The three "debates" between David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg which were to be the focal point of the coming General Election (apparently May 6th but don't tell anyone) have run into problems according to Mike Smithson on politicalbetting.com
The story in the News of the World suggests a protracted dispute between the Labour and Conservative parties over the format of the debates, the role of the audience and the answering of questions.
At a time when politics itself is seen to be discredited, there will be many who struggle to see why the parties should be at such loggerheads over what might seen to be trivialities but it's a clear sign of how significant these debates are seen to be in the leading echelons of the parties that such attention is being paid to such detail.
Programmes like "Question Time" show what can happen when partisan audiences get involved and the prospect of a debate descending into a "Jeremy Kyle" show type farce isn't that encouraging either. The US provides useful examples of how debates can be conducted in good humour and good grace but that might be construed as being as boring as baseline tennis.
However, neither party wants to run the risk of the bearpit. We know David Cameron has had problems with his temper and we know Gordon Brown struggles in the spontaneity of tv debate so we see the two main parties struggling to neutralise these deficiencies.
Irrespective of how the audience is constituted, what role should it have ? Should the audience be able to ask questions ? Should their response to the answers be auditable ? One proposal is to have no audience at all or that they should sit in silence.
From my perspective, I have some sympathy with the view that the audience, while adding to the atmosphere, aren't that helpful in other ways. The viewer at home should be able to make up his or her mind on the responses from the party leaders and not be swayed by the responses of the audience.
On the other hand, questions from the audience would in some ways be more akin to the questions asked by the average voter than the rather more detailed questions posed by moderators and other experts.
So let's have questions from the audience but mute out the audience response though I'm sure in the era of Twitter the actual response from the audience will filter out one way or another.
We do need to get these debates right but they do have to happen and oddly enough, their proposed timings on the night of Champions League Semi-Finals, also seems a shade perverse. Perhaps someone should have a word with the American networks and get some advice.