Opinion: Debates – the first two questions count most

Amongst the plethora of writing on the 2008 US Election, I came across this observation:

“After every debate [in the 2008 primaries and general election] the media narrative was determined by the first two questions and answers.”

(J. Heilemann & M. Halperin, “Race of A Lifetime: How Obama Won the White House”, Penguin Viking).

I decided to see if that hypothesis holds true for the recent Chancellors’ Debate as a clue as to whether it will apply to our forthcoming Party Leaders’ Debates.

The first question, asked by a trainee solicitor, in the Chancellors’ Debate was,

“This is a job interview; what personal qualities do you have that make you better than your two rivals?”

They answered:

Cable: “I’ve got a lot of experience… time in the private sector… when the crisis was building up I warned the government that the boom was getting out of control, when the crisis came I advocated policies which to their credit the government did adopt.”

Darling: “Tenacity.  Amongst many thing over the last few years.  I’ve had to take difficult decisions unimaginable two years ago… banking system was the verge of collapse but I’m also in the last 2 or 3 years… I’ve shown my judgement whether on Northern Rock, supporting our economy through deep recession… I hope it shows my judgement.  My judgement was right that it would be a deep downturn.  My fairness which drives everything I do in politics and I hope my judgement, will see us through this.”

Osborne: “I’ve been Shadow Chancellor for 5 years… to be effective you have to have energy, new ideas, and be part of a team… part of a team in government.  Decisions have to be rooted in values.  My values are responsibility, supporting people who work hard and save hard, and understanding it’s not my money or Alistair’s money or Vince’s money… it is the public’s money and remembering that everyday you do the job.”

The second question, from a marketing manager, all-but accused the contenders of being snake oil salesmen,

“Instead of hiding behind a smokescreen of rhetoric and patronising the electorate, why don’t you come clean about what you’re going to cut and when?”

Darling: “Firstly, I’ve been very clear just as we were right to support the economy as we went through the downturn, we had to make sure as a country we live within our means and cut borrowing in four years.  I think to go further and faster would run a serious risk of tipping us back into recession as I said a few moments ago.  I do want to protect front line service but I make no bones about it, next spending review will involve tough decisions, perhaps most difficult for 20 years.”

Osbourne: “We are all in this together, I was the politician who said last year we need to cut spending and I set out some specific examples of things that need to be cut.  I said we can’t afford luxuries like the Child Trust Fund.  I said Whitehall and Quangos need to be reduced by a third, I said there needed to be a public sector pay freeze.  So I set out some difficult decisions… there will be more… we’ve all got to do this together.”

Cable: “Well, Alistair answered the question ‘when’ and I agree with him on that but the question was ‘what’, and we’re the only one of the three parties who have spelt out £15 billion of cuts we think have to be made… discipline in public sector pay, key areas of welfare… defence, scrap Trident and Eurofighter in the short run, look at vast swathes of bureaucracy weighing down local government, the surveillance state, scrap ID cards and the biometric database.  There are lots of specific cuts we would make.”

I note that all three replied to the first, more civil, question in the first person singular and to the second, more aggressive, question in the first person plural: “personal qualities” belong to them and “cuts” belong to us all, so it seems.

To assess whether these two questions and answers determined the media narrative requires examination of how it was reported.  I’m not in a position to look over the TV, radio and printed reports but we can easily examine the online reporting.

This report from the BBC’s opening paragraphs concentrated on the uncosted Tory plan to cut NI but the report goes on to adopt the narrative from these two questions and answers.  The BBC report says, “Mr Darling said Tory plans… were irresponsible and did not add up” which refects Darling’s emphasis on the value of his own judgment in his first answer and his “protect[ion]” versus “serious risk” frame on which he put his second answer.  Likewise, the BBC report summarized Osborne as raising the prospect of “five more years of waste, debt and taxes”.  The expression “5 years” appears in the first sentence of his first answer (I thought this was an odd choice as it surely reminds people of how long he has been around and what he was wrong about, while Vince was right from the same side of the House).

Public Letters to the Guardian overwhelmingly concentrated on all three men having said cuts are inevitable and cuts were a dominant theme in the answers to the second question.  If you accept “tough decisions” and “live within our means” equate to “cuts”, the term was used 9 times in answer to the second question.  The Guardian reflects this being the overall narrative of the letters they have selected to print with the title “Chancellors’ [note the plural] cuts are not convincing”.

The Telegraph also framed the debate as having been about cuts, the subject matter of the second question.  Although it quoted from various parts of the debate and devoted about half of its report to the out of studio context (what it means for the Leaders’ debates, Tory nerves about how Osborne would perform, and the response of the bookmakers) the narrative of the headline and opening words of the Telegraph report were about the second question: “scale of spending cuts laid bare”.

This report in the Daily Mail is one of several in that newspaper that complain how pleasantly the three contenders behaved to each other.  It’s as if the Mail would prefer to dispense with elections altogether, as if rational debate is effete, and would resolve who will lead the country by fist fight.  Look behind the “analysis”, which frankly has as much intellectual depth as football punditry (I like football but almost all of what football pundits say is recycled cliché and meaningless filler) in this case “George Osborne won on points” and “Vince Cable was a disappointment”. The article, when it eventually moved on from the author’s views into a report of the debate itself, went straight in for quoting Osborne’s answer to the first question followed by a few paragraphs on “cuts”.  The author concludes that this civilized debate proves Americans are more suited to them (actually, many tapes of American political debates I have seen are just as civil) and, the author claims, debates don’t fit with “British reserve”.  He incredibly writes that having had no reserve about attacking two of the three contenders as boring, scheming and lazy.

The Mirror is equally and oppositely partisan, telling us that “Osborne was ripped apart.”  In common with other reports, the Mirror placed emphasis on the Tory plan to cut NI, which did not come up in the first two questions.  This and general criticism of Osborne dominated the first part of the Mirror’s report but it then came onto subject matter of the first two questions: personal qualities (quoting verbatim from their answers to the first question).

Turning to the foreign-owned newspapers published in Britain, The Sun’s report based it’s narrative largely on these first two questions: emphasis on cuts (albeit with reference to the NI issue that came later in the debate) before turning to their personal qualities, which was the subject of the first question: experience versus tenacity versus energy and “sense of fairness” versus “responsibility”.  The Sun has more verbatim quotes from the three contenders than either the BBC or the broadsheets Guardian, although The Sun’s publicly declared Tory bias is evident.

The hypothesis that the first two questions might be the alpha and omega of the post-debate media narrative seems to be too sweeping a suggestion in relation to this Chancellors’ Debate.  But it is undeniable that, even in the midst of the predictable partisan biases of some newspapers or the more neutral broadsheet tones, the first two questions and answers were consistently important in the media narrative after the Chancellors’ Debate.  They presumably will be after the Leader’s Debates too.

The practical reason for this concentration on the first two questions may be that journalists are under pressure to draft their reports quickly.  It is easier to start after the first two questions than listening to the whole debate before composing a story.

As someone who is professionally paid to ask questions, I was surprised by the hypothesis that the first two questions could be so disproportionately important.  But the studio is different to a court.  My audience, the jury, are usually under no pressure of time and have no commercial interest in the matter.  Research shows most jurors earnestly want to “get things right”.  That is not the say their attention does not vary.  As an advocate I try to start and finish on memorable points, I vary my pitch, tempo and gestures.  The witness has to properly answer, not evade, my questions on pain of contempt of court.  If the jurors obey the judge’s direction not to discuss the case until they have heard all the evidence there is no risk that an early majority view will take hold among them and become difficult to budge.  The ladies and gentleman of the press on the other hand are under pressure of time, do have a commercial interest to satisfy, are not under oath to be objective, can interpret what was said without being immediately contradicted if they are unreasonable and are influenced by each other so that certain narratives of interpretation take firm hold amongst them all.

I am absolutely certain that Nick Clegg and his team helping him prepare for the debates will make us all proud to be Liberal Democrats.

Antony Hook is a campaigner in the South East.

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