Britons Captivated By U.S.-Style TV Debate British voters were glued to their television screens Thursday for the first U.S.-style political debates. An estimated 20 million people tuned in to witness the historic event. The first of three debates was more subdued than U.S. presidential debates. The BBC's Justin Webb talks to Renee Montagne about how the debate turned out.
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Britons Captivated By U.S.-Style TV Debate

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Britons Captivated By U.S.-Style TV Debate

Britons Captivated By U.S.-Style TV Debate

Britons Captivated By U.S.-Style TV Debate

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/126039935/126039915" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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British voters were glued to their television screens Thursday for the first U.S.-style political debates. An estimated 20 million people tuned in to witness the historic event. The first of three debates was more subdued than U.S. presidential debates. The BBC's Justin Webb talks to Renee Montagne about how the debate turned out.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

To politics in Great Britain now, where last night TV audiences tuned in for a reality show Americans know as the political debate.

GORDON BROWN: Will you continue to fund the police?

DAVID CAMERON: Yes, of course. But Gordon, let me give you an example.

BROWN: Will you match our funding for the police? The answer is no from your manifesto.

CAMERON: Let me give you a very good example.

BROWN: Unidentified Man: Let Mr. Cameron answer your point, Mr. Brown.

BROWN: Unidentified Man: Mr. Cameron, Mr. Cameron...

MONTAGNE: The spectacle of current Prime Minister Gordon Brown arguing with competitors David Cameron and Nick Clegg prompted a chirping chorus of off-screen commentary. Critics took to Twitter, Facebook, and other Web sites to chide the candidates in real time. Justin Webb of the BBC joins us now to give his review. Good morning.

JUSTIN WEBB: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Tell us quickly the dynamics of the debate - that is, the three of these politicians. Who are they and was there any clear winner?

WEBB: But Nick Clegg needed to convince people that he was serious and needed to convince people that he was much more than just a spoiler. And the interesting thing is that according to most independent observers, he was the most successful. He managed to introduce himself to the British people as a serious person with serious ideas, not necessarily from the left or from the right, but ideas about doing things differently, and that is unquestionably what people are crying out for, a whole host of fronts.

MONTAGNE: Why, though, is having a debate on TV such a big deal? I mean, after all, your prime minister takes questions from Parliament every week on television, and it's a major free-for-all.

WEBB: In other words, what I'm saying to you, it's a little bit old-fashioned and out of touch. Television, on the other hand, is not old-fashioned and out of touch with the way people live their lives. Television is an unforgiving medium, isn't it? It goes very close on the face. You famously saw George Bush, Sr. look at his watch, of which there's been a lot of talk in the last week or so in the run-up to this debate. In other words, it reveals people, and that's why people were so interested in seeing it.

MONTAGNE: And of course it also focused on important issues - immigration, the economy, crime, the war in Afghanistan. Any surprises?

WEBB: In fact, the most memorable thing for me was John McCain not looking at Barack Obama in the first debate, and one of the commentators saying he looked like a codger. And that's what - the reason why the British people were so fascinated by this debate, because it has the opportunity to open people up, even unfairly, actually, and give a new perspective on them.

MONTAGNE: The BBC's Justin Webb joined us from Bath, England. Thanks very much.

WEBB: Pleasure to talk to you, Renee.

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