Landslide win for debates

Landslide win for debates

kevin Rafter

Television was the big winner in the 2011 general election campaign. The three national stations pulled out all the stops to provide the viewing public with comprehensive coverage. Even those viewers casting a cursory eye at their TV screens during the month of February could not have been unaware of Enda Kenny's five-point plan.

Kenny and the other leaders dominated their respective party campaigns and the televised leaders debates dominated programme output during each week of the campaign. The viewing public had previously enjoyed a single election debate between the leaders of the two main parties. This time around there were more debates and new formats.

The Frontline five-way debate with Pat Kenny in front of a live audience on RTE One had a novelty factor but, like similar debates in other countries, the format proved a tricky TV proposition. There was more promise from the final three-way debate but coming in the last days of the campaign it was hit by a certain fatigue and familiarity factor.

The debates may ultimately have changed few minds but they did play a valuable public service in allowing voters to assess the merits of the respective party leaders. The large audience shares on the various channels testified to a public appetite for political information although the various leaders tended to treat the debates more like an extended press conference rather than an opportunity to engage in meaningful discussion.

In the end, the absence of the Fine Gael leader from the TV3 encounter mattered little either initially in terms of the heighten attention on the first debate, or latterly in terms of that specific debate's influence on the overall campaign. It can only be hoped that TV3 and RTE cast aside their competitive instincts to agree with the main parties a better framework for future TV debates. The onus is also on the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) to cast aside its ‘light touch' regulatory instincts to be more proactive.

The 2011 contest was also Ireland's first internet election but the web had only a marginal role in the campaign. Twitter was the media darling but the online contributions had the air of a dodgy cocktail of ill-informed pub talk alongside the musings of taxi drivers. The internet revolution is underway – just not yet. When it came to substantial content delivering significant audiences, the election belonged to the big beasts of broadcast journalism – Sean O'Rourke, Miriam O'Callaghan and Vincent Browne.

Miriam O'Callaghan


Primetime presenter Miriam O'Callaghan. When it came to substantial content delivering significant audiences during the course of the campaign, the election belonged to RTE's O'Callaghan and Se

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