The BBC Tory leadership debate was missing something… a studio audience

It's fantastic to see political debate attract big viewing figures in a primetime slot, but the lack of a studio audience reacting to the five political hopefuls made the event feel a little flat, argues Tim Glanfield

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 18: In this handout photo provided by the BBC, (L-R) MP Boris Johnson, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs of the UK Michael Gove, Home Secretary of the UK, Sajid Javid, and Secretary of State for International Development of the UK, Rory Stewart participate in a Conservative Leadership televised debate on June 18, 2019 in London, England. Emily Maitlis hosts the second of the televised Conservative Leadership debates for the BBC. Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, Rory Stewart and Sajid Javid made it through the second ballot while Dominic Raab did not. The third ballot will be held tomorrow, (Wednesday). (Photo by Jeff Overs/BBC via Getty Images)

Whatever your politics, there’s nothing like a live televised political debate on primetime BBC1 to bring the nation together… in snide tweets, gifs and screengrabs – and last night’s Tory leadership bout was certainly no exception.

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The hour-long affair, chaired by Emily Maitlis, had added excitement for viewers because after refusing to appear in Channel 4’s debate on Sunday, frontrunner Boris Johnson finally stepped into the media spotlight to go head-to-head with his four remaining rivals.

As expected, the main focus of the event was Brexit, with the BBC format involving members of the public beamed into the studio by video link from around the United Kingdom to ask a question of the panel. While the big five battled it out, the regional questioner looked on from a vast video wall, occasionally being asked what they thought of the answers.

But despite this technological theatre, 5.28 million viewers at home and the fascinating spectacle of Rory Stewart’s disappearing tie, there was something missing from this 60 minutes of political debate – a studio audience.

(L-R) MP Boris Johnson, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs of the UK Michael Gove, Home Secretary of the UK, Sajid Javid, and Secretary of State for International Development of the UK, Rory Stewart participate in a Conservative Leadership televised debate chaired by Emily Maitlis (Photo by Jeff Overs/BBC via Getty Images)
(L-R) MP Boris Johnson, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs of the UK Michael Gove, Home Secretary of the UK, Sajid Javid, and Secretary of State for International Development of the UK, Rory Stewart participate in a Conservative Leadership televised debate chaired by Emily Maitlis (Photo by Jeff Overs/BBC via Getty Images)

The format of five politicians answering question after question, with a sprinkling of cross-talk and bickering was always going to play more towards soundbites than long considered policy examinations – and for soundbites to land with a general BBC audience, they need a reaction.

Who won? Well it’s hard to say. Unlike Question Time or the Channel 4 debate on Sunday where an audience react with their hands when they’re enthused, there was no obvious feedback loop for the viewers at home. Good points fell flat and bad answers were not subjected to the scrutiny of sharp intakes of breath, tutting or murmurs of displeasure from a snapshot of the British public.

I am not advocating turning political debate into a circus of entertainment and any studio audience needs to be selected and policed quite carefully, but I do believe if we want people to connect and engage with politics, we need to make public discourse feel it is connected directly to public opinion.

Perhaps five middle aged men arguing in an empty television studio isn’t the best way of inspiring enthusiasm in politics with a general television audience.

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You can watch the BBC debate, Our Next Prime Minister on BBC iPlayer now