Political TV debates in Norway

September 10, 2007, [MD]

In a few days Norwegians will vote for local and county representatives, and of course the newspapers and TV channels are full of debates and analysis. Today I watched the equivalent of a town hall meeting with mostly representatives from the national parties in Northern Norway on our state television channel (link in Norwegian). The first thing that sprung to my mind was the problem of having national politicians dominate what are city and county elections - this is not a new thought, it has regularly been decried by both media and politicians themselves. However, the problem is that we only have national TV stations in Norway, and they need to cover the debates as well. I would love to have attended some of the political debates in my town, but either I was working, or I forgot about it, or I was tired after a long day at work and didnbother biking downtown the site where the debate was held.

So how can the state television channel, which has a mandate to report objectively and widely on this election campaign, contribute to my finding out more about my local political debate? How about they sent someone to the local debate to film the whole thing, and they put it up on Google Video? (It’s fine if they choose to put it up on their own site, but please let it be for download and not just for streaming!). I would actually be quite happy to watch an hour debate if I could choose the time myself, because so far I have only read newspaper reports of what the politicians say, or politicians’ own letters to the newspapers’ debate pages etc, but not actually seen them debating each other. Of course, we wouldn’t need NRK to do this, we could just show up ourselves with a video camera, getting written permission from all the participants (and if some refused to sign, we’d go to the local newspaper and have them make a big deal out of it) to put this up. Ideally, we’d put it up under a permissive Creative Commons license, which is admirably done by CNN for the current presidential debates in the US.

However, apart from the issue of local versus national, I also thought a bit about the whole format. The debate was about climate issues, and the nice thing was that every single political party, except the Progress Party, a populistic right-wing party that has a worrying amount of votes, were busy hitting each other over the head with how much more they would do for the climate. I think this has really shifted in the last few years - seeing the Conservatives standing there attacking Labour for not being radical enough, and challenging them to double their support for alternative energy research was neat. So I guess the ideas war has been won - but putting things into practice, things that might even hurt some people’s living standards or jobs, will be a whole other ball game. So instead of choosing to support the candidate that said more collective transportation, instead of the candidate that wanted more high ways, you have a row of six parties all wanting more collective transportation, and to choose whom to vote for you have to examine previous voting patterns, individual cases and plans, etc.

So I was also thinking of how we could make the debates - whether live or asynchronous - more informative and enlightening, in the face of TV hosts who often just want to play up the personal conflicts, to get more viewers. A typical event is a politician citing a fact or an event, that the other politician disagrees about, with the host saying “Well, let’s not get into the whole numbers game - let’s move on”… But when it comes to numbers and facts - they can actually be objectively proven. So what if for example the debate was not live, but pre-taped, and fact checkers then went out and checked out each statement by the candidates (during our presidency pollution was reduced by 20%), etc, and then inserted those details into the final broadcast? Or what if we could create a massively tagged and commented version of the debate transcript - using crowd-sourcing to look up references, link to statistics and analysis etc. CommentPress is one example of how this might work, here is an example of a Bush speech marked up like this.

Of course, in order to have things to link to, we’d need information and statistics on what politicians actually do in parliament. TheyWorkForYou in Britain is a really neat model. They digitalize the Hansard and do lot’s of neat things with it to extract information and statistics, so that you can look up a politician and see exactly how they’ve voted in different issues, what they’ve said etc. We need something like this for Norway too.

I could think of other ways of having more intelligent debates too - I’ve been learning a lot from innovative ways of doing it for example in the blogosphere. How about each politican preparing a brief, that people could read and comment upon and challenge. Then they’d meet for an online debate at a certain time, which would be transcribed, and then there would be a discussion of the transcript and further analysis later. I guess the biggest challenge is the partisanship - whether people would be willing to sit down for a serious discussion, and agree on certain facts, or whether they would automatically distrust everything anyone on the “other side” said… Perhaps this would be easier in Norway, with more political parties and less black-and-white than in the US. Perhaps one could even try this with political parties that are closer - ie. the Socialist Party and the Red Party debating, instead of the Socialist Party and the Progress Party. Not sure, but it would be interesting to try. While we long for those times mentioned in Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, where presidential candidates gave hours-long heavily argued speeches, and the public listened with rapt attention…

Stian\ PS: I started writing this a few days ago, but only finished it today - the day of the elections.\ Image of empty parliament courtesy of Dave Morris @ flickr.com

Stian Håklev September 10, 2007 Toronto, Canada
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