When you consider the way John Major has been increasingly mauled
and undermined by the press, culminating in the Sun’s historic but
threateningly worded decision this week to back Blair at the start,
rather than the conclusion of the campaign, it is not surprising that he
is looking to TV - hamstrung by impartiality rules - for salvation.
Indeed, even as the Sun’s leader writer was honing its aggressive
editorial, over at Sky News, the editors were polishing their stop
watches, starting to time sound-bites to the second, and promising to
act as the honest brokers of the election airwaves (exploiting the fact
that they are still the only 24-hour UK news channel and in possession
of three times the audience they had at the last election).
But what the debate about the exact power of the press to swing the
’don’t knows’ overlooks is something more unscientific but potent:
newspapers create a sounding board and climate within which everyone
operates. What strikes me about the rest of the national press is how
faint the Tory Party’s support has become. You search in vain for the
full-blooded true blue believers of yesteryear. Instead you are greeted
with confused coverage.
The Express, under Labour’s Lord Hollick says: ’in the weeks to come we
will make our preferences known’. The Daily Mail is promising to ferret
out hard detail. The Times is sitting on the fence and also promising to
serve up facts, although I bet editor Peter Stothard will join Stuart
Higgins and Rupert Murdoch and back Blair. Of course the Telegraphs will
stay Tory. But Central Office has failed spectacularly to keep their
once natural allies in print on side.
So there will be even more intense pressure over the representation of
Tory policies on TV and radio (although in this area too Central Office
is acting clumsily). A televised debate between the leaders looks not
only inevitable, but as Major’s keenness demonstrates, a godsend. But
how should it be staged? And who should do it? I think it should go out
on all networks (or those prepared to screen it) simultaneously. That
would create a true sense of occasion.
The conventions of TV suggest that a two-headed debate, with a deft but
discreet referee (a Dimbleby rather than a Humphreys, please) would
provide the best TV. Viewers want to see Major and Blair together,
interacting, getting cross. A triangle would not work, especially since
it would pit two against one. But Britain is not electing a president
Our democratic system is different to that of the US. There is simply no
ground for excluding Paddy Ashdown, especially since Labour’s commitment
to constitutional reform might well boost the power of the LibDems. So
we are most likely to get three separate debates. Too many? Well, after
the big one there is always the off button.