Wednesday, 27 August 2014

3 lessons from the Scottish TV debates for the General Election

Monday's second and final live TV debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling - representing the Yes and No camps in Scotland's independence debate - was seen as a resounding victory for Salmond

This was a significant turnaround after the first debate leading to Scotland's first minister subsequently claiming the momentum is with the nationalists.

Most likely the next set of debates we will see on British TV screens will be ahead of next year's General Election. With this in mind I see three simple lessons which the Scottish debates illustrated rather clearly.

1. Someone has to win
No one has to win a TV debate. It isn't X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing or a boxing match that has to be decided on points. That does't stop the media feeling compelled to 'call' the debate as soon as possible using either a snap poll or Real Time Audience Response dial testing. The latter gives a second-by-second picture of what an audience was thinking and is a useful research tool while a poll will tell you who an audience thought 'won' immediately after the debate. Even if a debate was dull as dishwater, as TV debates tend to be, and no significant punches were landed in the black and white world of the political media someone has to win. 

2. If you lose move on, if you win move on
For the Independent on Sunday I was asked how Alex Salmond should bounce back after his poor performance in the first TV debate. I essentially said that he needed to move on from his last performance and that politicians who try and right wrongs of their last battle always fail to land punches this time around.

What I can add now is that the same is true for a politician perceived to have done well. Alistair Darling revisited the currency issue which caused Alex Salmond so much trouble but of course the first minister was ready this time. Furthermore the audience had already moved on. The result: Darling was going over old ground that they new and so soon got restless. Better to find another chink in the armour than try and do damage to old wounds.

3. The 'spin room' is irrelevant in an age of social media 
The immediacy of reaction from social media means that journalists and voters get a sense of how a debate or a part of a debate is being perceived by their peers. This, plus the data provided by snap polling and dial testing, means journalists are armed with a huge amount of information as and when the debate concludes. I've been part of a 'spin room' operation on a number of occasions and that process certainly played a part in shaping opinion of which candidate had performed well and on which particular topic.

Today crowd-sourcing of real opinion is so easy why should a journalist listen to the views of a party spokesman when they would be saying that wouldn't they?

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