Another article about electoral debates on television? Another article about the six debates broadcast, two from RTVE, two from La Sexta, one from TVE-3 and one, the first to be held, from Barcelona Tribuna-La Vanguardia? I prefer to read them, some may say, rather than seeing them (as a diet for a single week is a gravelly digestion).
But, an article about those television debates after the elections themselves, after a tough campaign and a bitter election night for almost everyone? There is a serious risk that the attention has gone irretrievably to another chapter of the endless political series, no less dramatic, but more peaceful, just because of exhaustion. Or that the ravaged taste for so much post-analysis does not want to know more about candidates and parties for some time.
However, for the benefit of inventory, and with the advantage of looking back in perspective at an object still close, the imprint of several practical lessons, of some small progress, of certain possibilities worth exploiting, appears more clearly. There are already journalists, it is fair to say, television professionals, who have drawn conclusions about it.
A matter of formats
I would say that if one thing has become clear, it is that the format of the debate must guarantee good behavior, a presentable behavior, not irreproachable, on the part of the politicians involved. What does this mean and how is it achieved?
These television spaces do not work as correctional facilities or are childcare centers, but they cannot respond to the populist model (for using the word for once with propriety) that induces conflict as an inexhaustible, inextinguishable form of spectacle, which is the case for much of the programming of Tele 5 (where you can see things like “Big Brother 7: the Debate”, don’t forget).
In reality, the format of debate is generally split, so journalists pick up on it, between the desire for a lively and close dialectical exchange, which can border on acrimony and demagogy, and the requirement of rigor in what is said . And the common thing is that one thing is detrimental to the other. Not losing faith that both extremes are compatible and that the best debates occur when the two are combined must be the guiding key.
All this comes to mind this week: the contrast between supposedly more “loose” debates that ran, and fell, at the risk of deteriorating, of becoming monothematic (about Catalonia) and rude, and debates in which one stricter format, more “guarded” forced the participants not to carve their own way for fear of ending up in a ditch and not to drive in opposite lane and run over the one that coming straight ahead respecting the rules. This was the case of the women’s only debate on La Sexta on Thursday, November 7, and at the subsequent round table led by Antonio García Ferreras, journalists were well aware of that advantage.
The difference may seem superficial to an unthinking spectator, but it can also be considerable. Consider the first debate of TVE, where the obsession of the moderator (and moderated) Xabier Fuertes for “favoring the debate.” He let it flow spontaneously and it was overshadowed at times when instead of opinions intersecting, voices overlaped , nullifying the speakers in the legitimate usage of their words.
In these cases, the worst, the most reductionist and obsessive are imposed on the most courteous, who seem to appear without support, (see the difference between Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo and Inés Arrimadas against Irene Montero and Adriana Lastra in that same RTVE debate).
Here we run into a big problem in Spanish public life. Namely, the usual: the rules are one hand and, on the other, the way to ignore them. If the usual way of driving is more for breaking them than for respecting them, the end result is that everything degrades and those who take advantage have their heyday. Ergo, what is penalized, in the end, is respecting the rules.
That is why we must guarantee equal opportunities. There is no point in getting caught up with the technical excellence that time is controlled by professional sports referees (as highlighted in the first debate on RTVE along with the one on Sexta Noche conducted by Iñaki López) if there is no guarantee that you can play fair without fear of unregulated attacks on the contrary.
It would not hurt, it should be added, and with irony, that journalists were the first to lead by example. Before it began, the debate on Sexta Noche seemed more civilized precisely by comparison with what it had seemed, the usual Saturday night, with its confrontations, and little uplitfing between “hacks” of the opposing sides (more exclamation than admiration.) Which brings us to the melancholic questioning of whether the public space will be polluted by even more bad blood that runs in the media than by the bile of politicians.
But there is an added effect that should not be forgotten. When the debates focus on campaign obsessions, the rest (of the issues, of the interests, of the programmatic points) is relegated in such a way that it is only cited as a recipe book or shopping list, as an addition. Politicians must learn that everything is important, and journalists should not only remind them, but urge them to discuss it. And that is easier in a block format.
It could be said that they all follow a block format, but a nominally thematic debate is not the same as another in which the moderator obliges to stick to the subject and interrogates with precision.
Thus, it is obliged (I emphasize this) to focus on specific issues, so politicians can offer feasible proposals. An example would be Ana Pastor (the journalist) asking for precise measures to combat climate change. Since Vox does not seem to believe in the phenomenon, Rocío Monasterio was exposed.
Know how to be and be without knowing
With caution as a rule, but not as a limit, candidates must know clearly what they want to get out of a debate and how to achieve it. Communicate directly with your constituents, beat the adversary, lead the debate. For better or worse?
Being the leader of the debate does not mean winning it, this means what it means, especially if more rejection is generated than connection.
This is still Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo’s problem, he has not given the impression of being even more arrogant than aggressive. Rather, it is said that his rhetoric is basically one of opposition, rather than propositive, of aspiring government, as if he were in an intense debate in Parliament. But it is also a competition problem. If the PSOE is attacked, it cannot be done with only strong words, these must be backed up with data and names and dates and cases.
It is remarkable that Iván Espinosa de los Monteros gave a much more “professional” impression for that precision when offering data and percentages (raising expressively, though curious, only the right hand). In general, Vox speakers adapted to the various formats to get the most out of them. They did not run the risk of their colleagues on the right, and rehearsed other behaviors, so that they appeared earlier as aggrieved offenders than as aggressive offenders (except, perhaps, in the case of Ortega Smith). I speak of the forms, not of the background.
I cannot fail to cite the most virtuous example in its way of explaining itself, of making the measures of a program tangible, of accepting general faults instead of throwing them on others, of pursuing a constructive rhetoric and a governance objective (in name, oh paradox, of a party that only appears in three provinces).
It’s Aitor Esteban, from the PNV. Aitor for President, Esteban to La Moncloa! There will be those who say that with age comes wisdom, that their concern is only that of the “Basque agenda,” but their technique of “sharing” with the viewer and maintaining the flow without ever disregarding the forcefulness (such as in his grabs with the representatives of Vox), he deserves to be studied carefully.
Ideology as rhetoric
It would be a joke to affirm that there has been something like “ideological” debate or true confrontation of ideas, like Ignacio Urquizu usually claims. But “ideological” rhetoric, even if conceptually misplaced, could not be absent.
It is even symptomatic that the word shines by its absence, the favorite of recent years, was “populist”, and instead the term “communist” has returned vigorously. Perhaps this is because, if it had been “populist”, it would have had to be used to refer to Vox.
We are already referring to the Anglo-American conservative variety for some Vox proposals. Along with this, we saw Monasterio paraphrase Margaret Thatcher’s famous address at her entrance on Downing Street in 1979, based on a prayer from St. Francis of Assisi.
Men and women
The insistence on the necessary parity in the composition of the electoral lists and the search for equality between men and women so that they cannot be absent from any political space made, by default, the main debate on Monday, 4 November at the Academy of Television, seem intolerablely male. It is a sign both of progress, because we cannot stop feeling it that way, and of regression.
The photo of the five men, much younger than canditates of the past (according to statements today in vogue), costume dolls, jackets without ties or ties without jackets, well planted and aggressive, bordered on shocking or ridiculous. The image replicated in the viaral Team “E ” video caricatured online.
And it added, by the way, a counterproductive “aesthetic” effect. All the leaders are less than fifty years old, there are no bald or large-bellied candidates. They all have a good facade and all are, seen together, more threatening than empathic. They are no “pack”, of course, but think of a debate in which the participants were, it is a guess, Rajoy, Iceta, Girauta, Lllamazares and Vidal Quadras. It would have also seemed to us unbearably masculine, but perhaps not so toxic.
Hence the initiative of La Sexta, to counteract, since it does not counterprogram, with a debate of women only. This debate is more successful, especially since it was more orderly and clear.
It is something that society and politics have to fix, something for which television has no choice, only relief. But as long as there remain, by default, debates of only men, they will have to be compensated with all-female debates, although both are, in the end, ultimately rare.
Check, contrast, deny
If we also believe that the last word is that of the voter, it is imperative that the politicians be examined by a reliable body after the electoral debates. It is good news that the work of checking, contrasting and refusing the claims, fallacies or hyperbolts with what is known as “fact-checking” has become a result of debates. Initiatives like https://maldita.es/ or Newtral – Journalism, fact-cheking, technology and data could not be more welcome.
Only, as there is already an Ombudsman on many channels, these departments should exist in all of them, starting with those of public ownership.
What genre do television debates belong to? Nowhere is it written that they have to be entertaining and, much less, fun (although it is convenient to serve them with a huge sense of humor). Unlike its cousin, the election night, more dynamic and exciting (although potentially more frustrating), the demands made on the electoral debate do not always depend on what the television media asks.
But do not resign yourself to everything being scorched earth. It can be sown waiting for something to grow. Since discussions are necessary, they must be clear and instructive, and educational by the speakers. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that they have become more frequent, more plural and perhaps more robust. They are improvable, that is, not as an expression of good wishes but as a possibility technically, journalistically, and politically feasible. And those who do not improve them will be evident.
Head of Public Speaking at Proa Comunicación