Revealed: the letter TV3 and TVNZ sent to Clark and Key

TV3 and TVNZ make a joint plea to leaders for multi-party debate

A joint letter from news chiefs at TV3 and TVNZ last Monday pleaded with both Helen Clark and John Key not to turn their backs on multi-party debates, insisting they were of "fundamental importance in an MMP environment".

Labour and National are refusing to debate with the minor party leaders, the first time they've taken that stance since MMP was introduced in 1996, and had indicated their position to the TV network on September 19.

Early this afternoon Labour and National were reportedly standing by their decision, but TV3 head of news and current affairs Mark Jennings was giving them every chance to reconsider. He told Pundit there was not a lot of time now to make arrangements, but TV3 "would try to" get a multi-party debate organised if Clark and Key relented.

In an unusual move, Jennings last week joined with his TVNZ counterpart Anthony Flannery to plead the leaders to reconsider. The pair wrote:

We consider it to be of fundamental importance in an MMP environment, that these debates, take place, with all the party leaders involved.

It is clear that we are unlikely to have a one party government, surely, you owe it to the audience, the voters, to publicly engage with the smaller parties on at least two nights every three years.

The letter hints at the reasons Clark and Key had been giving for not appearing with the other leaders. It addresses their "busy schedules" and acknowledges that the major parties in Australia don't debate with minor parties. But as the letter points out, the Australians don't operate under MMP.

Mark Jennings says he first spoke to Key and Clark about the debates two months ago. "Clark particularly seemed fine. Key whittled on about a lot of media requests and pressures on his time".

When TV3 issued a formal invitation to the pair, Jennings said there was "a telling bit of tardiness" that made him wonder what was going on. Eventually he was called on September 19 by National's chief of staff Wayne Eagleson, who said Key wouldn't be appearing. Jennings promptly rang Labour staff and was told Clark's appearance was "unlikely". It was then he rang Flannery and said he felt things were "going a bit pear-shaped". The news bosses agreed to send the joint letter, but got no reply until last Friday.

In the meantime, Jennings said, TV3 chief political reporter Duncan Garner had talked to Key and been told, "it's a done deal, mate. We've done a deal with them".

Jennings says his isn't a commercial decision, but a journalistic one based on his belief that without the two major party leaders any debate lacks "relevance".

He did consider calling Key and Clark's bluff, insisting on a multi-party debate or no debates at all.

"It crossed my mind. But I think we have to be careful ourselves to not indulge in arrogant behaviour. We can't cut off our noses to spite our faces".

He sympathised especially with Flannery, who as news head at the state broadcaster could come under more direct pressure from the government.

"They [TVNZ] have got other considerations, some other political things to consider. They're not in the independent position we are."

The decision by National and Labour flies in the face of the judgment of Judge Ronald Young prior to the last election, in which he forced TV3 to include Peter Dunne and Jim Anderton in their leaders' debate. Young said including all the parties which would "probably be represented in the next Parliament" was rational and logical. In his ruling, he wrote:

The leaders’ debate has in the past been described as a “turning point in the campaign”, and one that has produced “dramatic change” in voting patterns.

Later in his ruling he added:

The evidence clearly establishes that television coverage of the election and especially the leaders’ debate has the prospect of significantly influencing the outcome of the election.

Pundit has made half a dozen calls to TVNZ yesterday and today, but has yet to speak with Flannery. 1:55PM UPDATE: TVNZ's public relations people have just phoned and said Flannery will not be making any comment today on this issue. Got to say, that's disappointing coming from a newsman.

Meanwhile, ACT spokesman Brian Nicolle says his party is talking with the other minor parties and other media about organising a town hall meeting that could be broadcast on another channel, such as Prime.

"Those big parties have screwed the scrum quite enough," he says.

One other point. Ignore commentators who say the major parties refusal to debate the minor parties signifies a move to an "American style of politics" or that eight leaders on stage is unwatchable. In the Democratic primaries alone there were 26 debates between the candidates. Of those, 16 involved six or more candidates. Eight featured eight candidates. The audience agreed to sit quietly, not heckle or cheer. Those debates did not turn into a circus. I watched many of them and they were all revealing in their own ways. There's no reason why we shouldn't be able to handle eight candidates in this country.