James Reed: No question that TV debates would cut through spin

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LET me give you a bit of an insight into how the typical visit of a senior politician to Yorkshire goes.

Said politician will arrive at the specified location and don some suspiciously clean safety gear – I’ve suggested to a few ministerial aides that on joining the Cabinet MPs should be given their own hard hat and high-vis jacket along with the red box.

Once suitably attired, they are shown around, watch some sort of manufacturing process and then meet a few employees while a gaggle of people including me, photographers and TV cameramen follow them around.

Those we are watching do everything they can to appear relaxed and “natural”, despite finding themselves in just about the least natural circumstances they will ever be in.

An alternative twist on the formula sees a speech delivered to a receptive audience of either party members or at least sympathetic individuals. If our man or woman is feeling bold they might take a few questions from these “real” people at the end.

As the audience applauds, there is a tap on the shoulder from an aide and I and other members of the media are shunted into a room where our politician is waiting. Journalists form a semi-circle, radio microphones, dictaphones and notepads are produced and questions are lobbed at today’s victim.

Time is always tight and I may get the chance to ask two or three questions at most.

When it’s over, the politician is taken outside to do a few sound bites for television and then it’s into a car and away to the next location.

It’s rushed, frustrating and occasionally not a little undignified. But it is also extremely valuable.

It is a chance for me to pose questions about the issues that matter to Yorkshire and the readers of The Yorkshire Post to the people in power or the people who want it, and to do so without having to go through an army of press officers and advisers.

Both in the answers themselves, and the way they are delivered, you get a keen sense of how engaged they are with an issue. And while you are in that room, however briefly, you also get a much better idea of their mood and that of the people around them.

I doubt they think it at the time, but I hope that when these public figures later reflect they would also see these occasions as useful intelligence gathering on what people are really talking about outside the Westminster village, rather than what they are hearing from the pollsters and election gurus.

But unquestionably there are limits. In the space of a few questions it is not possible to really dissect a policy, to nail down specifics and press
 points when the politician concerned is determined to 
duck them.

It is no substitute for a long- form interview or to see them put on the spot by members of the public speaking from their own experience.

That’s why it is absolutely vital that the televised election debates go ahead. And if that means “empty chairing” leaders who don’t turn up, then so
be it.

I would be far less concerned if I thought the absence of TV debates would give our party leaders time to tour all corners 
of the land, dusting off John Major’s soapbox and putting themselves in front of real people and taking part in a genuine exchange of views.

Sadly, however, I fear that without the debates this year’s election campaign will become a series of highly stage-managed events focused on marginal constituencies where politicians give speeches, shake hands and, yes, kiss the odd baby, but where serious questioning is definitely not on the agenda.

In fairness to Ed Miliband, the Labour leader challenged my pessimism the other week when he spent more than an hour answering questions at Sheffield Hallam University on everything from the response to Islamophobia to the merits of Snapchat.

But he did so with a largely sympathetic crowd and while some of the questions undoubtedly put him on the spot – what policies would you compromise on in coalition? – he was not really challenged when his answers were less than forthcoming.

That is also not to say the debates were flawless in 2010. The ban on audience reaction gave them an artificial air
and the moderators did not
have enough leeway to put the leaders on the spot and force them off their prepared soundbites.

And in the days of anticipation and post-game analysis of the debates, I think my own industry probably made them a disproportionately significant part of the campaign.

But if it’s a choice between flawed debates broadcast
live to millions or weeks of carefully managed photo opportunities, I know what I’m voting for.

James Reed is The Yorkshire Post’s political correspondent.