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UK gears up for first live TV debates on poll

April 12, 2010 08:10 IST

Over 45 years after Labour leader Harold Wilson first suggested a debate before elections, Britain will witness the first of three live television debates between leaders of the three main parties on Thursday.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown will go ahead to head with Conservative leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg on three live television debates before the 6 May election that is expected to result in a hung parliament.

The television debates are part of the increasing election fervour as leaders criss-cross the country, wooing an increasingly cynical public that has witnessed, with much hand-wringing, a litany of perceived misdemeanours politicians, including the recent expenses scandal.

Observers say the television debates could make or break the electoral fortunes of each of the three leaders, even though a considerable disconnect with politics may see them get less viewership than expected.

In 1964, Wilson challenged the Tory prime minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home to an election debate.

Douglas-Home turned Wilson down, saying: "I'm not particularly attracted by confrontations of personality. If we aren't careful you know you'll get a sort of Top of the Pops contest. You'll then get the best actor as leader of the country and the actor will be prompted by a scriptwriter".

Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher had also refused a television challenge. Her official said that presidential-style debates were alien to Britain and risked turning the campaign into show business.

She had said, "We're not electing a president, we're choosing a government".

"In 1987 she refused the Labour Leader Neil Kinnock's challenge. Before the three live debates between Brown, Cameron and Clegg, politicians and broadcasters hammered out a 76-point programme format agreement.

Questions would be put by a carefully selected audience who would not be allowed to boo or cheer or even to clap.

The BBC said that during the debates the political parties would each have a live hotline to broadcasters to appeal against what they saw as unfair camera shots or lack of balance.

Sue Inglish, the BBC's head of political programmes, who chaired the negotiations, said: "You were never going to get a free-form programme.I mean this always had to have a structure to it that is unique".

She added, "From the broadcaster's point of view, what we wanted to make sure was that we had a programme that was interesting, watchable and something that people would recognise as a real debate".

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