U.K. televised leaders' debate will be a first

If Prime Minister Gordon Brown drops the gauntlet on a British election next week, as most observers expect, the stage will be set for the first televised debates between British leaders in history.

If Prime Minister Gordon Brown throws down the gauntlet for a British election next week, as most observers expect, the stage will be set for the first televised debates between British leaders in history.

Fifty years after John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon first faced off on TV, Britons have never witnessed a televised debate among potential prime ministers.

It's a strange anomaly for the U.K., usually thought of as media savvy, Guardian columnist and BBC host Steve Hewlett said in an interview with Q, CBC's cultural affairs show.

"It's not that the leaders have never appeared on television. In the course of elections they would appear on television and be interviewed, sometimes probingly, about the issues, but they've never actually appeared together," Hewlett said on Thursday.

The problem has been that the leaders of every British party have never all agreed to a debate — and the ones in favour of the idea always backed out when faced with an empty chair.

Usually it's the ruling party that decides it won't participate, Hewlett said. But well ahead of any election that must be called in the coming year, Brown's government decided it had nothing to lose and agreed to participate in televised debates.

"The government of Gordon Brown was so unpopular that three or four months ago there was a virtual certainty — everybody,  including them, accepted they were going to lose," Hewlett said.

At first glance Brown, a taciturn Scot, would seem to have little advantage in a televised debate over the younger, media-savvy Conservative Leader David Cameron.

Yet even before calling an election, the Labour Party has agreed to three leaders' debates.

There's a different dynamic in this election because of the MP expenses scandal last year and the economic recession, Hewlett said.

"Britain, like much of the world, is in an economic mess. There's a huge deficit. Normally in an election the leaders are trying to outdo each other in what they are willing to spend to persuade us to vote their way," he said.

"This one is rather odd because they're doing the opposite. They're competing over who is the most prudent."

Public accountability expected

As for the British public, they're keen to see a public call to account for the expenses scandal, which showed sometimes gross misuse of the expenses system by MPs from both sides of the House.

"The weather has changed and there is an expectation of transparency which television should be part of. I don't think most British voters believe that television is going to tell them something they don't really know," Hewlett said.

However Britons will likely tune in for the novelty, he said, adding "secretly people hope that someone will put a foot in it."

There have been months of negotiations leading up to the debates, on everything from who stands where, to how much time they will have to speak, to who gets broadcast rights.

There will be three leaders involved in the prime ministerial debate — Brown, Cameron and Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg.

The Welsh and Scottish national parties have been left out, because they're unlikely to form a national government, but they have negotiated debates in their own parts of the country.

On Monday night, 1.6 million Britons tuned in for a warmup debate — between the Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling and two men hoping to take his job after this election.

Liberal Democrat Vince Cable ended up looking good in that skirmish, as he occupied a spot in the middle as a kind of intervenor between the squabbling Labour and Conservative candidates.

The Liberal Democrats have no chance of forming a government, Hewlett said. He believes televised debates will ultimately not greatly affect the election outcome.

"The internet, digital interactive media will be more significant over the next five years than this debate," he said.

Brown is expected to make an announcement next week calling for a May election.