The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, a supposed Conservative, is so terrified of debating Labour’s ineffectual leader that he is refusing to take part in planned televised leaders’ debates ahead of the general election. But rather than excoriating David Cameron for refusing to articulate conservative, small government principles to a national audience, the Tory-friendly press is squandering its credibility defending him. Why?
You can work out the party allegiance of any British newspaper simply by observing its coverage of David Cameron’s craven refusal to give the people what they want, a series of televised pre-election debates featuring the Prime Minister and the leaders of various other parties.
But while British newspapers have a dubious tradition of naked partisanship, not remotely confined to the editorial section, it is disheartening to view the speed with which much of the Conservative-friendly press has been willing to throw the national interest and the health of our democracy out the window in the attempt to shore up David Cameron’s indefensible position.
The Telegraph is the worst offender, clearly not the least bit chastened after having been caught red-handed in the process of dismantling the “Chinese wall” between their commercial and editorial operations in their desperation to keep scandal-plagued HSBC’s advertising account.
Leading with an article about the BBC’s “institutional arrogance”, the Telegraph managed to turn David Cameron’s months of manoeuvrings and evasions into a story about failings within the British media:
Senior Conservatives are particularly furious with the BBC, which they believe has shown “institutional arrogance” by trying to dictate the terms of the debates.
Sue Inglish, the BBC’s head of political programmes who is paid more than £150,000 a year, has chaired the broadcasters’ panel during the negotiations.
Tory MPs last night questioned whether it would be legal to push ahead with the debates without the Prime Minister under strict broadcasting regulations.
Philip Davies, a Conservative member of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, said: “The TV broadcasters are gleefully showing their political bias. There is no doubt in my mind that if Ed Miliband didn’t want to take part in these debates they wouldn’t be taking place.
“The BBC is a public service broadcaster and they need to be very careful about how they use their privileged position. It is getting out of hand. They are trying to dictate terms to the Prime Minister of this country.”
Every line reeks of desperation. First we get the offhand reference to a BBC employee’s salary, intended to distract us with outrage at overpaid executives getting rich off the taxpayer dime. And then comes the carefully curated quote from Philip Davies MP, doing what David Cameron himself cannot be seen to do: directly threaten the BBC with the revocation of its charter if they make trouble or embarrass the Prime Minister in any way. One almost has to look out of the window to remember that we are not in Moscow, and that we are not dealing with the likes of Vladimir Putin.
And to destroy any lingering doubt, the Telegraph’s sycophantic lead article, entitled “David Cameron has a right not to debate”, made it quite clear that we should all just pipe down and apologise to the Prime Minister for having been so rude as to insist that he accounts for his actions and makes his case for five more years of power by debating his chief challenger for the job:
But debates are not a constitutional obligation. Mr Cameron has every right not to take part – that he has changed his attitude towards them to reflect changing political conditions since 2010 is his liberty and his business. In 1964, Harold Wilson, leader of the Labour opposition, aggressively demanded a debate. In 1966, Mr Wilson, by then prime minister. refused a suggestion that he take part in one. Privately, he was always grateful that none occurred at all. He late confided that he was afraid that something might have gone wrong: “I might have got hiccups from smoking a dusty pipe,” he said.
If Mr Cameron has a right not to take part, the broadcasters do not have a right to insist that debates take place exactly as they would like them to. And they put themselves in a very dangerous situation if they do so. This election is going to be close. What message would it send to the voters if, say, the BBC holds a debate in which Mr Cameron’s absence is marked by the presence of an empty chair, or even a proxy speaker? A debate in which he is unable to answer for himself the charges put either by six other party leaders or Ed Miliband alone? That would hardly be fair and would break with, in particular, the BBC’s constitutional commitment to represent everyone.
What a laughable position. The Telegraph languidly asserts that BBC has a constitutional commitment to represent everyone, even those who lack the cojones to get on a stage and make the case for the policies they believe in. And the fact that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is reneging on his own promise and directly harming the health of our democracy, is “his liberty and his business” alone. The Telegraph appears to labour under the delusion that David Cameron somehow contrived a way to insert himself into the line of royal succession and became Sovereign, endowing him with such far-reaching rights and privileges.
The Spectator, meanwhile, tries to minimise the issue by drawing awkward parallels with the United States:
The Tories’ reason for not wanting to debate is simple: Cameron polls ahead of Miliband on leadership by such a margin that he would have to win the debate by a knock out for it to be worth his while. We should remember that in the United States there were 16 years between the first televised presidential debate in 1960 and the second in 1976. The reason for the hiatus was that you only get a second debate when all the candidates feel that they have something to gain from it.
Well then, that’s fine. The American people were denied the opportunity to see the contenders for the highest office in their land debate for a number of years in the ’60s and ’70s, and so the British people deserve no better.
Fraser Nelson manages to present a slightly more considered stance against the British leaders debates, arguing that head-to-head debates impose a falsely presidential window on the parliamentary reality of British general elections:
I wish I could get worked up about the televised election debates (or lack thereof). I can understand that it’s a very important to the broadcasters, who don’t mind reducing the campaign to three US-style standoffs. But if they don’t go ahead, is it really an outrage? Is our democracy really the poorer for it?
When broadcasters are angry, they have a platform to vent – which is why the furore is been given disproportional coverage. But without the debates, the election will go on in the way that every election before 2010 went on. And I rather welcome that. The TV debates do make good entertainment but they do rather take over the campaign – and put the whole thing a little more in the hands of the political and media elite. And a little less in the hands of voters like Mrs Duffy who torpedoed Gordon Brown last year.
But this smacks of excuses. So now the debates just don’t matter that much, and the whole furore is a lot of fuss about nothing? One cannot help thinking that if the positions were reversed, and an incumbent Labour Prime Minister was refusing to debate their Conservative challenger, Fraser Nelson and The Spectator magazine would be leading the way with accusations of cowardice and arrogance.
The Spectator also “helps” their readers toward the right decision in their online poll, with a leading question about “flash-in-the-pan” TV debates that show just how pointless they consider them to be, now that David Cameron has decided not to participate:
But all of this would be less galling if skulking away from Ed Miliband’s challenge somehow advanced the cause of British conservatism. But it does not, as this blog forcefully argues:
While many column inches have been devoted to the elaborate game theory driving the behaviour of the party leaders with regard to the leaders’ debates, few commentators or journalists have considered the impact of these decisions on the party faithful, the high-information voters and activists who understand the issues and do much of the unsung work that gets MPs elected in each constituency.
Skipping the leaders’ debates to avoid alienating low-information voters with no grasp of the issues and who only tune in to politics for the last week of the election campaign may well come at the expense of demoralising an army of committed party activists, people who then choose to sit at home rather than deliver leaflets in the rain or pester their friends and family at the pub. Is disowning his own flagship policies and record in office by avoiding the television debates still a smart move for David Cameron once this impact is factored in?
This really is quite simple. The British people deserve to hear the people who could conceivably be prime minister after 7 May debate the key issues on live television. Less urgently, we also deserve to hear from all serious political parties fielding candidates across the United Kingdom, so that the electorate can gain an awareness of the smaller parties and factor this into their tactical voting plans.
There may have been no leaders’ debates in Britain prior to 2010, but this makes them no less of an important feature of our democracy today. We must refuse to take a step backward because of the arrogant presumption and cowardice of David Cameron, a man who asks us to vote Conservative without daring or deigning to make a full-throated defence of conservative values.
If our modern era of small parties and hung parliaments tells us anything, it is that a clear majority of Britons are unconvinced by either the statist socialism of Ed Miliband or the paternalistic conservatism of David Cameron. The fact that the Tories were somehow unable to win a majority in Parliament when running against Gordon Brown in the middle of an economic crisis stands as reproachful testimony to this fact.
There is still a political argument to be won in Britain, and the case for small government conservatism must be made convincingly to the people if it is ever again to be enacted by a Tory government with a working majority in Parliament.
David Cameron will never make that case by ducking the challenge of a head-to-head television debate against the arrayed forces of nanny-state socialism, and the Tory press serves no one by indulging the Prime Minister in his pusillanimity.