Why Helen Clark and John Key are right—TV networks collude—and MMP purists are wrong

Helen Clark and John Key are right—a series of eight-way television debates during Campaign 08 would be a waste of their time, and a tax on the patience of viewers and voters.

What voters need is undistracted head-to-head televised debates between the two politicians—one of whom will lead the formation of New Zealand’s next government. And those debates need to occur at the beginning and end of the campaign.

What voters do not need is the distraction of six third-party leaders worming their way around the key questions the viewers want them to answer: who will you align with and what is your bottom-line price?

This is a crunch campaign between the major political parties and their leaders.

Both know that there is a mood for change among the voters—and Key is being positioned as the “champion of change”. Both know that the volatile state of the world’s financial markets means that voters could switch to high-security mode—“trust me, you know me” is Helen Clark’s pitch.

In this environment, a sudden, mid-campaign voter landslide in either direction is a strong possibility.

Both major parties have significant new policies ready to launch in the campaign—Key on tax and Clark on social development (probably student fees or upgraded childcare).

Voters need the opportunity to see Clark and Key test each other and define clearly their differing visions of New Zealand’s way forward. We need this without the clutter of third-party leaders coat-tailing their way back from the brink of electoral oblivion.

Let the MMP purists howl. Let them suggest that Clark and Key have been colluding to exclude the minor parties. Let them claim that the major television networks are colluding to uphold the principles of MMP democracy. They are talking rubbish.

Thanks to Tim Watkin’s probing on Pundit, it is now clear that there has been collusion—collusion between the major TV networks to force Clark and Key into the constraints of their proposals for eight-way leaders’ debates.

Neither of the major networks is strongly inspired by the shared commitment to MMP democracy claimed jointly by their respective news chiefs. Neither wants to concede competitive advantage to the other, and neither wants to take a decision that could put schedule stability, ratings and revenue at risk.

The major networks’ collusion has been driven by risk-minimisation more than anything else, and inviting the eight Parliamentary party leaders into their debates achieves two practical ends.

First, it condenses the number of debates and reduces disruption to their normal programme schedules.

Second, it reduces the risk of repeat of the successful High Court challenge that Peter Dunne and Jim Anderton mounted against a decision to exclude them from the line-up of minor party leaders participating in TV3’s campaign debate in 2005.

State-owned and largely commercially-funded TVNZ has retreated from its original eight-way debate proposal, and will run a Clark versus Key contest and a separate debate for third party leaders.

Privately-owned and almost completely commercially-funded TV3 has taken a totally commercial decision: no separate, low-rating third parties debate

Logical analysis of the major party leaders’ decision to insist on head-to-head debates shows it reflects commonsense more than collusion.

There are four television networks making calls on their time for debates. TVNZ, TV3, Prime and Sky have all been in there pitching the same kind of propositions. One of my sources tells me that meeting all their demands for leaders’ debates would have taken seven to nine days out of the tight campaign schedules that both Clark and Key are running. Both camps had come to the same conclusion before their discussion started.

Major party leaders simply do not have that kind of time to spare in a crunch campaign. They know a multitude of leaders’ debate will dull their impact, and impair their ability to undertake other forms of campaigning. They are forced to prioritise the demands on their time—and they have opted for the best outcome from the voters’ perspective as well as their own.

Third party leaders are not being excluded from television debates by the leaders’ decision. TV3 alone has taken a decision to exclude a third party leaders’ debate from its campaign coverage.

Third parties will have plenty of opportunities to put their case to voters on television—in TVNZ’s minor parties’ debate (and at least one other channels is planning one); through their taxpayer-funded television advertising; and in the “fair” and “balanced” TV news and current affairs coverage of the campaign that will be demanded by a more vigilant Broadcasting Standards Authority.

If the MMP purists were strict in applying their doctrine of democracy to the Great "TV Debate" Debate, the absurdity of their demand for eight-party television debates would quickly become apparent.

By my count, there are 21 political parties contesting this election. So why draw the line at eight?

Clark versus Key, head-to-head, in live free-form debate gets my vote any day.

Comments (12)

by Ian MacKay on October 01, 2008
Ian MacKay

Agreed David. I would get more out of the Truo Duo than out of the Super 8 (or the Super 10 including Copeland and Field, or Super 22 plus.) As some-one else said John Key is getting intensive PR coaching (from Bill Ralston) so should be able to handle the exposure well.

by Juha Saarinen on October 01, 2008
Juha Saarinen

The last televised debate I attended saw David Cunliffe feeling up an iPhone-waving Maurice Williamson, with Rodney Hide yawning in a yellow-striped suit, and Metiria Turei not knowing anywhere near enough about the subject matter to talk about it.

They all seem to be in agreement with one another too. It was amusing to a degree, but not a debate as such.

by David Beatson on October 01, 2008
David Beatson

My colleague Richard Harman tells me that he has some interesting debate lined up for Agenda - the Sunday morning haven on ONE for real TV current affairs buffs. His line-up includes:

16 October – Fox versus Horomia in the critical Labour-held Maori seat, Ikaroa-Rawhiti. 19 October – Cullen v English. 23 October – Hide v Worth v Locke v Sutton in the critical ACT-held Epson.

Agenda also has serious solo interviews lined up with Key [26 October] and Clark (2 November ).



by Tze Ming Mok on October 01, 2008
Tze Ming Mok

Oh hell yes. Eight-way debates aren't debates.  As we saw at the beginning of the US presidential election's party primaries, eight people up on stage just turns into soundbites and shows of hands ('Who believes in evolution?  What, everyone?  You're kidding me.  Well who here gives their kid a whack from time to time?').  The voting public is owed more than that.

by Craig Ranapia on October 02, 2008
Craig Ranapia
David: I know it's a rather radical notion of the pundit-political complex, but perhaps us dim-bumb citizens (especially the roughly one in five who have no intention of voting for either National or Labour) could judge the "relevance" or otherwise of the minor parties for themselves. And while you can patronisingly sniff at us "MMP purists" (and however much this National supporter would like it to be otherwise), Clark and Key aren't going to be forming a government on their own. I also found this comment gob smacking: "Major party leaders simply do not have that kind of time to spare in a crunch campaign. " Wonderful -- why don't we just completely outsource all election season editorial decisions to Heather Simpson and Wayne Eagleton? Clark and Key, of course, are perfectly entitled to decline ANY media opportunity for whatever reasons they choose. But could we cut the pretence that this decision was motivated by anything other than raw and blindingly obvious self-interest?
by Graeme Edgeler on October 02, 2008
Graeme Edgeler

I understand that TV3 had proposed a head-to-head debate and an 8 leader debate. And that TVNZ had proposed two heads-to-head and an 8-way. This wasn't the either/or your post seems to imply.

A push by the major party leaders that "we won't take part in an 8-leader debate unless you also give us a head-to-head as well" would be a lot more defensible, but that isn't what has happened.

by David Beatson on October 02, 2008
David Beatson

Graeme - I haven't seen the full proposals from TVNZ and TV3, but on your count that means they were asking for a total 5 televised debates in the course of the campaign. Then there were further bids for debates from Prime and Sky ... and Radio New Zealand ... and who knows who else...

Craig - Contrived and controlled eight way formats will not produce the meaningful engagement we'll see in the head-to-head confrontations between the two major party leaders. And those, like you, who won't vote for either of them are not being deprived of an opportunity to see what's offering by way of third party choice. There will be at least two third party leaders' TV debates during the campaign. Those leaders will get more time to air their views if the two major players aren't in there with them competing for time.  

by Craig Ranapia on October 02, 2008
Craig Ranapia

And those, like you, who won't vote for either of them are not being deprived of an opportunity to see what's offering by way of third party choice.

Graeme: What part of "this National supporter" was hard to understand? I'm going to be voting two-ticks National unless the next policy release is the wholesale adoption of the Communist Manifesto. But it does actually matter how Key and Clark actually interact with minor party leaders -- and their policy platforms -- in a less stage-managed format, however imperfect.

If you want to talk seriously about "contrived and controlled formats" that "will not produce meaningful engagement" perhaps the media need to stop playing along with so-called presidential campaigning, where leaders float from one stage managed photo op to the next, only pausing to roll out the talking points of the day. Now, if you want to say television political coverage is often superficial, when it exists at all, then you're preaching to the choir.

But I don't see how we're going to get more extensive and innovative coverage from media outlets, when the leaders of our two major political parties are going to take their ball and go home if what we've got isn't to their liking.

by Graeme Edgeler on October 03, 2008
Graeme Edgeler

Graeme: What part of "this National supporter" was hard to understand?

Craig - none of it.

What part of "Graeme" [insert something witty]?

by Craig Ranapia on October 03, 2008
Craig Ranapia

Oy... could someone create an emoticon for "there goes my brilliant career as a New Yorker fact-checker"? :)  Please accept my apologies for the misattribution, Graeme.


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