Tommy Sheppard: Let’s regulate televised political contests by law

Party leaders including Ed Milliband, David Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon participate in an election debate screened by STV in 2015. Picture: ITV/REX
Party leaders including Ed Milliband, David Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon participate in an election debate screened by STV in 2015. Picture: ITV/REX
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You may remember that before Christmas there was talk of a UK-wide TV debate on Brexit. In the end it didn’t happen because Labour and Tory party bosses couldn’t agree on a format. It’s probably just as well. At the time SNP demands to be included fell on deaf ears. It looked as if we might have the rather ridiculous charade of Teresa May and Jeremy Corbyn arguing over what kind of Brexit they wanted, with no-one at all putting the case against – a view which is now probably the majority one across the UK.

But the debacle over that debate has fuelled discussion about how political TV debates should be organised. This week parliament debated a proposal for an independent commission to put this whole business on a statutory footing. This is something I support and whilst we are in something of a Brexit hiatus waiting for the government to lose the vote on its withdrawal agreement, I thought I’d explain why.

Tommy Sheppard is the SNP MP''for Edinburgh East. Picture: Philip Stanley Dickson

Tommy Sheppard is the SNP MP''for Edinburgh East. Picture: Philip Stanley Dickson

The question is not whether or not political debates will, or should, happen. Since Kennedy’s US presidential campaign in 1960, they have become entrenched in political campaigning in liberal democracies throughout the world. In the UK, they have featured at the last three general elections, although the 2017 decision by Theresa May to refuse to debate her opponents will go down as one of the many gaffes that led to the ignominious result for her party at that election.

The real question is who should set the rules? Should it be left to party political fixers horse trading proposals with broadcasters? Or is it now time to put this whole thing on a statutory basis?

Yes it is. The only way we can be sure that there’s a level playing field which is fair to all parties and puts the public first is to define it in law. An independent commission with its responsibilities enshrined in statute would be charged with making sure things are run fairly. And more to the point it would be open to challenge in law if they weren’t.

There are three immediate advantages to this. One, it would give a statutory right for all parties contesting the election to be allowed a say. And, yes, this includes UKIP and whole bunch of people I detest. Secondly, it takes the matter out of the hands of political parties, and, crucially, the government of the day – preventing the manipulation of timing and format for party advantage. And thirdly, it would allow a proper format to be established which gets beyond the Punch and Judy show of Westminster and allows party leaders to be interrogated by opponents and independent moderators.

Some say that this could trivialise serious political issues and treat politics as entertainment. Actually, the opposite is the case. If the broadcasters themselves are the only ones allowed to decide how these debates are presented then it is surely more likely that serious discussion will be compromised in the name of watchability.

There have been some plain daft arguments made by opponents of TV debates. In Monday’s debate the government minister suggested that if we are going to have TV debates by law then should we not pass a law to make it compulsory to watch them! Others argue the state shouldn’t demand that broadcasters do things in a certain way.

Yet broadcasters must by law attempt to give equal coverage during elections. And they must by law show party political broadcasts without editorial interference. This would be a simple extension of the statutory obligations already placed upon broadcasters. And it would be one that would recognise the importance and increasing contribution of broadcast media to our political discourse. Bringing us at least into the 20th century, if not the 21st.

Next month, I’ll be back to Brexit. You know you can’t wait.

Tommy Sheppard is the SNP MP for Edinburgh East