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“Misleading, Incomplete and Regressive": the televised election debates

At the time of writing, the final televised election debate has just ended. The previous two debates were watched by 9.4 million and just over 4 million respectively, and we can be certain that similar figures tuned in to watch this last bout.

What much of the media coverage has served to demonstrate however is the sheer political bias that perennially permeates every aspect of this election campaign. Gordon Brown’s misjudged comments regarding a Labour supporting pensioner were latched onto by Sky news and others as if this was the defining moment of the election. Watching the interview with Gillian Duffy, after being called “bigoted” by Gordon Brown, the desperate, gleeful attempt by Sky news to milk every last ounce from what was effectively a non-story, was frankly nauseating. What can be pretty much guaranteed is that the Murdoch press in particular will ram home their own take on the debates and do their utmost to skew public perception to suit their own cause.

The constant barrage of media coverage in this election, though I’m sure it has been the case in the past, has been relentless, and frankly utterly tedious. The snazzy graphics on the BBC News website, the constant obsession with ‘swing-o-meters’ and interactive graphs, all of it simply results in completely turning people off the election, through sheer over-exposure.

Undoubtedly the media will analyse every poll, hand gesture and bottom lip tuck from Brown until they have decided, according to the ‘polls and statistics’, who ‘won’ the debate. David Cameron may well have presented himself as slightly more enigmatic than Brown, yet do the hand gestures and incessant examples of meeting ‘ordinary’ people genuinely constitute a win for the curiously beardless one? Especially when the words coming out of his mouth attempted to defend the Tories aligning with some of the most far right extremist groups in Europe, climate change deniers, homophobes and racists. A hard sell for anyone, even with Cameron’s PR credentials in mind.

Nick Clegg, too, has managed some fairly decent imitations of Tony Blair in the debates, and as a result has been thrust into the spotlight. Yet whether or not voters will actually go out on 6 May and put a cross next to their Lib Dem candidate remains to be seen. The poll barons that produce statistic after statistic depicting the each party’s support seem to be doing so on the assumption that their own data is completely accurate and would be representative of the actual vote.

As the media never fails to mention, this has become an election of personalities rather than policies in a way that can’t help but be detrimental to democracy. The grand idea for all three major parties usually rests upon a reformist agenda, changing the face of Parliament, restoring public faith in politics etc. ‘Fairness’ has been banded around with as much frequency as ‘cuts to public services’ has been, but with arguably, less enthusiasm. Yet what this increasingly presidential style of politics detracts from is the idea that if we really do want to change the make-up of the political establishment then we should vote locally and not nationally. If we ensure that each Member of Parliament has a real connection to their constituents and actually represents them directly, then this will surely change the constitution of parliament rather than simply its leaders.

If the media insists on making this an election about personality, then let us not overlook the personalities of our local representatives. It is important that young voters, clearly being targeted by politicians in holding interviews with the likes of Dermot O’Leary no less, do not lose sight of the fact that they will be voting for their local representative, rather than Brown, Cameron or Clegg directly. Political parties are more than just their leaders.

David Cameron can go on about how his party is now more gay-friendly and try to dispel the image of the nasty party, but his hopes are of course in vain if the many Conservative MPs in the UK  and in the European Union remain as bigoted as ever. Cameron can also espouse the ideals of the modern Conservative party on one hand, but on the other bang on about knife crime, immigration, inheritance tax cuts and restoring discipline in schools. Sounds pretty familiar to me.

The BBC’s World service were there (in Falmer bar!) to cover the event, and when we asked them if they thought the debates were particularly helpful for the purposes of democracy they said  that it was ‘significant in that it is the first time that this type of national leaders’ debate had been tried.’ This is perhaps true, maybe we will learn from the limitations of this format and in subsequent elections members of the audience would actually be able to clap and jeer as they see fit. Yet in a democracy, where our only chance of playing an active role is usually limited to the time in which we actually physically vote, we must ensure that this process is a not a tokenistic one influenced by spin and image, but an honest choice that reflects the diverse and plural nature of our country.

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