Aidan Smith: This election is treating us like gnats made more gnatty by TikTok

Sex dungeon. There it is. A rather desperate attempt to get you interested in a piece about televised election debates but really, I can’t complain if you’re already turning the page or resuming scrolling.

Three years ago I described the studio set for an STV debate as resembling a sex dungeon, which I’ll confess now, was entirely calculated. That election was for the Scottish Parliament. The campaign was rumbling along and the show’s producers obviously decided that an hour of dry discourse in primetime would need jazzed up. And in your newspaper of choice, fighting for attention amid a number of political stories that morning, I thought the same, although without ever having been inside one, honest, sex dungeon seemed a fairly accurate depiction.

I suppose, then, we are all complicit: politicians, apparatchiks, broadcasters, journalists. Quick hits, grabby soundbites, slogan-worthy quips, zappy presentation, eye-catching headlines. Hurry up, we’re losing them! Where’s the zinger? Ach … they’ve gone.

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But in 2024 does it really need to be like this? Britain - soundbite incoming - is broken. Nothing works and that includes parliament itself, at least in the grown-up, dignified way it should function. And on top of all the issues at home there’s war in Europe, the Middle East too.

This is not an I’m all right Jack-steady as she goes-ain’t broke so don’t fix it kind of election. Change - Labour’s buzzword, as buzzy as a wasp in our ears, and some would argue their only word - is coming. So why then do we get a debate as excruciating and infuriating as the one on ITV last week?

It was appalling. Appallingly delivered, both by the network and the participants, Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer. Moderator Julie Etchingham wasn’t appalling but she struggled to maintain order and any mother of small boys fighting at the tea-table would have sympathised - at least until remembering that these two were competing to become prime minister.

The title of the programme, Sunak v Starmer: The ITV Debate, should have been a warning that it wasn’t going to be driven by the issues. The second warning was the set with those lit-up podiums retrieved from the back of a game show warehouse.

Then there was the format which was very game show with the contestants - sorry, party leaders, entrusted with the future wellbeing of the nation - invited by Etchingham to raise their hands as responses to some of the questions.

For other questions there was a 45-second time limit for answers. You half-expected the Countdown clock borrowed from Channel 4 to pop up in the corner of the screen. Or for Sunak and Starmer to be urged, in the time-honoured way: “Have to hurry you … wave to the family … is that your final answer?”

The format treated us like gnats - gnats in thrall to TikTok. That our attention spans are so limited, and our lives so busy, we only have the time and the concentration levels for information delivered this quickly, sparingly and glibly.

What an insult. We’re not all zombies only jerkingly responsive to the whizziest social media and this election is surely making us think more, question more and demand more from these debates.

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More people than ever are struggling. More are caught up in this cost-of-living crisis. More are stuck on NHS waiting lists. More can’t find a dentist. More are tumbling into potholes. More worry they’ll never become homeowners. And more and more of us have less and less faith in our political class.

Yet most of this was crammed, minus ad breaks, into a single hour in the first TV head-to-head of the election, what for many would have been their first prolonged exposure to the campaign.

Cost-of-living merits an hour, or more, just on its own. Same with the NHS, immigration and defence. Yet we’re not being offered this, nothing like. The seven-headed debate on BBC last Friday was a predictably unwieldy affair, admittedly better handed by Mishal Husain, but while Sunak has challenged Starmer to the pair of them thrashing the issues around every week until polling day, the latter doesn’t fancy that at all.

You can understand why. He’s way ahead in the polls and so doesn’t need the debates. Plus he’s not very good at them, not very emotionally engaging, but then neither is Sunak. Perhaps we can’t blame ITV too much for attempting to enliven a discussion between two stiff, slightly dull technocrats with some showbizzy sheen.

Maybe it was never going to work with these two, who might be big on detail but nuance tends to get lost on TV. But, for our sake, we’ve got to hope it still can work.

The BBC are broadcasting set-piece interviews with the leaders which I really wish were still the domain of Andrew Neil. The XL bully of political interrogation and so hot on economics, he would have bit back immediately on Sunak’s £2,000 tax rise claim. Nevertheless, if they’re up to the task, both contenders for No 10 could benefit from lengthier and more serious discussion.

Tomorrow night Sky bring the pair together again and the Beeb will host what looks like being the final debate on 26 June. Let’s hope lessons have been learned from last week although I admit that some game show traditions could prove useful.

Maybe Sunak and Starmer could be forced to adhere to the rule of Radio 4’s Just a Minute: they must talk “without hesitation, deviation or repetition”.

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The latter - “Stick to the plan … 14 years of chaos” - could be punished with a flatulence sound-effect and, if the offenders persist, microphones being cut dead.

And if there’s any more interrupting from Sunak, the headmaster of his old Winchester College could emerge from under the floor to remind him of the school motto: “Manners makyth man.”



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