Only some YouTube questions will be posted on the TVNZ website, but we will get to see the third party leaders debate after all. Just on their own.

The TVNZ PR folk have kindly returned my call and tried to clear up my questions about the YouTube debate. As I noted earlier this afternoon, CNN kept a tight rein on its YouTube debates in the US last year and chose which questions were asked.

Surprisingly, TVNZ has decided to go further than CNN. It will use some questions chosen by its news team, but will also use the most popular questions as voted for by you, me, and the guy down the road. That is, there will be a favourites button beside the questions and we will all be able to vote on which ones we most want asked. TVNZ will use the questions that attract the most votes.

The network spokeswoman says "it's the best of both worlds".

Well, kind of. What if the most voted-for question is "who is your favourite smurf?", I asked. The spokeswoman laughed, made assurances about "a robust process", and dived for her rule-sheet. Turns out that TVNZ will choose which questions we will be able to vote on. "Not all the questions will be available for voting [on the TVNZ website]," she said.

There goes the smurf question. And TVNZ's claims of this being some vox populi. The Web 2.0 purists are likely to accuse TVNZ of censorship and stymieing debate.

Given that One News will stay firmly in control of the questions, I'm not sure exactly what's so bold and democratic about this format. What's more, John Key and Helen Clark will know in advance some of the questions they are going to be asked. Naturally, they will have carefully scripted and tested answers ready to go. That makes those questions - the ones we will have voted for - pointless. We'll get nothing authentic.

TVNZ is choosing to emphasise the positive, saying that some questions from YouTube will not be posted, "so there will still be a surprise". Not enough of a surprise though, I think. I wonder whether the One News team have really thought this through. Good on them for trying something different, but different is only worthwhile if it's better.

The good news, just announced a few minutes ago, is that TVNZ will host a debate featuring the leaders of the smaller parties.

“TVNZ is committed to providing a prime time platform and voice for the other leaders” says TVNZ head of news and current affairs, Anthony Flannery.  “One of the these parties could determine the make up of the next government and New Zealanders will be interested in what they have to say and particularly about their relationships with Labour and National.”

Flannery's bang on. He adds that it's "disappointing" that both John Key and Helen Clark refused to share the stage with these smaller parties. I can think of stronger language.

 

 

Comments (2)

by Michael Appleton on September 29, 2008
Michael Appleton

TV3 reported tonight it would not have a minor party debate because it was not "viable". Presumably, by this they mean that they don't think it would rate well enough to make money.

The reporting of Clark and Key's decision, and reactions to it by their political opponents and the spurned media organisations, seems overblown. Let's take it for granted that:

a) media organisations should have the right to limit who they invite to their debates, so long as those limits are non-arbitrary (a right which the High Court breached last time round);

b) politicians have a rights to accept and decline debate invitations as they wish.

I find it hard to be outraged by Clark and Key's decision. I, too, have found debates with eight or more leaders in the past distracting and uninformative, as too many voices clamour for attention (it amuses me to watch TV3 get all indignant this year, when three years ago they tried to exclude Anderton and Dunne because they thought having all party leaders on one stage was too many to have a meaningful debate). They become not so much a debate as a series of party political broadcasts. Doesn't it make more sense to break them up into more manageable chunks, but having the majors and the minors in separate debates?

What information are voters being denied by the lack of an all parties debate? The major parties' attitudes to potential coalition deals? Surely that can be covered by in the head-to-head Clark/Key debates...

I would be willing to call Clark and/or Key anti-democratic if they were dodging debates altogether - but, by all accounts, they're going to be doing heaps of media, including head-to-head debates. (If you want to talk about candidates shielded from the media, how about Sarah Palin and John McCain - both of whom have spent weeks and weeks without doing a single press conference.)

And it doesn't seem like the minor party leaders are being shut out of the media as a result of the Clark/Key decision - they'll be interviewed in myriad media (including on the election special on Sky), and they'll have debates on TVNZ and RNZ National.

One last thought: isn't politics meant to be a zero sum game? How can this decision be in the interests of both John Key and Helen Clark? Perhaps one of them made a bad tactical call, but we just don't know which yet...

by Tim Watkin on September 30, 2008
Tim Watkin

Yes, there will be plenty of media around the minor parties. But the debates have a unique dynamic and place in a campaign. They are more influential than almost all other media appearances, they draw bigger audiences, they put the politicians under more pressure. MMP is a system based on relationships. As Jeanette Fitzsimmons was saying this morning, a Labour-led government in coalition with the Greens would be very different from one on coalition with New Zealand First.

What's more, debates give minor parties and their often less-reported policies a rare equal footing with the major parties in the public eye. They deserve that much.

But you're right that one of either Key or Clark is likely to come out ahead from the debates. They could be stalemates of course, but it's more likely one or other will get a bounce. Key is gambling he can make Clark look tired, Clark that she can make Key look like a young lightweight.

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