Sunday 21 January 2018

Great debate: why a nervous RTÉ is determined to play it safe this time

The national station will do everything to avoid a repeat of the 2011 presidential campaign controversy. But it is the hope of sparks flying that will keep us all watching

John Meagher

John Meagher

They were scenes more akin to a boxing bout than a debate between two high-profile politicians. In February 1982, Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and Fianna Fáil leader Charles Haughey arrived at RTÉ's TV Centre for the first-­ever televised pre-election debate between leaders of the two main parties, and the pair faced a battery of photographers and fervent party supporters.

Nine months later, after the fall of the short-lived Fianna Fáil-led coalition government, the two were back at Montrose for another debate, to be chaired by Brian Farrell, and there was much talk over the fact that FitzGerald refused to pose for photos with Haughey.

Political duel: Sean Gallagher and Martin McGuinness during the controversial 2011 presidential debate.
Political duel: Sean Gallagher and Martin McGuinness during the controversial 2011 presidential debate.

In the 34 years since, televised debates between party leaders in the run up to general elections have been part and parcel of Irish public life, although Haughey refused to debate Fine Gael's Alan Dukes in 1989, branding the exercise "a bit of theatre, a bit of circus and a great media hype".

There has been no such abstentions in the weeks leading up to Election 2016. In fact, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan was so incensed at being omitted from RTÉ's planned leaders' debate - on the grounds the party has no sitting TDs - that he took a case to the High Court.

Like all party leaders, he recognises that not taking part is simply not an option.

On Thursday evening, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Fianna Fáil's Micheál Martin, Labour's Joan Burton and Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams gathered at TV3's Ballymount, Dublin, studio for the first leaders' debate of the campaign - hosted by Pat Kenny and Colette Fitzpatrick.

Charles Haughey and Garret FitzGerald in the first-ever TV debate in 1982.
Charles Haughey and Garret FitzGerald in the first-ever TV debate in 1982.

The commercial station - and Newstalk, whom it partnered with for the simulcast - had pulled off something of a coup by trumping RTÉ, who would have expected to be first out of the blocks with Monday's seven-way debate at the University of Limerick.

Hosted by Claire Byrne, and in front of a carefully selected audience of 350 people, it will also feature Renua's Lucinda Creighton, People Before Profit's Richard Boyd Barrett and Social Democrats' Stephen Donnelly. It will be the first leaders' debate in Irish political history to be held outside Dublin.

A second RTÉ debate - featuring the leaders of the four main parties - will take place on Tuesday week. Presented by Miriam O'Callaghan as part of Prime Time's coverage, it will be filmed at RTÉ and there will be no studio audience.

TG4 is also expected to host a debate as Gaeilge - as it did in the run up to the general election of 2011.

Media expert Jack Murray believes this year's leaders could have a significant part to play in the make-up of the 31st Dáil.

"They're massively important this time," he says, "because there's a high proportion of undecided voters and these debates matter when you're in swing territory."

Murray, MD of Media HQ, is a former Progressive Democrats press officer and worked as an adviser to Sean Gallagher during his bid for the Presidency in 2011. He says all of the parties will have devoted hundreds of man-hours in their bid to prepare their leaders as well as possible. "The bigger parties will have focused-grouped everything," he says. "They will have done dummy debates and will have come up with attack lines and defence strategies.

"With a two-person debate, there's a lot of opportunity to get your points across, but also considerable potential for things to go wrong. That won't be quite the case with the four-way debates, and certainly not with the seven-way one where each leader will have less opportunity to make the impact that they would like."

And that impact is not just confined to the duration of the broadcast or the post-mortem in the following day's newspapers: TV3 had an analysis programme after Thursday's debate, while politicos and journalists will parse Monday's debate in a special programme, The Spin Room. Furthermore, social media commentary and minute-by-minute online journalism will pick apart everything that's said - and not said.

A former political strategist who has been involved in a number of leaders' debates believes "strong, clear communication" is key and reckons the forum is not one where awkward questions can be shirked.

"The last thing you want your person to be is uncomfortable," he says. "The viewer can detect that very easily. The body language has to be right. It's got to say 'I'm in control, you can trust me'. Anybody who hesitates over an answer will be eaten up by the others.

"Just look at what happened to Sean Gallagher in the presidential debate. He came across as nervous and he will have been very disappointed by his performance that night. There's no question about it, but it cost him the Áras job.

"And," he adds, "if you go back to 2007, to the debate among the leaders of the smaller parties, Gerry Adams found himself exposed about his knowledge of southern politics. I think he learned an important lesson that night."

The strategist believes Kenny, Martin and Burton are too comfortable in live TV debates at this stage of their careers to slip up badly, but believes that in their efforts to stay on-message, they might struggle to appeal to undecided voters

"And they're the very people they will want to reach, especially younger voters," he adds.

Dublin Institute of Technology School of Media lecturer Harry Browne believes there is widespread apathy among young people during this campaign and says the TV debates may be one of the few ways party leaders can reach out to them.

"The debates may not be great for illumination [of policies and so on], but could be entertaining [for the viewers]," he says. "That may be especially the case for the seven-way one in UL, especially because there will be a studio audience present and their reaction can play its part in shaping how viewers feel back home. And there's no doubt that audience participation enlivens the experience."

While the disastrous appearance of Gallagher in 2011's debate surely played its part in his failure to be elected President, it appears more difficult to gauge if really good performances have a significant impact at the polling booths.

"Haughey performed better than FitzGerald during one of their 1980s debate," the ex-political strategist says. "But it was Garret who led the next government. And John Bruton out-performed Bertie Ahern in the 1997 debate, but it was Fianna Fáil who swept to victory."

British Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg was widely seen as the outstanding performer during the three televised debates in the run up to the UK general election of 2010, and yet his party won fewer seats than they had in the previous election (although they would go on to form a coalition with the Conservatives).

But a strong performance was crucial in perhaps the most famous TV debate of them all - the first of four televised bouts between Democratic candidate John F Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon in 1960.

"People listening to [the first debate] on radio thought Nixon had won," says Murray, "but for TV viewers, it was Kennedy..."

Some 66 million were watching on TV - still one of the biggest audiences for a television broadcast there - and it was the young Irish-American challenger who made the greatest impression. Kennedy looked handsome and sure of himself, while Nixon was under the weather and sweated throughout.

Shortly after he was elected President, Kennedy cited the debate as a major reason for his success in reaching the White House. They were the first televised pre-election debates in the West and they would highlight the importance of appearance, body language and an ability to appear comfortable on a most unforgiving of media.

While party leaders will be feeling the pressure in the run up to Friday's encounter in Limerick, the spotlight will also shine brightly on host Claire Byrne - and on Miriam O'Callaghan on Tuesday week - according to Browne.

"They have to be seen to be fair, to devote the same amount of time to each leader and to adjudicate the debate as well as possible," he says, "but there will also be an expectation that they will land a really tough, horrible question on each one, too. That's no easy task."

With the stakes ever higher, the host can come in for their own share of criticism, as Pat Kenny found out in 2011 when the Gallagher camp accused him of not being fair. That debate was something of a low point for RTÉ when it emerged that a damaging tweet [to Gallagher's candidacy] read out on air came from a fake Twitter account.

"[Monday night's debate] will be the first that RTÉ have hosted since the presidential one five years ago," says the strategist, "and they will be acutely aware of the need for balance. From a viewer's point of view, the end result of that could well make for dull TV - and people who are only moderately engaged may switch off."

But, for Browne, the beauty of these debates is the fact they're live. "There's always a sense with live TV that anything could happen - such as that time in the last presidential debate when Vincent Browne [on TV3] produced book after book [accusing Martin McGuinness of having strong IRA connections] and piled them up on the desk in front of them. It was powerful television and took McGuinness by surprise."

Quite what's in store for the seven leaders on Monday - and those of the four main parties next week - remains to be seen.

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