The presenter of the BBC’s Debate Night, Stephen Jardine, has revealed the programme deliberately ensures politicians have “nowhere to hide” by removing physical barriers between them and the audience.
The show, which returns for a second series this Wednesday, sees Scottish politicians quizzed by an audience for an hour on the big topics of the day – but unlike similar programmes, there is no desk for the panel to retreat behind.
“The two big decisions were no tie for me, no desk for the politicians,” says Jardine, a former GMTV presenter and the Friday host of BBC Radio Scotland’s morning phone-in show.
“In the early weeks there was a bit of push back from politicians for a desk because they want to have their papers to refer to, but that was a deliberate strategy – without your papers giving you the lines then you’re only as good as you are. There’s literally nowhere to hide.
“It also takes down a barrier. And the whole set puts the politicians closer to the audience than they would normally be. That’s a good thing.”
He believes that the programme – which launched in February – is breaking down barriers in other ways too; taking the heat out of political discourse, and allowing more nuanced arguments to surface.
“It feels like it’s something that we always should have had as a nation, to hold politicians to account and discuss the big issues affecting Scotland.
“I didn’t want to present another politics show where people shouted at each other. The quality of public discourse in this country is probably the worst it’s ever been, and the last thing that anyone needs is a programme that adds to that or worsens it.”
He adds: “We set out to do something different, something that would help the current situation not inflame it. I’ve been blown away by the positive response from the public to that idea. I was stopped in the street during the Edinburgh Festival by an MSP who said the show really took the heat out of things. That doesn’t mean it’s not challenging, but you can’t keep stepping up the rhetoric, getting more and more angry and vitriolic.”
Pointing to the Norwegian state broadcaster’s new show, Einig? (Agreed?) which similarly asks guests to refrain from interrupting each other and to listen more, he believes Debate Night is tapping into a shift in public attitudes.
“I speak to politicians about the tone of the programme, and encourage them to speak to each other, to make sure they answer questions – because that’s what drives people made when soundbites are rolled out and questions not answered. It seems to be working.
He adds: “We will spend 20 to 30 minutes on a topic, to give it room to breathe. We never go on thinking we want to do four topics today, so if the main issue runs long, then it runs long. I judge it by watching the audience. The whole time I’m looking to see how engaged they are. If hands are going up or if they stop and they look like they’re ready to move on, then we change topic.”
He admits it’s a challenge not to have the same discussions every week, but the programme is dependent on the questions submitted by the audience. “Every week we might get 150 questions and we sift them and that decides what is asked, if the majority of questions are about Brexit or independence and that’s what people are talking about, then that drives what we do.”
Similarly, he says, it’s important that the show moves around the country, reflecting different views of Scots from the Highlands to Galloway.
“We took the show to Dalbeattie in Dumfries and Galloway in the last series, and their prism when talking about independence was ‘I go to Carlisle to get my car serviced so how’s that going to work?’ That’s a very different conversation on independence than you would have in Glasgow or Aberdeen.
No topic is ruled out, he says, and reveals there may be one-off specials in future to tackle issues such as climate change, giving the full hour of the show over the subject. Another new twist is the show will be broadcast simultaneously on BBC Radio Scotland from 10.30pm, with an after-show Debate Night Extra phone-in hosted by Calum MacDonald from 11.30pm.
He also believes that while on the surface Debate Night may appear similar to Question Time, there’s no real comparison. “Question Time is a very different programme, it has a legacy, but it comes from a different place, the issues are different… people have made a comparison, but what we do is different and the audience has different priorities.”
While the new BBC Scotland channel is never far from a critical headline on viewing figures – although outside of the five main channels it has the highest reach of any digital channel in
Scotland – Debate Night has been holding its own.
Despite moving from a Wednesday night to a Sunday and back again, total reach for the first series of 12 episodes was just over 150,000, including more than 100,000 requests to view on iPlayer. Clips from the show have also performed well on social media. One in particular, when a young man suggested that the “will of the people” over leaving the EU was now “the will of dead people” received almost a million views.
Jardine is a draw too. The consummate TV presenter – smooth tones, tanned face – he has been working in broadcasting since the early 1990s, first in radio then at STV before heading to Paris to be GMTV’s Europe correspondent. This means he has more than enough political views of his own to share – not that he will.
“Of course I have to keep my own views out of it. This is about the audience – I’m there to empower them, and make sure they don’t go home wishing they said something. Every week we speak to the audience and we encourage them to get engaged – this is their chance to hold politicians to account.”
Debate Night will be on BBC Scotland at 10.30pm this Wednesday