EDV project lead Professor Stephen Coleman gave evidence to House of Lords’ Communications Select Committee Inquiry on Broadcast General Election Debates [Hansard transcript pdf].
As the clips below reflect, there is considerable interest in the potential of the web to help engage and educate citizens around the envisaged Prime Ministerial debates.
p.84 — Professor Stephen Coleman and Tim Gardam – Oral evidence (QQ 86-103)
Q99 Bishop of Norwich: We heard quite a bit about the way the US debates commission promotes awareness about the American debates and spreads knowledge of them, yet in Stewart Purvis’s evidence last week he said he thought that the broadcasters here had not promoted the debates very assiduously, that there was not much viewer education, and that there was no debates portal. Are there other ways other than social media in which the broadcasters themselves could extend the influence of the debates in relation to the campaign?
Professor Coleman: This is a very important question and was one of the most conspicuous gaps after the last election. I suspect that many people among the broadcasters were very nervous about these debates, perhaps wondering whether, after the expenses scandal, they were going to be taken seriously and whether they were going to be primarily for political insiders. They were a popular success. There is a tremendous opportunity for the public service broadcasters to get together now and use these debates to think very imaginatively and expansively about what the public needs around an election and the deliberation involved in the debate but also the information involved in voting itself.
I think there are a number of things that they could do. Websites are probably still the main source of good voter information. There is an opportunity to create opportunities for people to build Wiki-like aggregations of information and local knowledge. I think there are opportunities, and my university has been funded with the Open University to do this: to build platforms in which the claims made in the debates and the records of the debaters are open to public scrutiny. I think this is a very, very big one for the public service broadcaster, for all the broadcasters, to get together on and they probably need to start now.
Q102 Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill: With the millions who watched these debates, which was a very good thing, could greater public value be achieved from the broadcasters being encouraged to co-ordinate their activity? I know you have spoken about them possibly coming together around the broadcast general election debates, for example in a one-stop shop online for information and education about the debates and potentially live streams and archival content so that everybody can go back and find them. I am interested in what you think their role would be with 3 million, at least, not on the electoral register. These people, young people particularly, are watching and then they find they cannot vote in the end. Would it be a civic duty perhaps for the broadcasters to encourage them to make sure they are on the electoral register in their trailers for the debates perhaps?
Tim Gardam: It is important to amplify the points we were discussing a little while ago, which is that the broadcasters were taken by surprise by the resonance of the debates last time. That was my impression. I think, talking to them, that they would say the same. There was a nervousness about how popular they would be, although no one doubted their significance. What one then makes of that material as a broadcaster needs careful thought. It is normally the way of broadcasters that they go off on their own to work out what they can do with it.
Coming back to the points that we were making just now, in pure terms of ease of access, discoverability and the clear incentive to build a common point of access and, as I said, to open it up for material beyond that of the broadcasters, this would be a very, very powerful educational tool. I do not know how much thinking has gone on there. I know that the BBC is talking about the need to make its educational strategy much more self-evident. It seems, going back to the point I made before, that in the area of politics few institutions have their independence and impartiality so enshrined as to make such a tool seen to be something for the public good as opposed to something that may have implications of control.
Professor Coleman: There is something rather unusual happening here, which is that for once the universities might have a bit more money than the broadcasters to do this sort of thing. We have been given quite a large pot of funding to produce a platform for public education after the debates, if they happen next year. What we cannot do as universities— the University of Leeds is working in collaboration with the Open University on this—is what the broadcasters can do well, and that is publicise it and bring to it some of the creative design energy that we academics do not always bring to things. I think there is a tremendous opportunity here and it is because one of the research councils was imaginative enough to support this idea that we are in a position to be able to do this.