Any rhetorician worth their salt will tell you one of the most important skills for winning a debate is creating a framework which pushes your opponent into a corner. The 2019 UK General Election provided a masterclass in this.
The Conservative Party framed it as the ‘Brexit Election’, repeating simple three word phrases like ‘Get Brexit Done’, ‘Break the Deadlock’ and ‘Unleash Britain’s Potential’ ad nauseam until they bludgeoned their way into your brain.
Labour tried to frame the election as a battle for the NHS against privatisation and potential threats from a predatory US trading partner. But with Brexit having dominated the headlines for the previous three years, Labour’s wordier position on the issue got lost among the Conservative sloganeering. A decisive sounding three word phrase can quickly demolish a longer, more considered statement, and takes much longer to breakdown and refute.
The Green Party’s attempt to frame the debate as the ‘Climate Election’ was predictable, but mad momentum. The exploits of Greta Thunberg, the Fridays for Future movement, Extinction Rebellion and a deluge of climate-related horror stories ensured the issue was never far from the headlines. Analysis from YouGov showed that one in four Brits considered the environment to be one of the top three issues facing Britain going into the election – on par with the economy – compared to the 2017 General Election.
Climate change is a complicated, existential threat which cannot be boiled down into a three word statement of intent. It is also an issue ill-suited to the multi-topic format of most political debate since so many aspects of society are affected by it – from transport and manufacturing, to food and energy production . The subject demands attention on its own merits, undiluted by other subjects.
The first stroke of genius was to restrict the debate to party leaders, meaning that the Conservatives could not send someone in the place of their deeply divisive leader like they did in 2017. Not that they didn’t try – Boris Johnson’s father Stanley and Environment Secretary Michael Gove turned up offering to take the PM’s place.
To their credit, Channel 4 did not give in. Channel 4 has form when it comes to “empty chairing” politicians who do not turn up to televise debates, and Boris Johnson has form at not showing up to Channel 4 debates. But an empty podium felt insufficient to highlight the severity of the climate emergency and draw attention to the fact that the leaders of two parties – Nigel Farage of The Brexit Party and Boris Johnson of The Conservatives would not deign to turn up.
Then Buzzfeed reported that ice-sculptures would stand in for the party leaders who did not attend, causing The Conservatives to threaten to review Channel 4’s broadcasting remit and complain to Ofcom. The regulator eventually cleared the broadcaster of political bias.
But what could have made The Conservatives so upset? Was Channel 4 planning to stand a life-sized ice carving of the Prime Minister in stead of the real one, and allow it to melt into a puddle under the glaring studio lights and a salvo of hardball questions from Krishnan Guru-Murthy.
The actual carvings were less sensationalist, but still powerful symbolism.
Channel 4 resisted the temptation to draw attention to the sculptures. The camera only lingered on them for moments at a time as beads of water rolled past the party logos; leaders who turned up cast scornful gazes in their direction. Perhaps it would have been childish to direct questions at the ice sculptures, but it is shameful that the Prime Minister felt he could avoid scrutiny when his manifesto was notably thin on the ground when it came to discussing and dealing with the climate crisis.
In the aftermath of the “FactCheck UK” controversy, it became clear that truth was a concept up for grabs by political parties. The decision to have in-house fact-checkers was an excellent idea, but unfortunately underused. Their presence was reduced to five minutes of commentary at the end, which limited their impact regardless of the value of their contributions. They could have been more impactful if instead of their judgements being broadcast on the Channel 4 factchecking account, they had been shown at the bottom of the screen while the politicians were debating.
Even if the debate was flawed in execution, it was the most valuable debate of the 2019 General Election. It did not exclude smaller parties like the Liberal Democrats and SNP; it did not allow leaders to dodge the debate and send representatives in their stead. The presence of fact-checkers shows a commitment to reality which was sorely lacking through the election – and indeed government. On another level, it was refreshing to have a debate which examined a single pressing issue from multiple angles, and was not a torrent of buzzwords and sloganeering.
Hopefully broadcasters can learn from Channel 4 over the course of the next parliament. But with a Prime Minister who would rather hide in a fridge than answer a journalist’s questions, a government whose ministers are banned from appearing on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme and willing to ban critical publications from gaining access to politicians on their battle buss, the coming years will be decisive for the role and freedom of the press in Great Britain.