| 15.5°C Dublin

Terry Prone: The truth about the Big Debates -- no one really gives a damn

LET'S have a three-way debate. No, a two-way. How about a five-way? And, while we're at it, to hell with having it in an RTE studio.

We'll have five Big Debates, two of them in RTE, two in TV3, maybe one in TG4. Or perhaps in a completely neutral venue. The National Concert hall. Oh, and don't think Miriam O'Callaghan has the presenter deal sewn up.

Hey, why don't we get someone completely uninvolved and detached. Paxman? Wow. Wouldn't that be something?

Anyone got a mobile number for Paxman?


That's the mad frenzy flurrying around the Big Debates which will be part of the election campaign. Micheal Martin threw in the ball by demanding a three-header along the lines of the most recent British debates.

Fine Gael told him to stuff his three-person job, that they wanted a five-header. Gerry Adams saw his opportunity and (for once) agreed with FG.

You want the truth about the Big Debates? Here it is. First of all, the rules around Big Debates don't exist.

You don't get to be in a Big Debate because your party has a particular number of seats in the Dail. You don't get to be in a Big Debate because your party gets a particular percentage of the vote as measured by a recent opinion poll.

You get the gig for that most infuriating of reasons: because that's the way it is. Up to now, it's been two-headers. First, the big boys square off, then the smaller boys.

The media sit around with score sheets and each party's spinners come out to say their man won.

The reality is that the Big Debate doesn't matter at all. It never has. It is a myth built on inattention to detail.

The myth starts with John F Kennedy versus Richard Nixon. And it goes like this. Richard Nixon looked shifty and crooked and had five o'clock shadow and JFK was all tanned and gorgeous and clever, won hands down and beat Nixon in the election by a landslide. Right?


Nixon certainly looked ropey, but he undoubtedly won on content, as proven by the radio listeners. JFK didn't go on to have a landslide, either.

From the Nixon/JFK contest on, the myth of the Big Debate has roared through every decade. Consultants like me get paid a fortune to fight with other consultants.

This year, the fights within Fianna Fail will be about whether Martin should attack Kenny over opinion polls with the downside that it might make him look small.


Over in FG, the argument will be about past versus future -- can Enda hammer Martin about FF mishandling of the economy or should he take that as a given and focus on the brave but hopeful future? The Labour Party will be all bothered as to whether Eamon Gilmore's swollen outrage will sustain in close ups for an hour without him looking boiled.

Outside in media land, newspapers will be speculating on the stance each leader will take, the clothes they'll wear, and how expert each is on economics.

Last time around, Bert Ahern was seen as being marginally best on the technical details of the economy.

He'd have deserved a smack upside the head if he hadn't, seeing as how he was sitting around the Cabinet table every week discussing those details, and he went on to make ribbons of the economy, so why would any sane person believe being good on the economy in a debate was a qualifier for office?

Yet media value the debater who can make the best economy-anorak noises.

That's the core of the myth. Media love the Big Debate, therefore they have to believe it's important.

Ordinary people would prefer to be poked in the eye with a blunt gear stick than to be forced to watch a Big Debate.

But, every election, the myth wins over commonsense.