Friday, 1 September 2017

Debate? Bring back the bell.

Was that really a debate last night? It would have been more instructive if it were.

A televised election debate is a unique opportunity to size up two or more opposing candidates: to watch them lay out their own views and challenge their opponents’. How they present (and what) are as important as how (and what) they choose to oppose in their opponent. Their skill and judgement both in what and how they choose to make their case is as important as what and how they choose to engage and challenge their opponent – as is how they mount their defences.

What do they challenge? What do they let go? How effective is their challenge? How effective the defence?

These are all very helpful in judging a candidate’s effectiveness.

We did not have that opportunity last night. Nor have we enjoyed that opportunity in any of the other staged televised pseudo-debates aired in recent times.

These are not debates; they are little more than candidate interviews held in parallel.

In a formal debate, which is how this and these other pseudo-debates are billed, each candidate is allotted a certain time to make their opening, a certain time to respond to their opponent, and a certain time to sum up – at the end of which a bell is often rung. The candidates challenge each other; they question and answer each other; they address each other and their audience. They do not answer or address the moderator. He is just there to ring the bell.

That was not what was presented on prime-time TV last night.

Instead of their own choice of what to present, which may have revealed what they themselves see as their strength, the candidates were asked selected questions by a moderator – and not even the same questions  to each. The questions were chosen by the moderator.

Except when (rarely) invited, instead of the chance to formally respond and challenge their opponent, which may have revealed where they see the oponents’ weakness, the candidates instead had to realy upon the moderator to challenge their opponent – and I was not aware the moderator was up for election. The only opportunity the candidates themselves had to challenge was to make faces in the background (something at which Ms Ardern seemed more accomplished than the more wooden Mr English) and to interject at what they considered appropriate moments: making the test of a candidates’s skill not one of being able to sum up and then skilfully demolish an opponents’ point, but essentially one of who can shout louder and deliver the wittiest “zinger.”

There were few zingers last night. Nor was there very much wit.

But there was a a moderator, and he was far too visible, and much too voluble.

There was much online discussion before this pseudo-debate began about the suitability or otherwise of Mike Hosking for the job of moderating this “debate” because of his alleged political views. But if the format of a debate were followed as faithfully as it should be – which would, I submit make much better television than last night’s yawn-fest – the political views of any moderator would be entirely irrelevant. The moderator could be the resurrected corpse of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin himself, but as long as they were able to read a watch and ring a bell on time, their own political views would be entirely irrelevant.

Make Hosking irrelevant. Bring back the bell.

PS: So who won the “debate”? Assuredly, it won’t be the taxpayer.



  1. Noting that a separate issue from the Left trying to silence Hosking simply because they don't like him, yes.

    I found the finance debate in Queenstown the night before far better, and far more informative. Patrick Gower pretty much gave the finance spokesmen free rein, within the time limits.

  2. I watched for two minutes then stopped watching when Hosking's first questions were on National's poll numbers. I realised this was not an occasion where serious ideas would be discussed. So I watched sport instead (human achievement).


  3. I've never liked this style of debate. It does not--and cannot--focus on getting at the truth. It may reveal, as you say, what each candidate thinks are their strengths and the others' weaknesses, but I can assess that for myself based on what they say in their speeches and what they've done in the past. Political debates have always been little more than concurrent advertisements for each other's views; useful in a time when newspapers were the final word in mass communication, but increasingly irrelevant.


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