How to win the TV debate: Michael Cockerell

Well, if you weren’t already excited by the prospect of the political leaders’ TV debates and persuaded that this is a turning point for UK politics, then Michael Cockerell’s fascinating How to win the TV debate should have changed your mind. 

This was great television:  television doing best what only it can do.  So good that I re-watched it on iPlayer immediately (and then replayed the best bits again).  It should be compulsory viewing for all voters.

In little under an hour, it provided an informed and engaging sweep across televised Presidential debates in the US, starting with the initial Nixon-Kennedy clash in 1960.  And carefully, as the years and decades went by, it linked them across to the UK elections and leaders and the similar debates they often talked about, but avoided having.

This of course had the huge advantage of being TV analysing the production and impact of TV – but it used the vast range of historic footage it had skilfully and at just the right pace.  It was laced together with insightful analysis from the vastly experienced political reporter, Michael Cockerell (who nicely established his credentials mid-way by including a clip from 1979 of his questioning candidate Reagan).

What made this programme fly was indeed the fine selection and presentation of archive material, drawing in Presidents and Prime Ministers and wannabe Presidents and Prime Ministers alike, plus their raft of advisers and political commentators reflecting on the debates. 

Those candidates that did shine through the TV lens still standout:  Clinton, even with all we know about him, was still exhilarating both in interview and in the TV debate.  I’d vote for him tomorrow.

It also showed what went through their minds and how they and their advisers prepared.  It had great behind the scenes footage, such as Presidents Ford and Obama preparing:  Gerald Ford practicing by literally taking on a cumbersome old TV playing clips of Carter, not that it availed him much in reality.

What we don’t know is how influential these debates really were – but they are certainly can be the frame within which key elements of elections can be remembered:

– Gerald Ford’s gaffe about there being no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe;

– Reagan’s counter to questions about his age by avowing he would “not exploit for political gain the youth and inexperience of his opponent” Walter Mondale;

– George Bush Sr excruciatingly failing to connect with questions from the audience, and pointedly looking at his watch during the debate;

– Al Gore bizarrely trying and failing to turn the debate into a mano-a-mano physical stand off with George W Bush.

It also set up, in my mind at least, some delightful counter-factuals:  how might we now remember previous UK General Elections if we’d had those TV debates here:  man of the people Wilson taking on old Etonian Alec Douglas-Home;  a keen-as-mustard Kinnock taking on a shrill Thatcher;  Blair taking on a succession of hapless Tory leaders pre-Cameron.

Remarkably, one of the most prescient insights came early on from the old Etonian Home in 1963:  TV debates will give us the best actor as leader of the country, delivering lines written by a script writer, and (anticipating political reality TV) turning politics into a kind of “Top of the Pops”. 

Arguably such acting as politics reached its apogee in the UK with Blair, who never then had to agree to a TV debate since he was so far ahead each time in the polls:  having nothing to gain and no precedent to force their hand, strong UK incumbents don’t agree to them.  

It is therefore perhaps only now in this particular moment in 2010 – with an incumbent PM who has nothing to lose and something to gain – that we would we get this debate. But now this Rubicon has been crossed, there will be no going back.

Interestingly, what this programme couldn’t anticipate in any detail was how the dynamics of a three-way debate work – since all bar one US debates have been two horse races.  The introduction of a credible third candidate – as we saw with the recent “Ask the Chancellors” – can change the dynamic completely.

At the end of the day, the Nixon-Kennedy debates remain the benchmark.  A shifty and ill-at-ease Nixon losing out to a smooth and telegenic Kennedy.  Jowly Gordon Brown bears an unfortunate physical resemblance to Nixon. But David Cameron, I’d argue – to steal another US debate phrase – is no Jack Kennedy.

Bring it on.

Posted by arialbold


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2 responses to “How to win the TV debate: Michael Cockerell

  1. inkface

    This was indeed a gripping programme. I particularly enjoyed the pre-Nixon/Kennedy debate moment when both publically refused make-up, but then nipped off to their dressing rooms to slap some on. The charismatic Kennedy with his California tan, glowed sexily on screen, even in black and white. Nixon on the other hand looked frighteningly like a zombie Jimmy Carr.

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