After Theresa May’s announcement on the steps of Downing Street yesterday, the UK is going back to the polls. The snap general election will take place on 8th June, thus giving the parties a month and a half to put their case to the country. To be honest this took me by surprise because, having come out against a general election a few months ago, I believed that it would be too politically risky for May to blatantly go against her own word. Nevertheless we are where we are, and now the press needs to step up.
This morning, less than 24 hours after the PM announced her intention to call a general election, Theresa May said that she will not take part in TV debates. Politically speaking this makes sense. TV debates put the opposition on the same platform as the incumbent and make them seem equally prime ministerial. In the case of this election, May would also be worried that her opponents, particularly Jeremy Corbyn, will be able to deliver their message and policies without media spin, and this would only damage May’s popularity.
However, although I believe May’s decision makes some political sense, she has no right to deny the British people information about her policies. The electorate make their decision based on the views of politicians and whether they believes those politicians are trustworthy. The fact that Theresa May doesn’t want to go on TV, lest she has to speak about her policies in more detail than just platitudes, is an insult to the electorate.
Even if you are a Conservative voter this is should also be a red flag. If I was a Tory voter I would proudly support the Conservative Party and Theresa May because they back policies and political principles that I also support. However, I would only know if this was correct if Theresa May actually talked about Tory policies. If I was a Conservative voter, or thinking about voting Tory, I would probably watch the TV debates and wait for the Tory representative to confirm all my beliefs. If there is no representative there, my vote would be up for grabs as all the opposition parties would be able to define Theresa May’s policies without the Conservative there to disagree.
The idea of a political leader not wanting to communicate their ideas to people is completely alien to me and strikes of a distrust of the electorate. When I speak to people who I disagree with I don’t hide from what I think in the hopes that I can pull the wool over their eyes. The process of campaigning should be the same. If you are honest with the electorate you have a better chance of winning than giving vague, shifty answers that dodge the question.
However it is not enough to simply criticise Theresa May, pressure needs to be put on the press. In the 2015 general election David Cameron initially said that he would not take part in TV debates, and the press largely let him get away with it. Instead, there was one seven-way leaders debate on ITV, a BBC leaders debate excluding Cameron and then Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, and a interview/forum on Channel 4 and Sky News with Cameron and then Labour leader Ed Miliband. David Cameron was able to avoid a decent amount of scrutiny and the opposition parties were allow to take huge chunks out of one another.
The same situation cannot be allowed to happen again. If Theresa May genuinely does not want to take part in debates, the BBC, ITV, and all other media platforms should empty chair her. There should be a one on one debate between Corbyn and May and if May thinks its not worthy of her time then it’ll be a 90 minute Q&A with Corbyn. That is the risk that she should be willing to take. Why should the electorate be denied information about the policies of Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens or any other party because the Conservative Prime Minister doesn’t want to take part? The answer is that they shouldn’t.
The mainstream media shouldn’t bow to government pressure because it might be a difficult for the Prime Minister. If the fourth estate means anything, it is about holding the government to account. If the leader of the government doesn’t want to be scrutinised on national television, then that’s fine just as long as the press allow all the opposition to put their cases as well. The media need to stand up to the government and if they do not then they can never claim that they are holding those in power to account.