TV debates: The path to political enlightenment, or dishing up more of the same?

By Stephen Grootes 5 May 2015

On Monday night, two of the DA’s leadership contenders, Mmusi Maimane and Wilmot James, went head-to-head in a live television debate. It was the first such political debate in this country since FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela slugged it out back in 1994. It has sparked a big discussion about such debates, and whether we should see more of them. Many people immediately warmed to the idea, mainly because it’s fun to watch. We should be a little more cautious, because in the end we may lose something. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Everyone loves a good debate. I certainly remember my first as a participant; it was in what is now called Grade 10 and revolved around the subject of whether working mothers were better than non-working mothers (things have moved on a bit since then).

I was hooked immediately. The clash of ideas is fun to watch, and what could be more directly democratic than two candidates from different parties having to respond to each other, pit their ideas against each other, with the added element of the public watching the two (or three, or four, or even five) personalities interacting?

It is because of this that when the idea of a presidential debate was first used by Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960 many people immediately loved it. It features the famous story about how Nixon sweated and Kennedy didn’t, and how he had a five o’clock shadow and Kennedy came across as fresh-faced and youthful. Kennedy, as you may remember, won. It is, of course, good television. And it allows those of us who claim to be really interested in ideas to say that we’re watching it because it’s really idea versus idea.

In the UK now, just days before an election, there has been some discussion about whether there should be a set of debates, because some leaders didn’t want to share a stage with other leaders. While some may have claimed that they didn’t want to legitimise a party they thought wanted to break up the Kingdom, it’s arguably about using power and strength to diminish an opponent. The ANC has done exactly the same thing here – refusing to debate whoever has led the DA – for fear that it would allow the political opponent to appear more formidable.

Supporters of the idea could also point to another problem, which is that if you don’t have a live TV debate, how do you really get to know your candidate? Speeches and other events can be easily stage-managed, halls can be filled, and ululation on cue can be arranged. A debate, especially a live one, gets around all of that.

Except, of course, that these debates, in the US and elsewhere, have simply devolved into being ordinary politics through other means. Candidates are prepped, answers prepared and hairstyles focus-grouped.

In the end, this becomes all about how well a candidate does in just one form of politics, namely tele-visual politics. The rest of politics, the cut and thrust of ideas – the basis of what it all should really be about – gets left on the production room floor.

It could be said, of course, that the same goes for radio debates – some people are simply going to be better than others. Some will have a tongue made for radio, and others will lose their words. But that is surely better than TV, where the primary medium is actually that of the moving picture.

Luddites (like me) might then say that actually all that is left is for politics through the written word: there should be more campaigning of ideas through the web, written words could regain the power they had during the pamphlet era three hundred years ago. But then, of course, the interrogation of the idea will be missed.

So then, where does that leave us? What options are available? One possibility is the idea of using the power of TV to interrogate, of having a professional actually putting the tough questions, and crucially, demanding the answers. That’s probably a good idea, as it’s too easy for a candidate in a debate with another candidate to simply talk out their time without actually putting across a proper answer to the question ‘How will you cut down the number of people on social grants?’ Certainly, it would show how some politicians do while stressed, which is something we should all be able to observe in a commander-in-chief. Names like Jeremy Paxman and John Humpreys come to mind at this point.

There is something we could start to lose through all of this, though. At the moment, we have a president who is not at his most comfortable giving speeches in English. He is likely to be the last one in our history to be more comfortable giving speeches in Zulu than in English, and perhaps also the last one able to get to his office without having to speak in English for the majority of his career. We as a country are likely to lose something through that, should only those who are proficient in what you could call media English be able to actually participate. It’s not what those who drafted the language section of our Constitution would have wanted.

One of the real drawbacks of these debates is that everyone comes out looking the same; abroad, often the only thing different between the various candidates is the colour of their tie. And what they say sounds the same. Here, that may be different: you may have more variety of dress and sound-byte.

But would any of the candidates really change the minds of the people who are watching, and would anything really change as a result of a TV debate? Often, when one hears a discussion among people, whether it be on the radio or in a pub, you can predict what their political view will be before they express it. Even if different people are watching the same event, they will base their views not on what is being said, but on who is saying it. It’s a very human problem, but we see it all the time, and sometimes one wonders what the reaction would be if Number One announced tomorrow that he’d found a solution to our energy crisis.

In our context, a real live debate between, say, Zuma and Zille, or even Gwede Mantashe and Maimane, would probably lead to the same result, and very few minds would be changed.

Live TV debates between different parties are probably only going to happen here once the ANC believes it is in their interests for that to happen. That probably means only when their majority is really threatened, when a situation develops where they need to respond forcefully to claims against them, and when the politics of the moment demands it. That means it’s probably about a decade away.

When it does happen, many people will cheer. But it’s not all that clear whether we’ll really benefit from live TV debates. They are unlikely to add greatly to the sum of South African happiness. DM

Photo by Carbon Arc.


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