During a scene in Gladiator, Russell Crowe’s Maximus, fresh from a kill in the gladiatorial arena, bellowed to the bloodthirsty crowd: “Are you not entertained?” It was a contemptuous challenge to a cynical audience that had come to watch blood spill.
I was reminded of this clip during the UK’s first round of political phoney wars ahead of the May general election. The question of TV debates was raised, even though such televised discussions at election time are yet to take a firm hold in Britain. Such has been the controversy about whether they should happen at all and who should be involved, that it’s worth pondering what place TV debates have in our modern age.
It was five years ago that the first televised leaders’ debates tookplace during a UK general election. The man of that moment was Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg. As a minority party leader, he had nothing to lose.
With his personable debating style and easy manner he repeatedly prompted both the then-Labour prime minister Gordon Brown and main opposition Conservative Party’s David Cameron to say these words: “I agree with Nick.” In an election that produced a hung parliament, Mr Clegg soon found himself in a coalition government. That was his high point.
Today, Mr Clegg finds himself at the wrong end of the public opinion scale – and in dire need of TV debates.
Arguably, the most famous broadcast debate of all time was the first one to be held in the US. That was in September 1960 and Richard Nixon debated with John F Kennedy. What transpired has now become a familiar story. For those listening to the debate on radio, Nixon triumphed. For those watching on TV, the youthful Kennedy won. Unfortunately for Nixon, some 88 per cent of American households had televisions and although he performed better in the subsequent debates, the damage had been done.
Sixteen years were to pass before the next round of TV presidential debates mostly because candidates were wary of their influence. In 1976, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford traded verbal blows on television and such debates have been standard fare in the US ever since.
More recently, who can forget the first presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012? Mr Obama bombed in the first debate – he seemed tired and listless – giving Mr Romney hope that he could secure the presidency. He didn’t, of course, with Mr Obama redeeming himself in subsequent appearances.
Last year, during its independence referendum campaign, Scotland was the scene of two high-profile televised debates, which put the future of the 300-year-old union on the line. On the pro-independence side was the talented and bombastic Alex Salmond, first minister of Scotland. Leading the other side was dour Scot and ultra-serious – though equally heavyweight – Alistair Darling.
A consummate debater, Mr Salmond was heavily tipped to take Mr Darling to pieces in the first debate. But, appearing overcoached, Scotland’s premier seemed off his game and he was well beaten by Britain’s one-time chancellor. The second debate saw Mr Salmond back in his stride and he defeated his rival, giving renewed hope to the pro-independence cause – but too late.
The political world would be a dull place without televised debates. They may entertain rather than educate and generate more heat than light, but they open up politics to scrutiny. They also provide an opportunity for mass engagement.
But, perhaps more importantly, they put down a marker in history. They tell us where we started and where we are going. They are our modern-day gladiatorial battles but without the bloodshed.
Alasdair Soussi’s new book, In The Shadow of the Cotton Tree, is out now.