Is the General Election leaders’ debate a modern invention? Radio Times suggested it 94 years ago…

Take a look at BBC founder JCW Reith's editorial from 1923

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The 2010 general election debates saw the UK’s party leaders face off against each other on live TV for the first time in history, setting a precedent for tonight’s hotly-anticipated seven-way debate featuring Jeremy Corbyn (and no Theresa May).

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But is the idea for a debate between party leaders older than any of us realised?

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This broadcast format is generally considered a modern innovation. However, a newly-uncovered editorial has revealed that Radio Times was calling for politicians to go head-to-head on the wireless way back in 1923 when broadcasting was still in its infancy.

In an editorial titled “What’s in the air?”, BBC founder JCW Reith – between his musings about traffic and orchestras and birthdays – suggests a very forward-looking idea.

“There have been many inquiries as to what part broadcasting would play in the General Election,” he writes. “The Broadcasting Company is neutral and has no politics itself, but it may be possible to secure permission for a representative leader from each of the great parties to deliver one simultaneous broadcast address.”

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To put this into context, Radio Times was then in its tenth weekly edition and still serving as the “official organ of the BBC”. The BBC itself had been established the previous year, with a radio service that shut down at midnight and started up again the following day.

Stanley Baldwin and his Conservatives were in power, but Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Party and HH Asquith’s Liberals were biting at his heels and within a week there would be a hung parliament. The major issue of the day was tariff reform.

Reith continues: “A debate on such a subject as Tariff Reform might also be of considerable interest, and would perhaps be permissible if the exponents of each side of the question were of similar calibre and authority.

“It may be remembered that a debate on Communism between Sir Ernest Benn and Mr J. T. Newbould was broadcast in London in the early part of the year.” (Sir Ernest was a political writer and the uncle of Tony Benn, but the identity of Newbould is a mystery.)

With an air of optimism, Reith writes: “Great discretion has to be exercised in such matters, and the question of expediency considered, but if on any controversial matter the opposing views are stated with equal emphasis and lucidity, there can at least be no charge of bias.”

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Reith never got his debate. It took until 1964 for the issue to come up again when Harold Wilson challenged Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home to an election debate, which was turned down on the grounds that “you’ll get a sort of Top of the Pops contest”. 

Ted Heath unsuccessfully challenged Wilson, and then Margaret Thatcher turned down Jim Callaghan. Thatcher and John Major said no to Neil Kinnock. It went on and on until finally David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown agreed to step up to the podium in 2010. 

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That’s only 87 years after Reith’s editorial…

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The BBC Election Debate is tonight, Wednesday 31st May, at 7:30pm on BBC1