SPARE a thought for the broadcasters. It might be an unpopular suggestion, but TV managers have had impossibly difficult decisions to make about how to arrange General Election debates. Any fair-minded person should acknowledge that it is literally not possible for them to keep everyone happy about their plans. The competing hierarchy of factors and priorities including fairness, balance, public interest, deliverability, precedent and watchability are often mutually exclusive.

This is all made more difficult by the fact that the United Kingdom is a multinational state with different parties and levels of party support in the different nations. It is also a state with asymmetric devolution in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London while the biggest TV audience in England, which constitutes 84% of the UK population.

Unsurprisingly the broadcasters are really keen to see a head-to-head debate between Boris Johnston and Jeremy Corbyn. Why? Because they think it will make the best television. It is significantly easier to manage a broadcast with two protagonists and a moderator. It plays to the winner-takes-all, political single combat we have become used to in US presidential debates. The biggest problem with this, however, is that the UK does not have a presidential political system. By including only two leaders means that it excludes the rest. By hyping the head-to-head contest one is falsely reflecting the political landscape where the two-party system is long gone.

The National: Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will face off the Prime MinisterLabour leader Jeremy Corbyn will face off the Prime Minister

Next option is to widen the platform. Why not include the third party leader? Given the possibility of another hung parliament then that means the third-largest party in House of Commons, doesn’t it? That would be the Scottish National Party and Nicola Sturgeon. No doubt this issue was widely discussed by broadcasting managers because it would exclude the Liberal Democrats, who are the third party in England. No doubt someone would have pointed out that the SNP does not stand candidates in the whole of the UK, while forgetting that neither do the LibDems (Tories or Labour for that matter), who don’t run in Northern Ireland. Then what about the Greens and Plaid Cymru, who have parliamentary representation, or the Brexit Party that does not, but did win the recent European elections in England? No doubt some debate planners would want to avoid SNP and Plaid participation in debates, reminding viewers that debating devolved health and education matters only from an English perspective is not acceptable for a UK-wide audience.

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Perhaps the UK should take a look at how other countries manage TV election debates and find a formula that balances the competing demands most fairly and then apply those rules consistently. General Elections have been held recently in two countries which could be instructive: Canada and Austria.

In Canada, the recent 2019 general election campaign saw debates between the parliamentary party leaders. Like the UK, they don’t have a presidential system, so the debates included the main parties that run across Canada: Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats. It also featured the Bloc Québecois, who only stand candidates in Quebec, and the Greens and People’s Party who only had one MP. Incidentally, Canadian TV held two debates: once in English and then in French. This is a successful format that is used in every federal election.

In Austria, they do a large-format debate with all parliamentary parties, the “Elephant Round” (Elefantenrunde), with more than one million viewers in a country only a bit bigger than Scotland. The national broadcaster ORF also had head-to-head TV debates between party leaders: conservatives vs social democrats, greens vs the far-right, liberals vs populists and every other constellation, testing all views from every political direction.

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Sadly in the UK, we do not have election debate fairness or an innovative format that tests leaders from all directions. Instead, we will have a main debate between two leaders who might become prime minister, while excluding others who may hold the balance of power. There will be question-time format shows, where some leaders may send a substitute, reducing the importance of the broadcast. None of it is satisfactory.

Just as the Westminster political system is broken, British election broadcasting coverage is failing to fairly reflect realities across the UK. Despite talented journalists trying their best, the imbalanced UK makes fairness impossible. Scottish viewers are subjected to extended UK network coverage of developments and parties out of all proportion to their mandate or relevance. No wonder this is going to court. While broadcasters have my sympathy in trying to square the UK circle, the truth is that they can’t and they won’t succeed. It is not possible.