There would be no leaders’ showdown without the 76 rules, says Sky News executive editor Chris Birkett.
Last week I received a hand-written letter from Frank Green from Barnoldswick, a 76-year-old viewer. He wanted to put a question to the party leaders about why his pension is taxed.
Unlike the 5,000 people who’ve already submitted questions for our Leaders’ Debate via the Sky News website, Frank didn’t have access to a computer. But he wanted to get involved, so he sought out my name and address and wrote to me personally.
I think of Frank when I hear critics who suggest the format agreed between the broadcasters and the parties devalues the debates as a tool of political engagement.
To them, the 76 rules and the “silent” audience are a “straightjacket” and a “gag”. In fact the rules around the UK leaders’ debates are far less detailed than their US counterparts.
And make no mistake, without the rules there would be no debates. At a time when the political process is held in such low esteem, how far would that serve democracy?
When Sky News began its campaign to pressurise the political leaders to take part in televised debates last autumn, 16,000 people took the trouble to sign our online petition.
We’ve recently launched a dedicated Leaders’ Debate section on our website: 43,000 people visited it in the first few days. And our Sky News Debate Facebook site is creating a buzz with its mixture of behind the scenes glimpses of our preparations and a forum for discussion about our political coverage.
All this multi-platform activity and we’re still more than a week away from our debate, at 8pm on April 22.
When the news organisations and the parties shook hands on the historic deal last month in a small room at the Mothers’ Union headquarters in Westminster, it occurred to me that someone there would turn out to be a loser.
You can’t have televised debates without losers, if only in the judgement of the pundits and pollsters. We just don’t yet know which of the leaders that loser will be. But we know the winner – it’s Frank Green from Barnoldswick.
Chris Birkett is executive editor of Sky News