Britain has decided to air its first-​​ever tele­vised prime min­is­te­rial debates. As the elec­tion nears, the three candidates—incumbent Gordon Brown of the Labour party, David Cameron of the Con­ser­v­a­tive party, and Nick Clegg of the Lib­eral Demo­c­ratic party—will face off during three live debates over the course of the last three weeks in April. Alan Schroeder, asso­ciate pro­fessor of jour­nalism at North­eastern and an expert on pres­i­den­tial debates, is in London for the debates and offers his per­spec­tive on this his­toric move in the U.K.

Britain’s deci­sion to tele­vise these debates between the Prime Min­ister can­di­dates comes 50 years after the famous Kennedy-​​Nixon pres­i­den­tial debate. What took so long for Britain to enter this arena?
Debates were first pro­posed in Britain in 1964, but there has been a good deal of resis­tance to the concept.For starters, the U.K. fol­lows a par­lia­men­tary system, in which prime min­is­ters are not directly elected the way we elect presidents.Debates were thought to be too pres­i­den­tial an exer­cise for the more party-​​oriented British system.
Second, the can­di­dates them­selves have been reluc­tant to par­tic­i­pate, par­tic­u­larly when their party is in the lead​.It took a slump in the poll num­bers of incum­bent Prime Min­ister Gordon Brown to make these debates happen.Trailing in the polls, Brown saw polit­ical ben­efit in meeting his rivals on the debate stage.This is a good example of how you can always count on politi­cians to do what’s best for them­selves electorally.

How are mem­bers of the British media cov­ering the debates?
The debates are a huge story in the British press, espe­cially this week as the big day approaches.Newspapers, radio and TV news, and the Internet are filled with sto­ries on this topic, many of them revis­iting the classic moments of Amer­ican pres­i­den­tial debates.It’s not entirely sur­prising that the Brits are looking across the Atlantic for prece­dents, since they have none of their own.And, of course, the Amer­ican pres­i­den­tial debates tend to be fairly well watched in the U.K., as they are around the world.
Part of my visit here is to see how the local media approach the story and to take part in interviews—and believe me, I am keeping very busy.

What’s unique about the format of the British debates?
These debates will follow a mod­i­fied town-​​hall format in which an audi­ence of voters will ask ques­tions of the can­di­dates. This format has been a staple of Amer­ican debates, intro­duced at the pres­i­den­tial level by Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Ross Perot in 1992.
What’s dif­ferent in the U.K. is that the voters at the town hall will have to submit their ques­tions in advance.The ques­tions will then be chosen by an inde­pen­dent edi­to­rial board and read on the air by the people who sub­mitted them.All three can­di­dates will have a crack at answering each of the ques­tions, with little or no oppor­tu­nity for follow-​​ups.
Unfor­tu­nately, these rules were devised by the cam­paigns, so there’s a lot of secu­rity built into the process for the candidates.

Tele­vised debates were an Amer­ican inven­tion, but they have now become a fea­ture of cam­paigns all over the world. How impor­tant are debates as a global phe­nom­enon, and how much do they actu­ally impact a voter’s deci­sion?
Live TV debates have taken place during national elec­tions in more than 70 coun­tries around the world.Outside the U.S., a long debate tra­di­tion exists in Canada, France, Ger­many, the Nether­lands, the Nordic coun­tries, and Aus­tralia, and every year more and more nations join the list​.In 2009, for example, tele­vised can­di­date debates were inau­gu­rated in unex­pected places, such as Mon­golia, Afghanistan, and Iran.
The con­ven­tional wisdom in America is that debates rein­force existing per­cep­tions rather than change elec­toral out­comes. How­ever, there have been a few elections—the 1960 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion between Nixon and Kennedy and the 1980 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion between Reagan and Carter—where they have arguably made a big dif­fer­ence.
At this stage, the British elec­tion appears to be more or less up for grabs, so there’s a good chance that this series of three debates over the next three weeks will be highly influ­en­tial, espe­cially in view of their nov­elty and the poten­tially large TV audi­ences they will attract.

Amer­ican polit­ical con­sul­tants are heavily involved with the upcoming British debates. What are their roles?
Amer­ican polit­ical con­sul­tants have made debate prep some­thing of a cot­tage industry.For weeks now, high-​​level cam­paign pro­fes­sionals from the U.S. have been working with the var­ious prime min­is­te­rial can­di­dates behind the scenes—holding mock debates, con­sulting on per­for­mance issues, and helping to hone the rhetoric.Interestingly, the lead con­sul­tant to the Con­ser­v­a­tive party—which is philo­soph­i­cally sim­ilar to our Repub­lican party—was also a top aide to Barack Obama during his 2008 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.
It should be noted that the U.K. isn’t the only country to import Amer­ican debate exper­tise; we’ve seen this in a number of other coun­tries, as well.