Northern Ireland

Lost in transmission... do political tv debates count?

Eamon Gilmore of Labour, Enda Kenny of Fine Gael and Micheal Martin of Fianna Fail will take part in the final live television debate ahead of the election
Image caption Eamon Gilmore of Labour, Enda Kenny of Fine Gael and Micheal Martin of Fianna Fail will take part in the final live television debate ahead of the election

The clock is counting down to next Friday's general election in the Republic of Ireland which will return TDs to the 31st Dail.

With an irate electorate on the verge of bringing about a major shift in Irish politics, party leaders are taking advantage of every media opportunity that comes their way to convince weary voters that their respective policies will make a positive difference.

BBC Dublin Correspondent Ken Murray looks at TV debates in the Republic and asks, do they really make a difference or are they just a precious publicity opportunity to raise profile and sway undecided voters?

When prime ministers announce there is going to be a general election, TV companies waste no time in issuing invitation letters to the party leaders to take part in a debate.

It is a win-win scenario for all involved. The TV company gets loads of print and broadcast coverage and the party leaders get airtime that they could not afford to buy.

That is the good news. The not-so good news is that in this new world of spin doctors, media consultants and image makers, the curious viewer, the person who owns that all-changing possession called a vote, is not really much the wiser after the credits roll up the screen unless the performance is memorable or else a politician makes a blunder that has the nation chatting in its aftermath.

Take for example, the three leaders debates on ITV, Sky News and the BBC last summer in the run-up to the British General Election.

The daily newspapers went into overdrive after the first of the three debates on ITV with commentators declaring that the Liberal Democrats were about to be reborn after an impressive performance by Nick Clegg whose rating jumped from just under 20 points to 28%.

Nick Clegg was the media darling again following the Sky News and BBC debates with his popularity fluctuating between 28 and 33%. The Lib Dems were even being touted as a party that could lead the next government!

But when all the votes were counted, the Liberal Democrats only secured 8.8% of the seats marking an overall gain of just 1%!

The rhetoric from the debates made little or no impact.

In Dublin, four TV debates were pencilled in for the main party leaders. Fine Gael's Enda Kenny refused to take part in the first of these on TV3 with some commentators suggesting it would be damaging for his image.

The reality was, by the time the second debate came around a week later on RTE, the content and optics of the TV3 discussion had been forgotten about albeit that Micheál Martin of Fianna Fáil was perceived to have done well considering his party is the one that everyone is angrily blaming for the current economic difficulties.

The only outstanding feature of the RTE five-way debate - the third in the series - was that four of the leaders, Micheal Martin of Fianna Fail, Enda Kenny of Fine Gael, Eamon Gilmore of Labour and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein each wore black suits, light blue shirts and red ties, with John Gormley of the Green Party wearing a blue tie!

There was no outstanding winner or memorable put-down lines from any of the combatants.

The three-way debate in the irish language on TG4 was only memorable for the broad range of low-profile issues pursued by the presenter. Questions ranged from agriculture to fisheries, the environment and regional development. This really tested the leaders.

The only person to shine in the debate was TG4 journalist Eimear Ni Chonaola whose style of presentation caught the attention of curious observers.

All in all, the TV debates in Ireland have not startled the public at all. The arguments and policy positions have been well rehearsed before any of the politicians got into the studio.

With media trainers and image consultants being paid large sums of money to mentor their clients on the rights and wrongs, do's and don'ts of appearing of television, the real loser has been the public.

If the fare on offer has been anything to go by, the Irish electorate do not seem to be any the wiser after the TV debates.

If anything, the opinion polls suggest that the electorate have already made up their minds on how they will cast their votes in Friday's election. regardless of what is broadcast on television.