I've just been watching the first of the US presidential debates on the BBC's main evening news programme, as I wanted to see what the candidates had to say, how well they said it and how competent they seemed. But actually I had to watch and listen to far more from the BBC's correspondent in Washington than from Obama or McCain - the reporter was speaking for 2.4 minutes compared with 30 seconds each for the two candidates-- i.e. the BBC forced its viewers to listen to more than twice as much media commentary as we were allowed to hear from the the candidates themselves.
Of course, I shouldn't really have been surprised because I know that things have been moving in this direction for a long time. Between 1968 and 1988, the length of excerpts from speeches shown on American television news programmes during presidential campaigns fell from an average of 42 seconds in 1968 to an average of only 9 seconds in 1988. In the UK, during the 1979 general election campaign, BBC 2 showed a nightly half-hour programme of excerpts from the day’s speeches. It was not continued during the 1983 election, and, by 1997 (and all subsequent UK elections), viewers were much more likely to see shots of politicians speaking in the background, with the all important foreground being dominated by a TV reporter summarising what the speaker was saying -- as also happened during parts tonight's report on the Obama-McCain debate.
But does it matter? I think it does, because television has the capacity (which it used to exercise long ago) of allowing viewers/voters to hear arguments coming directly from the horses' mouths, from which they used to be able to draw their own conclusions about what they saw and heard -- which strikes me as something that should be encouraged in a democracy.
But tonight, as usual, the BBC took it upon itself to tell us all what to think - i.e. "the debate was a tie with no clear winner." From the little they did let us hear, I'm not sure I agree. But, without seeing rather more than 30 seconds of Senators Obama and McCain arguing their cases, I'm not really in much of a position to come to a considered or definite conclusion of my own. And that's precisely why I find this ever-increasing occupation of the air time by media employees so unsatisfactory and and why I worry about the damage it might be doing to the democratic process itself.