BBC BLOGS - The Editors
« Previous | Main | Next »

A heated debate

Peter Rippon | 14:25 UK time, Tuesday, 17 October 2006

Occasionally phrases enter the political lexicon that start life in small isolated stories but then rapidly come to dominate.

pm1.gifUntil recently it was "political correctness gone mad", but I would suggest that this has now been overtaken by politicians "calling for a debate". It is a useful phrase because it does not require the proposer to say what they think about the issue they want debated (as I write I am listening to Tony Blair's monthly news conference. He's just called for one on integration again, so I rest my case).

There is an irony in this current trend because in reality, despite a great tradition of parliamentary debate in this country, we sometimes find it very difficult to get politicians to debate issues.

On the radio "a debate" involves getting two or more people with different views to argue and discuss with each other. When we try to hold one with politicians we quickly find ourselves in a labyrinth of convention and unwritten rules. Cabinet ministers rarely agree to discussions with anyone, shadow cabinet ministers often do not like doing discussions with junior ministers, junior ministers do not like discussions with backbenchers and so it goes on.

I should point out there are many noble exceptions to these rules but they do regularly consume much producer effort.

When it comes to programmes like PM, politicians much prefer what we call a "one to one" where the presenter just asks questions and the politician answers. Although there does seem to be a new phenomenon in this type of interviewing too. Witness Peter Mandelson on PM this week asking himself a question and then answering it. I wonder if it will catch on.


  • 1.
  • At 03:26 PM on 17 Oct 2006,
  • Abdurrahman P wrote:

Politicians are seldom sincere. If they are "calling for a debate" over a particular issue, it's to win cheap votes.

  • 2.
  • At 04:07 PM on 17 Oct 2006,
  • Terry wrote:

Can you give an example of a 'one to one' programme. I sometimes listen to Radio 4 in the morning. The style of that programme is for John H or James Mc to make a clever statement and then expect the interviewee to confirm the cleverness of the interviewer by means of a confirming answer. Leads to some jolly good arguments though.

Politicians are afraid of slipping on a banana skin and exposing their vulnerabilities. A thorough debate often brings to the fore the glaring inadequacies of politicians and so these politicians prefer not to be caught out. Only seasoned politicians are prepared to risk taking on opposition heavy-weights who have the gift of the gab and facts at their finger-tips.

  • 4.
  • At 04:27 PM on 17 Oct 2006,
  • Ian wrote:

In response to Terry's post at #2, examples of a "One to One" programme are Andrew Neil's 30 minute programme "Straight Talk" on BBC News 24 at the weekend and "Hard Talk" which is on BBC News 24 and BBC World.

  • 5.
  • At 04:32 PM on 17 Oct 2006,
  • Sam wrote:

Much as i support the call for a debate on this issue, i cannot help but feel Tony Blair is being a massive hypercrit seeing as he has refused to have any debate on the Iraq war.

The commons has never discussed it, no vote nothing. The entire war was on Blairs say so with no intention of hearing any other ministers views.

This is terrible in a so called democracy, i mean even the Americans have discussed Iraq in congress.

  • 6.
  • At 05:25 PM on 17 Oct 2006,
  • James Boulter wrote:

Maybe I'm not the only one who's noticed - Hazel Blears is an absolute master at this technique. For example, on last week's Question Time, we needed a debate on just about every question that was asked. But give an actual opinion? Oh, pity the thought...

  • 7.
  • At 06:24 PM on 17 Oct 2006,
  • Ed wrote:

Sam: There was a debate on the Iraq war on the "eve" of the war. It was that debate that got us into the war. Although it was an open debate, it was based around the so-called "dodgy dossier" that suggested that Iraq posed a threat to us.

  • 8.
  • At 07:12 PM on 17 Oct 2006,
  • Adam wrote:

There is probably little point in politicians debating anything, as no matter how compelling the arguments are against their chosen course of action, they will follow it anyway.

Of course, if we ever had a politicians who showed that they were actually interested in debate, then they'd get my vote for a start.

The problem with pursuading politicians to participate in direct debate with each other when they don't have to is, presumably, that none of them want to risk being the one who loses.

  • 10.
  • At 11:27 PM on 17 Oct 2006,
  • Jon wrote:

"On the radio "a debate" involves getting two or more people with different views to argue and discuss with each other. "

Which radio is this? not radio 4 - I am a regular listener to the Today program on radio 4. I have ever hardly heard a debate that you describe above. The general rule is that there will be a report highlighting something and you will then interview someone who has the same point of view as the report. Mainly Iraq or Global warming. If someone, generally from the "right" is interviewed it usually leads to a barracking of questions from either John Humphreys or Eddie Mare. When there is a kind of "debate" on Radio 4 it usually means that the BBC does not hold any strong views on the subject. I welcome the day when radio 4 do have proper debates on the Today programme. As for new labour this is what they do consult and thats it. Full Stop.

I agree with Terry and Jon. I find the today programme interviewers to be appalling sneerers. The listener is obviously supposed to just kiss the hem of their robe, they are so wise. How can any politicain answer such hypothetical questions? The best answer I've heard to one of these questions was when an MP was asked if there were no circumstances under which a certain path would be taken replied: "well, if the Martian war machines were walking accross the country....". I think the fact that they take themselves so seriously is shown by the fact that the "Radio 4 rambling question of the week" slot was removed from Broadcasting House. Lack of humour at Today?

  • 12.
  • At 10:46 AM on 18 Oct 2006,
  • Loki wrote:

Considering the amount of cliches and repeated phrases that politicians resort to, is it any wonder confidence in them is so transparent? If our 'representatives' cannot express themselves with originality it makes them appear unworthy to act as such.

George Orwell's 'The Politics of the English Language' should be drummed into politicians, and journalists - who are also increasingly lazy in their diction - until they start to at least resemble people with cogent communicative skills.

  • 13.
  • At 01:54 PM on 18 Oct 2006,
  • Mark wrote:

This so called "heated debate" seems more like a tempest in a teapot. If government officials are not held to account for their views and actions, the British public has only itself to blame for allowing it. If any of the elected politicians in the opposition had any gumption, they'd demand it publically and taunt their opponents mercilessly when they hide in the closet from public scrutiny refusing to face them to defend themselves.

It hardly surprises me that Peter Mandelson would hold a debate with himself. I wonder which side won.

I'm surprised by Jon's (10) statement regarding Today

The general rule is that there will be a report highlighting something and you will then interview someone who has the same point of view as the report. Mainly Iraq or Global warming.

I often find myself getting frustrated by 'debates' in which the two sides simply contradict one another, when instead a simple "How do you know that what you say is true?" question from the presenter would expose all the weaknesses of the main interviewee.

For example, on issues such as privatisation of NHS functions, a government representative will claim that their reforms will help patients, and union representatives will claim that 'the evidence' is that they will not work. I think that these sorts of debates can only be resolved by getting in there and getting ones hands dirty with the technical detail, and presenters are reluctant to do this. So we very rarely get questions such as "What evidence is that, then?" or "Give me one reason why you think your reforms will do any good."

  • 15.
  • At 06:15 PM on 19 Oct 2006,
  • paul wrote:

do you think then that soon you will be allowed to report black on white crime as all you do at the moment is report white on black there are some horrable crimes listed on the internet from people who are fed up with the lack of coverage or will this be supressed to make it look like they are still the minority and ever so good..time for you to stand up for the british people

  • 16.
  • At 08:30 AM on 21 Oct 2006,
  • Anonymous wrote:

I was listening to BBC radio not too long ago about Tamil Tiger 'rebels' blowing up a covoy of sailors -killing 60 plus. Had these 'rebels' been Muslim surely this would have been described as 'an act of terror' and the perpetrators 'terrorists'! Is it ones actions, political leanings or religious beliefs that determines whether a person is a 'rebel', an 'insurgent', or a 'terrorist'? Clarity on the issue would be much appreciated!

  • 17.
  • At 12:54 PM on 21 Oct 2006,
  • Diane Kurl wrote:

Debates between politicians are often spoiled by the long winded and interfering interviewer. A light touch please! Let's hear our politicians debate. Maybe they will be more willing if the interviewer - who seems to assume they are representing the public (wrong way round, by the way) - lays off.

Whilst I'm on a rant, the BBC is overburdoned with journos and light on reporters. Too much comment, forecasting and speculation. Cub reporting too low for you guys?

I have an idea, instead of being fed comments by Nick Robinson and other unacountable nobodies why don't we just have agency feeds so real events can be reported. Sack the journos and copmmentators. A barrage of BBC comments and speculation is now censoring out genuine news stories. Get the egos off the air so we can hear what is going on. And how about giving our politicians more air time - at least they are accountable.

  • 18.
  • At 04:11 PM on 21 Oct 2006,
  • Sylvia wrote:

No: 15 Paul is right. Had Kriss Donald been any colour but white, his horrendous torture and murder would be front page for years.

  • 19.
  • At 11:14 AM on 22 Nov 2006,
  • Philip wrote:

Not something you're guilty of, but News 24 reference to 'super nannies' for 'child psychologists' is facile and dumbing down to the tabloids' level.

Luckily a union have now picked up on this, so let's nip this nonsense in the bud before it becomes a part of the lexicon, and psychologists are not able to reclaim their name.

  • 20.
  • At 12:57 PM on 22 Nov 2006,
  • Pippop wrote:

We are, as listeners, well clued up to the mental gymnastics that pass as interviews and the olympic feats of obfuscation called debates.

"Prime Minister could you tell me once again, just to clarify things, what your reasons were for invading Iraq?"

"Well,[pause] can I say,[longer pause]I would say this,[gigantic pause. Technicians about to move in, but saved by PM's intake of breath, so indicting that he is not comatose] Its very important, you understand, [laughs or rather bares teeth] to establish the fact,[pause] it IS of absolute importance, that you are certain that I am in fact the Prime Minister. I do not think that you have any evidence to show that I am he, and therefore I would say that you cannot claim that I took the country to war with Iraq." [bares teeth]

  • 21.
  • At 09:10 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Alex Sergent wrote:

Hi there,

I can't seem to watch Andrew Neil's 'Straight talk' or 'one2one' on news24 via webstreaming once they are over and therefore have to make sure I watch them when on.

Any chance you could put them on webstreaming like the record and BBC Parliament?

Many thanks


This post is closed to new comments.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.