen simply as part of the Westminster circle.
In our report, we refer to the possibility that broadcasters could use the debates as a way of reaching out to the public and getting them involved. They could use the debates as a peg for wider public involvement. I am not quite sure how that could be done but it certainly has support, and I would like to see it happen. Assuming that the debates go ahead, I would like to see the broadcasters use them as a basis for education, outreach work and so on, so that they are a part of a wider effort in the community. That would be a good thing.
Our report is a good one. I will be disappointed if the debates do not go ahead and I hope that four parties will take part—and I would not mind if the Greens took part as well.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my fellow committee member, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. I thank my noble friend Lord Inglewood for his measured introductory speech and his excellent chairmanship of the committee. I cannot guarantee that I will be quite as measured in my comments on the report.
The committee said last April that it feared that the jockeying for position among the parties could result in the failure of the debates to reach our screens. Sadly, it was right. As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and my noble friend Lord Inglewood have both said, the debates were a valuable addition to the last general election campaign and to our democratic process. The debates reached some 15 million viewers, a far greater number than the individual interviews with leaders which had average viewing figures of 9.4 million.
The link with turnout is not proven but clearly turnout was up on the previous 2005 general election. As the YouGov polls show, there is a strong appetite, particularly among young people, for the debates to take place again. Most of the public expect the debates to take place and, to say the least, it would be sad if the 2010 general election ended up as the exception rather than the rule.
However, we now see that the Prime Minister is reluctant to trust the objective mechanisms by which Ofcom and the broadcasters determine who should take part. As my noble friend has said, the committee’s report took care to explain the regulatory framework. A vital component and the important starting point for determining the participants in the debates—but not the format, of course—is Ofcom’s determination of major party status. This is, as he also explained, required by the broadcasting code created by the Communications Act 2003. There are slightly separate processes by which the BBC does the same. It is flexible. Ofcom now reviews major party status more frequently. The latest consultation document is dated 8 January 2015. Ofcom’s determination is not, as the committee agreed in its report, purely based on vote share or opinion polling, but in my view, and indeed in the committee’s view, the consultation document is admirably clear and objective. Being a major party does not necessarily mean absolute equality of treatment.
The committee gave this process a clean bill of health. The objective of both the BBC and Ofcom is to achieve due impartiality in election coverage, and Ofcom’s consultation proposals achieve this.
Mr Cameron, however, is attempting to argue with Ofcom’s judgment by saying that he will debate only if the Green Party, which has not been determined to be a major party, is included. It would be sad if the Prime Minister, in his desire to gain party advantage, put a barrier in the way of further development of this valuable aspect of the general election and of the electorate’s ability to connect and to engage with the general election campaign. The debates are a powerful tool in helping the electorate to make up their mind who to support, particularly for young and first-time voters. Apart from setting conditions about who should participate, it is also noticeable that the Prime Minister alone among the leaders has criticised the timing of the debates at the previous election. Surely having an election campaign of 25 rather than 17 days with the debates spread across those days answers this criticism.
Just as important as the committee’s analysis of existing practices were its recommendations about future debates, using lessons from the US in particular. Both the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and my noble friend referred to improved voter information linked to the debates, better communication of the process and principles involved in setting up the debates, and a dedicated online portal associated with the debates. All of these would be welcome.
Furthermore, we considered whether there should be more voter participation in supplementary questions and, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, mentioned, more diversity in the presenter team with, say, a mixed panel. I hope that the broadcasters will take on board all these recommendations. I also hope that despite what has been said so far the Prime Minister does not pursue narrow party advantage by refusing to allow these debates to take place. I suspect that if he does, the electorate will be unforgiving. In those circumstances, I hope that the broadcasters, subject of course to the impartiality rules, would consider an empty chair strategy.
My Lords, I join those thanking my noble friend Lord Inglewood and his committee for what has turned out to be a prescient and relevant contribution to the debate. This debate this afternoon is an unusual event in that it is a debate about a public debate about debates. Possibly this is a first. There are an awful lot of claims made for leaders’ debates—a new phenomenon in this country—about voters’ rights, democratic rights and so on. Perhaps I might recall a little history. It was mentioned earlier that the first televised leader debates were in 1960. These were the famous Kennedy-Nixon debates which some would say that Nixon lost because he had not had a shave. That is a piece of historical anecdotal evidence. What people have forgotten is that three elections went by subsequently where there were no leaders’ debates. It was not until 1976 that President Ford agreed to debate with Jimmy Carter and lost after making what was probably one of the first significant gaffes in what is now a cornerstone of all electoral campaigns, the opening of the gaffe season—“spot the gaffe”. We are in for quite a few weeks of that to come.
Despite the fact that there were three presidential elections in the United States without a leaders’ debate, I did not notice any damage to the American democratic way of life and the way of their political life. Yes, leaders’ debates are interesting, and are nice to have, but they are not absolutely essential to the democratic processes in this country.
I was interested to read Charles Moore in the Telegraph on Saturday. For those on the Benches opposite who perhaps did not quite get through their Guardian and make it to the Telegraph on Saturday, he addressed this question of context:
“The real question is, what makes us think that the demands of the broadcasters are the same as the rights of the voters? These debates are not, as Paddy Ashdown imagines, prescribed by some ‘independent’ body: Ofcom can do no more than modify what others propose”.
I will ensure that Mr Moore reads Hansard as quickly as possible to correct that. I am grateful. He went on to write:
“The essentials of our democracy are the House of Commons, the constituency and the ballot box, not the media. Obviously politicians should speak to voters and the voters should speak to politicians. The media help this happen. But beware when a medium tries to hijack this process … In elections, the telly news increasingly could not be bothered to go round the country reporting speeches and examining the sheer variety of voters’ concerns. It preferred to confect a daily agenda involving a ‘gaffe’ by one party or another”.
“In a general election that returns 650 people to Parliament, no leaders’ debate is in any sense necessary”.
I agree with him in that respect. A debate may be desirable, watchable—sometimes—and certainly something that, in the word used in the report, the public “expect” to see. However, there is a big difference between expecting to see something and having the right to have it produced on your behalf.
As to the empty chair issue, I put myself in the position that I have been in, in past existences, as editor-in-chief of various networks. If I was asked, in the event that a senior member of one of the leading parties in a debate was, for some principled reason, not prepared to attend, whether we would put in an empty chair, I would regard that, without having to consult m’learned friends, as a breach of the statutory obligations on impartiality. In my view, it is unquestionably, editorially, a political statement. Reading a principled statement from the absent party explaining why it did not wish to take part seems to me to cover the point. I agree with most people, who would say that no individual leader of any party should have the right to veto a debate, but an empty chair is a step much too far.
In conclusion, I can only quote the words of Sam Chisholm, an old friend of mine, who was one of the architects of the success of the Sky enterprise. I was going in to discuss some deal with him, when he patted me on the head and said, “Michael, in every negotiation, there is a difficult conversation, and we are about to have it”. He then boxed my ears for half an hour, explaining why he could not do the deal that I wanted him to do.
We are at the early stages of some very difficult negotiations. A huge amount is at risk here, and I can understand perfectly well the Prime Minister’s point of view about the fairness of including the Greens. The simple way through this is not for the other parties to try to ascribe motives to the PM but for them to try to explain to the public, in a democratic fashion, why they believe the Greens should be excluded. If they will drop their principled objections, we can get on, and the public can have the debate they expect to have.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, on securing this debate at such an apposite time. I also thank him for his excellent chairmanship of the Communications Committee, on which I served, which produced this important report into broadcast general election debates.
Our wide-ranging report, published a year before the 2015 general election, was conducted in a much cooler climate, where the advantages and possible disadvantages could be weighed up. We found that the broadcast general election debates helped to energise and engage the public in the electoral process, with the most striking impact being on the young and relatively disengaged. Now the climate has become more heated and who will participate in these proposed TV debates is a subject for endless speculation in the media and in Parliament.
As our report stated,
“we are persuaded that they served the public interest by increasing engagement with the electoral process and perhaps contributed to a higher voter turnout”.
At a time of apparent public alienation from mainstream political activity, any effort to re-engage the electorate must be of value to a parliamentary democracy. Turnout among 18 to 25 year-olds increased by seven percentage points in 2010, which was three points higher than the average increase in turnout compared with 2005. My party recently revealed that one million voters have disappeared from the electoral register and we know from the Electoral Commission that there are an estimated 7.5 million eligible voters who are not registered. I would argue that any means by which more people become interested in the outcome of the next general election and take the opportunity to register to vote by 20 April will be a good thing for society, and television debates could have a valuable role to play.
Our report highlighted the public’s expectation that the debates should happen again. But we warned:
“The road to broadcast general election debates in 2015 is unlikely to be smooth. Experience from 2010 suggests that there will be disputes and these will be hottest on the question of participation: who is invited by the broadcasters to debate?”.
This is the key to our report. The debates are first and foremost television programmes, and as such it is up to the broadcasters to invite participants. It is not up to politicians to decide whether the debates should happen.
Today’s debate is an opportunity calmly to assess the pros and cons of broadcast general election debates and to look at the factors that need to be taken into account. We can leave the name-calling to others. The 2010 debates took place within a framework of codes, statements and guidelines which constituted the legal and regulatory framework and ensured that all political parties were given due weight across the patchwork of coverage laid on by the broadcasters during an election period. Televised debates took place not only between the leaders in the running to become Prime Minister, but also between the leaders of the main parties in the devolved nations, in the midst of which there was a whole range of other programming in which smaller UK-wide parties also gained coverage. As in the run-up to the 2010 debates, there is much misunderstanding as to how participants are decided, as other noble Lords have made clear. However, it is not a matter for politicians to decide.
The key point I wish to make is that more than 22 million people watched these debates in 2010 and, although the jury may still be out on whether voting intentions were changed by them, it cannot be denied that people were better informed having watched them. That is not to say that the format and presentations were perfect and cannot be improved upon, as my noble friend Lord Dubs said. Indeed, we made strong suggestions to the broadcasters to consider the balance of gender and ethnic diversity among the moderators and to make more of the opportunity to inform voters and encourage the public to be interested in the electoral process. Although we did not support the US system of an independent commission on debates—the CPD—we found a number of very positive lessons to be learnt from the way in which the commission approaches its work around the debates, including a whole range of activities related to voter information and encouraging the public to be interested in the electoral process. As its chief executive Janet Brown told the inquiry, the CPD’s objective,
“around the debates is to try to use them as vehicles not only to educate voters about the candidates, the parties and the issues but particularly to get young people involved in understanding why this matters”.
Of course, there is no compulsion for politicians to appear even if they rashly determine to withstand public expectations, now made even more compelling by the debates having taken place in 2010, but it is worth noting that our report finds that it would be far from certain that this would necessarily mean that the debates could not proceed while remaining compliant with the broadcasters’ legal and regulatory obligations. As the report said:
“We only note that we cannot suppose that the political parties will deem it is in their best interests to find out by withdrawing, against a backdrop of wide public support and manifest expectation that the debates do take place again”.
The questions of whether the debates will go ahead and who will participate are, I suggest, awaited with almost the same anticipation as the results of the 2015 election itself.
My Lords, I thank the Communications Select Committee for its excellent report. I note that the committee was at pains to stress that these are not recommendations for government, given that government has no say in the matter. It appears that some people in government need this to be clarified, so I welcome the fact that we have this debate.
For me, this debate is all about whether you believe in open debate and greater democratic engagement. It is a simple test. We speak so often in the world of politics about wanting to open up politics to a wider audience. The TV debates are a great opportunity for that and the evidence in the report is clear.
There are some parts of the current proposals from broadcasters about TV debates that my own party would prefer to change. For instance, in our view, it would be extraordinary for David Cameron and Ed Miliband to debate the past five years without Nick Clegg being there to talk about this period of government. But for Liberal Democrats the priority is to make sure that the TV debates happen. That is not because we speculate about who will win or who will lose in them; it is because the evidence is compelling that the debates last time engaged people in politics in a way that had not happened before.
For instance, at the time, 87% of people discussed the debate with someone else. We have already heard from other noble Lords about the average viewing figures. It is also argued that they increased voter turnout, although I appreciate that that is a harder argument to make, and seven out of 10 people want them to happen again. As the committee’s report makes clear, the TV debates are a major improvement in our democratic process and it would be a serious setback for them not to be repeated.
For me, the engagement of young voters, described today by others, alone is the reason. The majority of young voters said that they had become more interested in the campaign because of the debates. This is democratic gold and we should not throw it away. If the debates were part of the reason—and I appreciate that I speculate—for the 7% increase in the number of young voters in 2010, it is the duty of everyone here who believes in engagement in politics to ensure that those debates happen again.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, talked earlier about canvassing. I was out canvassing the night after the first debate. It is not normally a welcome knock on the door—other noble Lords who have done it will recognise that—but I remember clearly knocking on one door where six young people were renting, one of whom was a teacher, and they were literally calling each other to the door to come and talk to me about politics. It was not “Cleggmania”; it was just to ask me questions in a follow-up to the debate. We want that kind of vibrant engagement, and TV debates generate it in a way that I am not sure that other vehicles do.
So now all eyes are on the broadcasters and the question is: do they have the ability to use an empty chair or podium? The broadcasters rightly take their guidance from Ofcom, which has given guidelines about who should be entitled to major-party coverage. The BBC’s director-general, the noble Lord, Lord Hall of Birkenhead, described the possibility of an empty chair as a “very interesting” development.
I got as far as reading the Guardian and therefore am going to quote from it. Roger Mosey, a former head of BBC News, wrote in an article in that paper last week:
“The BBC guidelines do not specifically cover a national leaders’ debate, but the principles they set out argue not just that they can wheel out the empty chair but that they should. On general output, BBC published editorial policy is that one reluctant participant cannot stop an item: ‘The refusal of an individual or an organisation to make a contribution should not be allowed to act as a veto on the appearance of other contributors”’.
I hope that the broadcasters, and in particular the BBC, will feel able to pay attention to those words. For the BBC, I hope that that will happen without it being threatened over the future of the charter review.
I wonder if there may be some lack of distinction in the generic use of the term “empty chair”. Is that a generic term used to describe someone who does not show up rather than the graphic realisation of a set with, let us say, three of four chairs occupied and one not occupied? There may be a distinction between the guidelines and a casual use of the term “empty chair”, which denotes something more generic.
Having, in a general election, witnessed an empty chair because Simon Hughes was running late, I completely recognise the physical embodiment of that. By the way, we should always make sure that Simon Hughes is at least an hour early because he will be late and there will be an empty chair. Yes, of course I recognise what the noble Lord described, but Roger Mosey was very clear in his article that this should be used as a means to explain that you cannot veto.
The suggestions in the committee’s report about engagement through social media and websites are welcome. I share its view and hope that broadcasters will make full use of some of the recommendations. While on the subject, in 2010 the media—both print and broadcast—did themselves a bit of a disservice. Having won a great victory in engaging the voter, they then spent disproportionate broadcast time and attention on the somewhat glorified and over-spun “spin room”. I recognise that it is always a temptation for journalists to write and broadcast about themselves, thus emphasising to the viewer just how excluded they are—so I would like broadcasters to consider not overblowing that next time.
What is the block on opening up democracy and having leaders’ debates? Sadly, it appears to be one person, who believes that he can veto or dictate democracy. It is not for any one politician to try and dictate the terms of the debates. We all know that each political party will inevitably seek to serve its own interests. That is why we have a regulatory body in Ofcom to make decisions as to who is a major political party. It is not a decision for David Cameron to make as to which of the minority parties are at the debate. This is, after all, a Prime Minister whose record on the environment was left by the wayside along with the modernisation of the Conservative Party. His actions over the past week lead me to only one possible conclusion: that he is doing everything he possibly can to avoid these debates. That is in the face of all the evidence about voter engagement. It is a very cynical use of the green movement—as cynical as strapping a harness on a husky and heading to the Arctic. Anyone who cares about open and democratic debate should see it for the campaigning tactic that it is—and voters deserve better.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, in his very interesting and reflective speech, raised the question of whether the large, public political meeting was at an end. Certainly, I have been at a few very large public political meetings in my time. I remember as a cub reporter on the Financial Times going to Kelvin Hall in Glasgow and Alec Douglas-Home, no less, being able to fill the entire hall with outflow on top of that. It was an astonishing occasion, full of good Glaswegian and Scottish politics. Further on, I remember, as a political activist, the Hillhead campaign of Roy Jenkins, who was able to fill several halls, one after the other, with very large numbers of people. I always remember Roy Jenkins on those occasions speaking to the people of Glasgow as though he were addressing the Reform Club. I think they took this as a compliment, because he was not speaking down to them. One trick he used in his speeches was that there was always one word that nobody else could understand. In this case, I remember, it was “periphrastic”; I shall leave that with you, just to mull over.
More recently, in Scotland during the referendum debate, there were huge meetings. Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon has had huge meetings since that debate finished. Clearly—I am glad about this—the old-style public political meeting is not at an end. In the coming general election, it will depend on the interest shown, which I think will be profound, because the result is so uncertain. So there will be many important political meetings. None the less, over the past few years the broadcast element of the debates has become more important.
I congratulate the committee on its report. I am now a member of that committee but I was not a member at the time, so I can say in all frankness that the report is very well reasoned and logical. Its conclusion about public debates on TV is extremely simple, and I shall quote it as saying that,
“it must be recognised that the decision about who is invited to participate in television programmes will have to continue to be one that is consistent with the legal and regulatory framework around broadcasting”.
That is the nub of the matter; that is what has to happen. But how do we fill in that excellent statement of principle by the committee? It was filled in by Ric Bailey of the BBC, who in his evidence to the committee said that,
“the best way to make a judgment about these things is to look at how real people vote in real elections. Our starting point would be the last general election, but we would also look at subsequent elections. We would also look at any other evidence that might be relevant to setting out the political context. That might include a consistent, robust trend in opinion polling. All of those things we will take into account and, just as we do with any other election and any other coverage, we would make an editorial judgment based on that. That is something that we do at each and every election”.
That fleshes out the position very clearly.
However, if we look at the forthcoming general election in the light of the principles stated and the conclusions of the committee, and what Ric Bailey said about how the broadcasters would interpret those, the position is pellucidly clear. There are two parties: one, the Conservative Party, has the Prime Minister at its head; the other has the leader of the Opposition. Between them they have the majority of seats in the other place—about 250 to 300 each, or whatever—and they both have around 30% or so in the opinion polls. One or other of them will provide the Prime Minister after the election. If I may pursue my Glaswegian analogy, those two parties are the “old firm”, as it were—the Rangers and Celtic—of this discussion.
At a second level there is UKIP, which currently has 15% in the opinion polls and two Members of Parliament. It used to have no Members of Parliament, but two got in recently in by-elections. There are also the Liberal Democrats, who are part of the coalition, and have 56 seats. They now rate about 7% to 8% in current opinion polls. And there are the Greens, who have one seat, and 11% in the opinion polls. In terms of activists, the two major parties have about 170,000, in the case of the Labour Party, and about 150,000, in the case of the Conservative Party. The Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the Greens have between 40,000 and 50,000 activists and members. So there is clearly a second tier of parties, which are there and should therefore be considered.
The obvious conclusion is that we need two debates. All five parties—the two major parties, the Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the Greens—should take part in the first debate. Then there should be a second debate in which Ed Miliband and David Cameron take part, as the only two people who are likely to become Prime Minister. If you want a third debate—I recognise that there are several elements among the broadcasters: Sky and Channel 4 as well as ITV and BBC—you could certainly have a debate between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and his shadow opponent, Ed Balls.
It seems to me that the situation is utterly clear. You must have two or three debates. Five parties have to contribute and, in the final analysis, you must have a debate between the two people one of whom will become Prime Minister after the next general election.
As I said, I thought that the committee’s report was rational and logical. Raising the debate to an even higher level—I hope—I remind the House that Plato said that we reach correct decisions if we allow reason to triumph over emotion. I hope that reason will prevail in this context.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, for this opportunity to discuss the informative and well judged report of your Lordships’ Communications Committee, which he summarised so well in introducing the debate. I declare a past interest in election broadcasting, having been in or around the ITV side of negotiations in eight general elections from 1970, when Harold Wilson lost to Ted Heath, through to 1997, when John Major lost to Tony Blair. Alas, there were no leadership debates in all that time and no agreement either in 2001 or 2005.
In my view, the explanation for the lack of agreement has never really changed. No party ahead in the opinion polls would risk its leader saying the wrong thing or performing poorly before polling day. The risk always outweighed the possible reward. Westminster veterans also recalled the alarming precedent of the 1960 televised debate in America, of which the noble Lord, Lord Grade, reminded us: Richard Nixon looking shifty and sweaty on screen and John F Kennedy going on to be elected President by the narrowest of margins. Television, with its close-up intimacy, was seen to encourage emotional responses that campaign managers could not predict or control.
Party managers here in Britain also argued that we do not elect presidents. We vote for MPs whose parties appoint their leaders, who may then become Prime Minister. Broadcasters should note the Communications Committee’s recommendation that in the context of televised leaders’ debates, they have a role to play in helping the British public to understand that they are not electing a president.
Today, the concern of established political parties might be the fear that charismatic celebrities with sweeping assertions and simple solutions will have a popular appeal that cannot easily be countered in the soundbite format of a multiparty debate on prime time television. Of course, that impact can now be amplified online by the explosion of social media.
The counterargument is that millions of citizens no longer register to vote and, with turnout in long-term decline, leaders must make better use of television and new media to reconnect with voters—as the leaders’ debates did in 2010, with good audiences and a pretty positive response.
I welcome the recommendation of the Communications Committee that stated:
“We encourage the broadcasters, in particular the PSBs”—
public sector broadcasters—
“mindful of their obligations and public purposes, to take very seriously the opportunities to develop activities around the debates to provide voter information and stimulate the public to be interested in the electoral process more generally”.
On traditional television channels—even ratings-conscious commercial channels such as ITV—general election programming frequently took priority over selling airtime to advertisers. Indeed, public service broadcasters have never given up on their efforts to make election coverage both serious and popular.
Finally, after a very long wait, we got a televised leaders’ debate in the general election of 2010, thanks to Prime Minister Gordon Brown breaking with precedent and agreeing to participate. The 2010 negotiations with broadcasters were still sensitive, and the agreement on the format was very detailed, with no fewer than 76 rules. These rules are still useful for 2015. The Communications Committee recommends that broadcasters should continue to oversee and produce the election debates, and I agree.
The regulator, Ofcom, is also clear that, although it gives guidance on which parties it judges are best qualified for inclusion in debates, the final decision on structure and participants remains with the broadcasters. As noble Lords will be aware, on recent electoral results and polling figures Ofcom judged that UKIP was now a major party but did not accept that the Green Party was yet a major player.
The broadcasters—BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and, this time, Sky—have proposed three general election debates. The first is to be between Conservative and Labour; the second will include the Liberal Democrats; and the third will also include UKIP. However, as we have heard, the Prime Minister has said that he will not participate in any debates if the Green Party is excluded. The political rationale seems quite clear. Including right-wing UKIP in the third debate would allow Nigel Farage to attract votes from the Conservatives, so also including the left-wing Greens would balance things up, since they are more likely to attract votes from Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Back in 2010, it was David Cameron who was demanding a leaders’ debate and accusing Prime Minister Brown of dithering and being a bottler. Now, as Prime Minister, it is Mr Cameron who is being accused of being the bottler—but it seems unlikely that broadcasters will press on without the Prime Minister, or replace him with a chair or even a long statement. So what happens now? I read that ITV is open to including the Greens. With the proposed exclusion of the Green Party having boosted its opinion poll ratings, other broadcasters might also come to see its inclusion as fair play.
For the broadcasters, the change in format could be pretty minor. Instead of having first two, then three and then four leaders answering questions, there would by the end be five. If that leaves too little time per leader, running times can simply be extended for the last debate. That seems the easiest option for the broadcasters; the format is, after all, for them to decide. They could reasonably assume that giving the Green leader Natalie Bennett her 15 minutes of fame is unlikely to lead to a walkout by Messrs Miliband, Clegg and Farage. On the other hand, if these leaders agree to debates that include the Greens but Mr Cameron finds another reason to refuse to debate, he risks being seen as the dithering bottler of the 2015 general election. That will not go down too well with an already pretty cynical electorate. I therefore think and hope that the debates will happen.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for holding this debate on this important topic. I wish to detain the House only briefly, with just a few direct points.
When I was 23 years old, I was selected to run for Parliament for the first time. I was not remotely ready to be a Member of Parliament. I seemed to my prospective constituents to be what I undoubtedly was: preposterously young and immature. I still have a letter from the citizens advice bureau after one of my campaign visits. It said:
“Dear Mr Finkelstein. It was very nice to meet you. And your mother”.
This much I did know, however. If you want to make yourself look good, you should challenge your opponent to a debate so it was the first thing I did. He either agreed to it and awarded you a status as his equal or avoided it, so you could accuse him of running scared. This much I knew, but Ken Livingstone knew more. He accepted my invitation but held the debate at the Kilburn Irish Centre. I was not elected Member of Parliament for Brent East. I therefore come to this debate as a pragmatist, aware of why people call for debates and of what makes them turn out well or badly. The thinking of my old as well as noble friend Lady Grender is entirely clear to me.
With this in mind, here is my attitude. First, on the whole and taking one thing with another, I would rather have an election debate between the leaders than not. Should anyone question their value, the report to which the noble Lord directs our attention makes the case admirably. Secondly, while I realise that the House of Lords is often a machine for the discovery of hitherto unknown constitutional principles, the holding of leadership debates is not such a principle. We had almost a century of elections since the universal franchise without television debates. The party that believes they are in its interest suddenly discovers that they are vital to democracy then forgets this point again, or the other way round.
I notice, for instance, that my friend Alastair Campbell has been attacking the Prime Minister over what he wrongly asserts is a refusal to debate. He says that if Mr Cameron was confident then he would debate, and the principle involved means that the broadcasters should go ahead with an empty chair. Yet here is Alastair’s diary from 3 March 1997:
“We went back to Islington and on the way TB suddenly said he didn’t think it was really in our interests to have a television debate. Bizarrely Gordon, Peter and I had all come to pretty much the same conclusion over the weekend. GB felt Major was now seen as the underdog and therefore a TV debate was likely to help them. Our general view was that whilst we could see it would be good for TV, we were not convinced it would be good for politics. TB said can you imagine how ghastly the build up would be? It’s really all balls that it would improve democratic debate”.
I gently note the contrast between this and Alastair’s position now. I gently view many remarks about the imperative of the debate in the same way.
Thirdly, there is a way of reconciling the desirability of debates with inevitable and necessary political pragmatism, which everyone in this House shares when it suits them—a way of doing it sensibly and doing it right. That is to hold the debates on a fair basis that does not obviously favour any one party. There should be at least two debates: the first between the two serious candidates for Prime Minister, and the second between all the parties with a serious chance of securing seats at the election. This is an arrangement that all the party leaders would agree to and that would not favour any one of them. There would be no cause for an empty chair because a fair offer to debate had been made on a basis that everyone could agree to. It could allow the debates to go ahead—which, on the whole, I am mildly in favour of—but if not, then not.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, for introducing this timely debate, and all the noble Lords on the Select Committee for producing this excellent report. As Harold Wilson was fond of saying, a week is a long time in politics, and to some the events of five years ago will seem like an age. In the light of recent events, I am sure I am not alone in being grateful to the committee for casting some light on this topic.
This report, particularly the evidence scrutinised by the committee, provides an excellent description of both the regulatory environment and the political background to the negotiations that led to the 2010 leader debates. I hope that understanding better how we got the debates agreed in 2010 will help the process this year. The thrust of the committee’s recommendations reflect, as we have heard in this debate, the public’s view that broadcast general election debates should take place during future campaigns. From the evidence to the committee, the format by which these debates were negotiated before the last general election was thorough and businesslike, and delivered an outcome that was beneficial to our democracy. If we could do it then, I see no need to change the process now. Then, as now, the broadcasters’ approach to negotiation and production displayed great professionalism and impartiality.
As the committee rightly says, the negotiators should ensure that the format evolves to maintain or increase the levels of voter engagement. However, this must be balanced against such changes jeopardising the debates’ taking place. The 2010 debates provided an unprecedented opportunity for voters to see the party leaders debate the critical issues facing our country, and were watched by more than 20 million people. As the report highlights, they were not without their critics, but there is no doubt that they had an impact on the public engaging more with the electoral process and, as we have heard, it is possible that they contributed to a higher voter turnout. As my noble friend Lord Dubs illustrated, turnout was noticeably higher than in 2001 and 2005; in 2005, the turnout was 61.4% and in 2010 it had risen to 65.4%.
What the debates did was generate debate. They generated debate in homes and offices throughout the country. For people like me, who were knocking on the doors in key seats after each debate, the impact was obvious. People wanted to talk, and it was about what they had seen and heard the leaders say rather than about what they had read in the newspaper.
It is interesting that this debate is talking about impartiality. In the past 100 years, most general elections have been reported in newspapers that have displayed very little impartiality and have taken a very partisan approach to politics. Fortunately, most people who read newspapers do not necessarily follow the editorial tone of the owners.
My noble friend Lord Dubs referred to political meetings and canvassing. We have heard this in the debate. I strongly believe—this is perhaps something else we should consider in terms of political engagement—that knocking on people’s doors and having a conversation is not an activity we should restrict to elections. Engaging with the electorate is something political parties and political activists should be doing outside general elections. That may also need to be reflected in what the broadcasters consider.
As we have heard, the debates also generated large audiences, which have not been seen for an election in modern times. They had not only noticeably higher average ratings than programmes such as “Question Time” and “Newsnight”, but unlike those programmes, people stayed watching. They saw the whole programme. They did not turn the TV off.
Another small point put in evidence to the committee was that the debates took place across the country, and I think this created real local pride. This should continue. We should avoid our politics being seen as simply focused on London SW1.
Coming together in 2010, the political parties may have had different motives for agreeing to the debates, but one thing was clear: they were enthusiastically endorsed by all those who took part, including David Cameron. As general secretary of the Labour Party at the time, I was very conscious that we could not afford to run campaigns in the way that we had done in the past. Resources were tight, and in quite a few elections we faced a press that was uniformly hostile to the party. It therefore made sense to make our case directly to the British people. We did that on the doorstep, but it was really important that we used the debates in that way to put the case. Like the committee, I recognise that the way in which the debates are currently set up provides important safeguards which ensure that all political parties are given due weight in broadcast election coverage.
The foresight of this House’s committee is to recognise that we cannot take for granted that debates will take place in future. A whole range of obstacles could stand in their way. As we know from recent events, chief among them is, of course, the risk that one of the political parties decides to withdraw. For all the reasons set out in the committee’s report, I believe it would be a major setback to our democratic processes if these debates were not repeated in 2015 because of one politician’s unwillingness to participate. The decision as to who should take part in the televised debates should not be in the hands of any party leader, each of whom inevitably has their own political interests to defend. As my noble friend Lady Healy said, it must be a decision independently and objectively arrived at. The broadcasters, who have strict obligations of political impartiality under the BBC charter and their Ofcom licences, have together made such an objective determination. As the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, highlighted in his introduction, this clear requirement on broadcasters to report elections with due impartiality also requires them to give “due weight” to the coverage of the “major parties” during election periods.
It is up to the broadcasters who to invite and they have decided to invite only the major parties as defined by Ofcom.
We have heard in the course of this debate that ITV might be reconsidering its position in respect of the Greens. Given the noble Lord’s principled stand that it is for the broadcasters to invite parties to participate, if the broadcasters came to the Opposition and said that the Greens were going to take part, is that something that he could accept?
Ed Miliband has made it absolutely clear that if the broadcasters decide to invite the Greens, that is up to them, but he will participate in the debate. The principle that we are trying to establish is that it is not for Ed Miliband or for David Cameron to say, “This is how it must be”. If we are going to defend the broadcasters’ right to produce their own TV programmes independently, and do it in a way that is impartial in respect of their obligations, then it is not for Ed Miliband or David Cameron to say that they must have this and they must not have that.
I want to be clear that it is not for Ofcom either to decide who to invite, but I can understand why the broadcasters would want to adopt an objective procedure, such as that used for setting the minimum number of party election broadcasts. It is a recognised process and it ensures objectivity. However, I, too, agree with the committee’s view that we should not adopt the suggestion that eligibility to participate in televised debates should be based on an established vote share threshold or solely on opinion polling. The process that Ofcom has adopted and that it is now consulting on is a very good one and takes into account a range of factors.
I do not see, either, the need for the creation of a debates commission, which, if it does not have the buy-in of the parties or the broadcasters, will make it more likely that debates will not happen. Instead, it is better if the decision about who is invited to participate in television programmes continues to be one for the broadcasters, consistent with their legal and regulatory framework.
As we heard in the debate, and from members of the committee, there is uncertainty about whether a decision by one of the political parties to withdraw would necessarily mean that the debates could not proceed and still remain compliant with the broadcasters’ respective obligations. My party’s view is that if the broadcasters choose to invite major leaders such as Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage and David Cameron to a debate and one of them decides not to show up, they can decide to go ahead without that leader. They can empty-chair him. We have heard arguments in this debate about impartiality and due weight. Every day on the “Today” programme I hear somebody say, “We did invite this person, but they decided not to participate”. It is common in broadcasting.
I end with the point that, as Ed Miliband has made clear, if the broadcasters want to invite someone else, that is up to them. All Ed Miliband wants is to get these debates on and, like the committee, so do I.
My Lords, I am pleased to wind up for the Government in this debate and very much welcome the opportunity for this House to discuss the Communications Committee’s detailed consideration of the broadcast general election debates. The Government are grateful for the committee’s report and its clearly thought-out findings. I thank the committee and its members, including my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, and, in particular, my noble friend Lord Inglewood for bringing the committee’s good work to the attention of the House in this debate.
The reports of the committee, and our consideration of them, are becoming a staple of House of Lords business, with one report last week and another this—and quite right, too. This report, published in May 2014, almost a year before the forthcoming election, gives consideration to the growing prominence of televised election debates by reviewing the impact of the broadcast debates in 2010; examining the regulatory context for these and future debates; and looking at proposals for change. I should say in passing that the debates also went out on the radio. I remember listening to the first one in 2010 on the radio, travelling through mid-Wales, and enjoying it—intermittently, as noble Lords will appreciate, because of the nature of the terrain heading back to Cardiff.
The report does not contain recommendations to government, since its subject is not the Government’s direct responsibility, but it provides the House with a valuable reference document, setting out the legal and regulatory framework around broadcast general election debates, with key contributions and evidence from broadcasters including the BBC, Channel 4, ITV and Sky. As my noble friend Lord Finkelstein rightly said, there is no constitutional principle that the debates should take place. If I may say so in the context of his contribution, Brent East’s loss is certainly the gain of your Lordships’ House—as I am sure noble Lords would join his mother in saying.
My noble friend Lord Grade and the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, referred to the earlier experience in the United States of the first presidential debate in 1960. My noble friend Lord Grade referred to the fact that it did not happen at every presidential election thereafter, which is quite true. Other countries that have had broadcast debates, such as Canada, Australia and Germany, have also not had them for every election; it has been somewhat intermittent, differing from country to country. So experience is clearly built upon.
The first ever broadcast general election debates in the United Kingdom took place in April 2010 and were televised in successive weeks by broadcasters ITV, Sky News and the BBC, as well as being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio 5 Live. The first ever debate, on ITV1, attracted an audience of 9.4 million viewers between 8.30 pm 10 pm—a 37% share of the total TV audience over that period, beating Coronation Street and EastEnders to become the most watched programme of that day. The average viewing figures for successive debates were 4 million for Sky and 8.1 million for the BBC, meaning that the total of the three audiences was above 22 million. In the case of the BBC and ITV, these impressive viewing figures achieved much higher audience figures than typical BBC current affairs programmes.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, referred to the importance of the debates, given the changing nature of election campaigns and contests and the relative death of the public meeting over a period of time—although my noble friend Lord Horam rightly referred to the experience in Scotland, which shows that that is not necessarily the case. Clearly, you only have to look across the Atlantic to the 2008 presidential campaign and the number of people that President Obama could pack into an arena to see that there is nothing inevitable about the death of the public meeting, although admittedly the election background there is somewhat different from our own.
Perhaps most significantly, evidence referenced in the report illustrates that the broadcast debates served to increase engagement with young people—many noble Lords referred to that point—with many first-time voters energised by the debates. For example, as many as 55% of the 18 to 24 year-olds said that, as a result of having seen the first debate, they had become more interested in the campaign; 74% of them considered that they had learnt something about the parties’ policies from the debates; 50% of this demographic, along with 51% of 25 to 39 year-olds, said that the debates had helped them to make up their minds how to vote; and 92% of younger voters said that they had talked about the debates with others. The committee also received evidence from Channel 4 that among 18 to 24 year-olds, television still remained more popular than newspapers and online for the consumption of news.
These figures provide clear evidence that there is a public appetite for the broadcast general election debates and, as highlighted in the report, there is a high level of public perception that broadcast debates will happen again in 2015. These points were referred to by my noble friend Lady Grender among others. The committee was persuaded by this evidence that the broadcast general election debates served the public interest by increasing public engagement with the electoral process, and recommended that they should take place during future campaigns.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, referred to the relative ease of the agreement in 2010. I think that it was relative; certainly concerns were expressed by some political parties. I think I am right in saying that Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the Greens all raised concerns. The relative fragmentation of the party system since will make agreement more difficult, as I think noble Lords would accept.
However, an important area of consideration for this report is the regulatory context of the broadcast debates and how this could come to have an impact on participation. Due accuracy and impartiality remain at the heart of licensed broadcasting services and under the Communications Act 2003, Ofcom—the United Kingdom’s independent communications regulator and competition authority—is required to set standards for programmes on television and radio that exist in the form of the broadcasting code.
The broadcasting code applies to all broadcasters licensed by Ofcom but not to the BBC, where oversight of the output falls to the BBC Trust as the sole regulator for impartiality and accuracy. However, both regulators apply broadly similar standards. In the case of the BBC there is a set of editorial guidelines and election guidelines to ensure impartiality and accuracy, while under the broadcasting code there are specific rules that apply during election periods and which include the requirement for broadcasters to ensure that their coverage is duly impartial and gives due weight to major parties.
Ofcom also sets rules to require the allocation of party election broadcasts through its list of major parties. The list reflects the fact that some political parties have a significant level of electoral support, and a number of elected representatives, across a range of elections within the United Kingdom or the devolved nations. Reading the report, I was reminded that I had taken part in a general election debate in Wales, although I was not a candidate for the election. In fact, three of the four people participating in the debate were not candidates. So clearly there is a different position for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in relation to their general elections—and quite right, too.
The Ofcom list of major parties is important because rules on party political and referendum broadcasts, and certain parts of the broadcasting code, impose obligations on licensed broadcasters by reference to the major parties on the list. In determining the composition of the list, Ofcom looks at evidence of past electoral support and evidence of current support as demonstrated by opinion poll data—although there is nothing scientific, I think, in this process. More information on the analytical framework that Ofcom uses to assess the evidence of past electoral and current support can be found in its consultation regarding the composition of the list of major parties that was published on 8 January this year.
Designation of a party as major political party does not of itself—this point was made by many noble Lords—entitle that party to a right to participate in an election debate or limit the debate to the major parties that are set out on the list. That is a matter for the broadcasters, although no doubt they will pay due attention to the list. This consultation is published in advance of the general election taking place in May 2015 and the English local and mayoral elections taking place on the same day, and it closes on Thursday, 5 February 2015.
Following the consultation, Ofcom will obviously consider carefully any comments and views received before publishing a statement by, as I understand it, early March 2015, and, if appropriate, any revised list of major parties. This will permit the broadcasters and political parties to plan ahead, aware of Ofcom’s decision on the list of major parties, for the May 2015 elections.
It is important to note that, while Ofcom has an important role in the regulatory framework under which broadcasters must produce television programmes during election periods, it does not determine the structure, format and style of any possible TV leaders’ election debates. The decision on which leaders are represented in any broadcast debate is an editorial matter for broadcasters in agreement with the political parties taking part.
The requirement of “due impartiality” means that broadcasters must always strive to achieve a balanced presentation of a range of points of view on matters of political or industrial controversy and relating to current public policy. However, within the statutory framework set up by Parliament, it is the responsibility of the broadcasters to make judgments about individual programme content. This is also recognised within the committee’s report, which highlights that the decision on who is invited to participate in televised debates will continue to be one that is consistent with the legal and regulatory framework around broadcasting.
Having set out the regulatory context, the report looks at proposals for changes to the debates, including the case for a body to oversee and produce broadcast election debates independently of the broadcasters. However, it determines that there are no compelling arguments for the introduction of such a body. This is a view that is widely held.
The report concludes by making a number of informative recommendations for reforms if the debates are to take place in 2015 and beyond. These recommendations, aimed largely at the broadcasters, include the proposal to establish a single online portal or hub for the debates to ensure their easy discoverability alongside other election resources, as well as a recommendation to ensure that the format evolves as necessary to maintain or increase voter engagement. This, too, seems popular.
A significant observation by the committee, and an important recommendation from the report, was that the broadcasters should exercise their editorial judgment to reflect the committee’s concern about the lack of diversity, in both gender and ethnicity, in relation to the debate moderators in the 2010 debates, a point referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. The Government encourage the media and creative industries to continue to take proactive steps to change and improve diversity right across their sectors. In broadcasting, BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and BSkyB have all set out a number of actions and some challenging targets for increasing ethnicity on and off screen. While the Government believe that it is for the media industry itself, including broadcasters, producers, media organisations and others, to take the lead and promote equality among its employees, we ensure that broadcasters in particular are subject to a strong legal framework designed to promote gender balance. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is also playing a part in raising the profile of the issue. Ministers have chaired a series of round-table discussions with leaders in the broadcast, film and performing arts industries to discuss what more they can do to tackle it.
The committee’s report serves as an important and valuable document, setting out the legal and regulatory framework around broadcast general election debates and making a number of very useful recommendations to broadcasters ahead of future potential debates. Once again, I thank the committee for its good work and contributions and for producing this insightful report into an important part of our political life.
Before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may point out that he touched, almost inadvertently, on a rather important point. In mid-Wales, it is quite hard to catch political broadcasts or, indeed, anything else on the radio because of the terrain. The Minister cannot do much about that this evening, but I thought he might like to reassure your Lordships’ House that the sheer beauty of the terrain in mid-Wales more than made up for the damage it inflicted on his listening on his car journey.
My Lords, it was not at all inadvertent. I had the great privilege of representing Mid and West Wales for 12 years in the National Assembly for Wales and I was unable then to do a great deal to improve reception. I can probably do even less now. However, the point is extremely well made about what a beautiful area it is, as the noble Lord knows very well. I hope that something can be done to improve reception for people in that area on all sorts of radio.
My Lords, I would like to thank all those who have taken part in the debate, both those who have been members of the Communications Committee and those who have not, for the general reception which they have accorded to it. I add as a proviso that this is the last time that I will speak in my capacity as the “ancien chairman” of the Communications Committee.
I was particularly pleased that a number of the illustrations used came from outside the M25. It is important that, in considering these topics, we think of the country as a whole, by which I mean the United Kingdom as a whole. I was especially glad to hear the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, refer to the Keswick Words by the Water Literary Festival. My natural modesty almost forbids me, but the rules of procedure mean that I should declare an interest. I am speaking on a panel there at the next festival quite soon.
If you think about it in military terms, we are in a period in which the political parties are now engaged in a war in order to win the democratic mandate to run this country for the next five years. The battle that is decisive is to be fought on 7 May. We are now in a period of skirmishing where the various parties are—if I can change the analogy—like dogs before a dog fight, looking at each other, growling, snarling and seeing what they think is going to be the best move for them. Of course, that is where we are in the context of the general election debates.
I was talking to our excellent special adviser quite recently, who said that he thought that one of the important consequences of the report—this point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and my noble friend Lord Bourne—was that the discussion of this topic in the media by the commentariat is a great deal better informed and more precise and accurate than it has been on previous occasions. I would like to think that this report may have contributed to that. He also made a telling comment, which was that no one has yet walked away. We are at the period where the dogs are looking at each and circling around each other. The important point to remember about this topic is that, while it may be only a short time until the formal general election campaign gets under way, there is still a long way to go.
House adjourned at 6.38 pm.