Britain Holds First Televised Political Debates Britain holds its first-ever televised political debate between the heads of the three main political parties on Thursday night. NPR's Robert Siegel checks in with Simon Hoggart, a reporter for the British newspaper The Guardian, about the debate.
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Britain Holds First Televised Political Debates

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Britain Holds First Televised Political Debates

Britain Holds First Televised Political Debates

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In Manchester, England, this evening, something unprecedented happened: a nationally televised debate among the candidates at the top of Britain's three leading parties in next month's general election.

For Labour, there was the incumbent Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Prime Minister GORDON BROWN (United Kingdom): Over these next few years, we will protect your police, your national health service, and we will protect your schools. I know what this job involves. I look forward to putting my plan to you this evening.

SIEGEL: Then, there was Brown's main opponent, the leader of the opposition conservative party, the Tories, David Cameron.

Mr. DAVID CAMERON (Prime Ministerial Candidate, Tory Party): Now, not everything Labour has done in the last 13 years has been wrong - they've done some good things, and I would keep those, but we need change. And it's that change that I want to help to lead.

SIEGEL: And joining those two was Nick Clegg. His smaller Liberal Democratic Party could hold the balance in the next parliament.

Mr. NICK CLEGG (Prime Ministerial Candidate, Liberal Democratic Party): Don't let anyone tell you that the only choice is old politics. We can do something new. We can do something different this time. That's what I'm about. That's what the Liberal Democrats offer.

SIEGEL: Well, among the millions of Britons watching this first-ever televised debate among would-be prime ministers was columnist Simon Hoggart of The Guardian.

Welcome back to the program, Simon.

Mr. SIMON HOGGART (Columnist, The Guardian): Hello. Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: And on a scale from at-last-Britain-moves-boldly-into-the-1960s to the-end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it, how would you grade this event?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOGGART: Oh, right about the middle. Everything was round about the middle. Actually, there was a bit of a fear that it might not happen because the volcanic ash actually stopped radio signals, TV signals getting out in Scotland, which is the north of the United Kingdom. And there was fears this might affect us down here in Manchester, but it hasn't, and we got a rather spectacular sunset just before the debate began.

But it was - trouble is, you know, we've heard it all before. In America, in the United States, your presidential candidates are quite often, unless it's a sitting president, not very well known to the public. You know, who'd heard of Barack Obama before he started running? And so the people are really interested to see what they have to say, what kind of guys they are, what their personalities are and so on.

But here, we've seen these people for so long, we're so familiar with them, arguing, debating, so on, whether in parliament or elsewhere. It's a bit ho-hum, a bit same-y, because, you know, we've heard every line before a thousand times.

SIEGEL: Well, did anyone distinguish himself, with either an especially good performance or a gaffe?

Mr. HOGGART: I think the guy you mentioned last, Nick Clegg, leader of the third party, probably had most to gain because people know least about him and they tend to slightly discount his party, except in a few areas, regions. And he was the one who'd clearly been instructed by his coaches to gaze straight into the camera, not to keep looking at the audience or the moderator or to the other two people with him on the platform. But to look at the audience directly, I mean the audience at home - however many, a few million to begin with, I'd expect a few thousand by the end. And he seemed to be gazing in a rather mournful way, as if saying, you know, if you have any news about this missing puppy, please let us know.

SIEGEL: Now, this is the first of three debates, one on foreign policy and one on the economy, to come in the next two weeks. Do you expect these debates are actually going to change voters' opinions much in Britain?

Mr. HOGGART: Well, not the way they're going, no. There was absolutely no killer moment. There was no, where's the beef, or there you go again, Ronald Reagan's famous line, or you're no - Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HOGGART: Nothing like that. I dont think any of the remarks that were made are going to go down into the book of quotations in a hundred years' time. It was basically rather predictable. And you had the air of men who are far more scared of making a mistake than they are anxious to score the winning run.

SIGEL: Do you have the impression that once this has been done, it now must be done and will now become an institution in British campaigns?

Mr. HOGGART: Well, I guess so, yes. I'm not altogether excited about that. The trouble is that once you've got it established, if anyone thinks right, this is only going to benefit the other guys and not me, therefore I am not taking part, therefore Im going to kill it off, you're immediately going to be accused of cowardice in the face of the enemy. And that's one thing that no politician can do. It's because they were afraid that it would give an advantage to someone, that for years and years and years - 50 years...

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HOGGART: ...since you guys started doing it, we've not had these debates. But I don't think they're going to get terrific viewing figures. You know, the "X Factor" and "Britain's Got Talent," the equivalent of "America's Got Talent"...

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HOGGART: ...I don't think they're going to be too worried that audiences for them are going to fall by comparison.

SIEGEL: Okay. Thank you, Simon.

Mr. HOGGART: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Simon Hoggart, columnist for The Guardian newspaper, speaking to us from Manchester, England, about this evening's prime ministerial televised debate.

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