21 October 2008

Presidential debates – tedious television but better than commercials

For British audiences, the televised ‘debates’ between US presidential candidates come across as a very strange form of television indeed, which is hardly surprising given the peculiar rules of engagement as set out by Bob Schieffer of CBS News at the start of the third one:

“The rules tonight are simple. The subject is domestic policy. I will divide the next hour and a half into nine-minute segments. I will ask a question at the beginning of each segment. Each candidate will then have two minutes to respond and then we’ll have a discussion. I’ll encourage them to ask follow-up questions of each other. If they do not, I will.”

The candidates are then allowed to make a two-minute mini-speech on each topic before having to answer any subsidiary questions, and they certainly don’t have to worry about being interrupted, challenged or knocked off course by a Dimbleby, Paxman or Humphrys.

The fact that such ‘debates’ take place at all is a reflection of (or perhaps a necessary antidote to) what struck me as one of the most depressing aspects of US politics when I was working and watching television there during the Reagan-Mondale election in 1984. What astonished me was that you never got to see either of the presidential candidates or candidates for a local senate seat being interviewed in the way that’s routine on British radio and television. The reason is alarmingly simple: after all, why would you risk being put on the spot in an adversarial interview when you can buy as much advertising time as you can afford?

Back in 1984, two candidates for one senate seat the North Carolina managed to spend more than $20 million on advertising. As viewers, we weren’t just subjected to short and nasty TV commercials, but we also had to put up with ghastly 20 minute documentary-style propaganda ‘programmes’ aimed at showing what wonderful people the candidates were, produced and paid for, of course, by the candidates themselves.

Although I have serious reservations about interviews taking over from speeches as the main form of political communication in the UK, I have none at all about our politicians being banned from buying political advertising on radio and television. This is because the lesson from the dismal situation in the USA is that, once political advertising is allowed, politicians can ignore invitations from the media to be interviewed on news and current affairs programmes, and thereby insulate themselves from being exposed to challenging questions from well-informed neutral interviewers.

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