Friday, September 18, 2009

An Out-dated Format: The TV Debate and Its Alternatives

Nearly a week has passed since the German TV debate. Newspapers wrote about self-centered interrogators, a shy chancellor and a surprisingly persuasive but altogether still too weak vice chancellor. Many called the debate boring, others even useless. Particularly, it has been criticized that the debate was of no value due to the lack of the opposition leaders. Some pundits did not identify a clear winner but two losers (see Michael Weigl’s article). So who benefited from the debate? Furthermore, journalists as well as pundits expressed normative doubts: Is it reasonable to exclude the whole opposition? Are there better ways to inform people and to mobilize sympathizers?

First, why did the candidates agree to the actual format? Assume that Merkel and Steinmeier act rational and take the TV debate as a kind of game. The participants would not agree to the design if they didn’t benefit thereof. Moreover, they could be expected to make the best of the actual game. Here is the design: There are two candidates (Merkel and Steinmeier), four interrogators (two from the public and two from the private networks), 90 seconds per response and a total of 90 minutes. Every two interrogators ask every one question per policy issue. Both candidates may respond to the question as well as to the other candidate’s response. It is permitted but not obligatory to engage the rival in a debate.

But a controversy has not been taken place: The four (!) interrogators changed the subject all the time. Unlike the candidates, they acted quite aggressively and constantly interrupted Merkel and Steinmeier. The crucial point is that the interrogators did not act that “nasty” due to their personality but due to the debate's design – they tried to compensate the missing opposition. Defending themselves against the four journalists, Merkel and Steinmeier tended to cooperate with each other. For example, after Steinmeier's “nine percentages”-attack on Merkel and the FDP, the interrogator Kloeppel doubted Steinmeier's credibility in the matter of Afghanistan. Merkel could hardly attack Steinmeier on “Afghanistan”; she forgave him his previous attack. Altogether, the candidates were able to establish low-risk cooperative strategies thanks to the absence of the opposition leaders.

Actually, it is not likely that Merkel and Steinmeier were able to stir possible voters into action, due to the absence of real rivals. But face the alternative: Especially the presence of Westerwelle and Lafontaine would make low-risk strategies impossible. Considering Merkel’s and Steinmeier’s obvious risk aversion, they preferred the previous setting. In other words, the debate was designed best possible – at least from two candidates’ point of view. So it is no surprise that Merkel and afterwards Steinmeier canceled the so called Berliner Runde (a panel discussion with the party’s top politicians) as well.

Second, is such a TV debate desirable for the voting public? Important criteria for the public might be relevance and fairness. Though the candidates have been forced to be fair in dealing with each other, the debate has been unfair towards the opposition. And since no controversy has taken place, the TV debate has not been relevant as well.

Third, are there alternative formats that fulfill those criteria? There are: For instance, this week a radio competition took place. Listeners from all parts of Germany asked questions about different issues, especially concerning the youth (missing at the TV debate). Unlike the TV debate, Merkel and Steinmeier participated separately, Steinmeier on Tuesday and Merkel on Wednesday. But as they anyway would not engage each other in a debate, that did not make a difference. More important, they have neither been interrupted all the time nor been forced to defend the Grand Coalition. All in all, these interviews seemed to fit better in order to inform people.

Besides, the opposition leaders arranged two “small TV debates”, including only the small parties. Unlike the big TV debate, controversy has taken place. There have been only two interrogators who acted less aggressively. The format encouraged the participants to attack each other. Unfortunately, this program lacked public attention because is has not been announced as a “duel” between two possible chancellors.

Finally, the actual debate’s format seems out-dated. Maybe the era of German “duels” is over. Considering a political system that involves five important parties, there are two options for the next Bundestag election: Either replacing the debate by interviews – or allowing controversy by inviting the Liberals, the Greens and the Left as well.

--Oskar Fischer

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