Well, I won’t keep you in suspense. It wasn’t Goff. And it wasn’t Key. It was you and me – the voting public. We were conned by Television New Zealand into thinking that for an hour-and-a -half last night the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition would debate the serious issues that confront this country, the channel’s Political Editor, Guyon Espiner, would keep order and, by the end of the 90 minutes, we would all be better informed. We should have learned from history not to trust that promise. Television New Zealand has never treated the Leaders’ Debates as anything more than an entertainment. Its remit to sell audiences to advertisers, its suspicion that viewers are fundamentally uninterested in politics, its conviction that the attention span of the average television consumer is seven minutes tops and its paranoia about doing anything that might bore that viewer into switching channels, all contribute to the entertainment ethos that drives the Leaders’ Debates.
‘Debates’ is of course a misnomer. A real debate requires an extensive exchange of views between the parties. Three or four minutes on a topic, some part of that time spent in an undecipherable cacophony of moderator and leaders talking at once, cannot be called a debate. But that is precisely what TVNZ wants and the programme is structured to ensure that result. A 90-minute programme does not of course comprise 90 minutes of content. A standard commercial half-hour has about 22 minutes of programme material. So a commercial hour-and-a-half will have no more than 70 minutes of content. Into this 70 minutes last night, TVNZ managed to squeeze the following ingredients: Mark Sainsbury’s opening and closing;Guyon Espiner’s topic introductions and questions; John Key’s and Phil Goff’s responses on at least 15 different topics. (I didn’t count.)
Sainsbury’s interviews with Jon Johanssen and Claire Robinson during the breaks; Questions from Fran O’Sullivan, Wallace Chapman and Shane Taurima; Viewers’ questions; A text poll. It can’t be done. And it wasn’t done. In almost every case, the so-called ‘debate’ between Key and Goff had to be cut off mid-stream or earlier, leaving the issue not merely unresolved but barely touched on. Respected Media and Communications scholar Ernest Hess-Luttich called this sort of exchange ‘pseudo argumentation’. As it happens, this is precisely the form of entertainment that TVNZ wants from its election debates – political leaders squabbling to no purpose.
We were at least spared the bedlam of audience shouting and abuse which occurred during the first of the Clark/Brash debates in 2005 when a senior TVNZ network executive appeared in the studio during the first commercial break to encourage the National Labour audience to ‘rark up’ the leaders with even more shouting and abuse. I don’t want to get too precious about this, but doesn’t an organisation called ‘Television New Zealand’ have an obligation in an election year to provide its audience with proper forums for discursive political debate rather than programmes based on the entertainment ethos of a Punch and Judy Show? TVNZ clearly thinks it doesn’t. I find that shameful. As to who won, I leave that to you. It seemed to me that it was pretty even.