ITV Debate Format Has Fatal Flaws

ITV Leaders debate - Rishi Sunak, Julie Etchingham, Keir Starmer

Tuesday’s ITV Debate between Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer was their first head-to-head clash of this General Election. The broadcaster will no doubt be pleased it saw off the opposition and got on air first. They will also be pleased with the figures. The broadcast got a peak audience of 5.5 million viewers, with an average of 5 million.

However, they should not be pleased with what those people ended up watching. From the awkward intro shot of the two leaders standing behind moderator Julie Etchingham to the absurd 45-second time limit on answers to the pointless “fun” question at the end, the whole thing was a mess.

ITV Debate Limits Itself

The biggest issue was that time limit. Asking politicians to unpack complex ideas in under a minute is difficult and teaches the public nothing. Indeed, it was rather insulting to our intelligence. Such restrictions rather imply we cannot handle anything beyond a soundbite. Do we really expect anyone to solve social care or the Middle East in 45 seconds? Are we actually happy if they can lay out their thoughts on such big topics in so little time?

The time limit also meant Etchingham kept interrupting. She spoke to the prime minister and his likely successor as if they were naughty schoolboys. These interjections invariably came just at the point that we were about to hear something potentially useful from one of them. She has proven herself to be a capable anchor and debate chair in the past, but this was not a good night for Etchingham.

In his book “Why is this Lying Bastard Lying to Me”(£), author and senior TV producer Rob Burley lays out the value of in-depth, one-on-one interviews. They can be much more probing and revealing. Last night rather proved his point. While I think events like the ITV Debate can be useful, the format has to be correct. Let’s hope the BBC has learned for when it has its turn.

I’m glad I decided to watch The Lionesses live instead.

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