The first televised election debate in the USA drew 66 million viewers out of a population of 179 million. The most recent American election debates in 2012 still drew an audience of 67m, although the population is somewhat larger now. With these figures in mind it seems a little pathetic that it took the United Kingdom until 2010 to ever hold the first televised debates.
But in the battle to secure a new set of debates for the 2015 election in the UK, are the broadcasters conveniently forgetting how those 2010 debates went? I blogged the debates and the election night live for Reuters so I was keenly following the 2010 elections and I don't remember anything very positive about the TV debates.
In my opinion, the 2010 election campaign had the life sucked out of it by the TV debates. As soon as the election date was announced, the TV debates were agreed and then the focus of the backbenchers, journalists, and political pundits was entirely around the content and format of the first TV debate. Nothing else mattered.
Once that debate was over, several days were spent analysing the performance of the party leaders in minute detail. Then the next few days were spent previewing the next TV debate. The campaign in general had no life because nobody in the media appeared to be interested in covering anything except what was going to happen in the next TV debate.
And yet in all the analysis during 2010 I don't recall anyone ever asking why we were all paying so much attention to the TV debates. So what if Nick Clegg performed well in front of the cameras and managed to use a few one-liners to the expense of the Prime Minister? How does that really influence the outcome of an election based on a first-past-the-post constituency system?
The UK does not have a president. The British debates cannot really be presented as presidential, they are merely the leaders of the main parties arguing their case. It's entirely possible that Nick Clegg might participate in the 2015 debates - if they happen - and then lose his seat and play no further part in the leadership of his party.
Everyone knows that TV debates are difficult for the incumbent leader. It's the Conservatives and Lib Dems now, but last time Gordon Brown was suffering the brickbats as New Labour wound down towards their ultimate failure at the polls - after leading the nation since 1997. The 2015 debates in the UK will also need many more voices as the SNP has become a far more important voice since 2010, the Greens now have an enormous number of party members, and Ukip is asking the migration questions all the established parties appear to be ducking.
So it's understandable that any Prime Minister in the UK will try to avoid TV debates, but I hear so many ridiculous reasons used to justify why they are essential for British democracy:
TV debates are the only way to interest floating voters in the election process. It's where people get their information about what the parties stand for.
If this is really the case then people are voting with almost no information at all. Every day we live out a life that is engaged with politics to some degree, from the taxes you pay to the way the railways function. How can a few short debates on TV really make voters decide how they want the next five years of leadership to look?
TV debates are the only way to interest young people in politics.
This is a funny one and I keep hearing the 'youth' vote being mentioned when justifying the debates. Let's just get this straight, nobody who can realistically be called young watches TV channels or tunes in for a debate at a fixed time any longer. They want content on demand and to say that broadcast TV is reaching out to the young is like suggesting that the future of the media is in print newspapers.
The Americans have been doing it for over 50 years.
The British electoral system means that you can be watching a TV debate, find yourself agreeing with the Labour leader and plan to vote for the party only to then find that you don't like the candidate they have standing in your own constituency. Or you might be living in a safe Tory seat where your preferred candidate has no chance. The British system is very different to the presidential left v right (plus possibly an outlier) system used for debates in the USA.
I strongly believe in more transparent, accountable democracy. I'm not trying to make this case as a defender of the present Prime Minister, who seems to be dodging any attempt to confirm these TV debates. I just believe that the 2010 TV debates did not work very well and the British people are sleepwalking back into repeating them just because the broadcasters believe it's a good idea.
I believe that the main political parties should just move beyond the ideas used in the USA since 1960. Why don't the main political parties join forces with Twitter and Facebook and create regular debates between local MPs and candidates that operate at a constituency level?
A YouTube debate was planned anyway, but this should be given more weight. Who cares about a debate on ITV at 8pm? A debate on YouTube that goes out live, with the audience anywhere able to participate, and with the video immediately available to be reviewed and shared is far more valuable than anything the traditional broadcasters are offering.
All of the parties - the major ones and the new players - should want to debate the issues with the British public. But public expectation of interaction with political parties is no longer going to be satisfied by a few TV debates, although I realise that some form of TV debate is certainly going to happen - even if it requires empty seats to be used.
In an ideal world, I would hope that the parties could join forces to make the 2015 election an exciting and informative election campaign by ignoring the TV broadcasters and going straight to the Internet. I guess this will not happen until 2020 now.
In any case, do you really think that the TV and radio broadcasters are not going to repeat everything that is said online?