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Prime ministerial TV debates made the young 'more interested in the campaign'

A new study suggests that first-time voters in the UK ‘formed a special relationship with the prime ministerial televised debates in striking contrast to their more jaded elders’.

The findings of the research for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University are to be delivered by Professor Stephen Coleman, Professor of Political Communications at the University of Leeds, in a lecture entitled 'Politics, Performance and Rhetoric - the 2010 Prime Ministerial Debates'.

The lecture, on 7 February, is the first of a new series of annual Reuters Institute/BBC David Butler lectures.

The leaders of the three main political parties, Gordon Brown (Labour), David Cameron (Conservative) and Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat) took part in three televised debates in the run up to the general election on 6 May. This is the first academic study using a large-scale, nationally-representative sample of the UK population into how our voting behaviour was affected by the TV debates, the first ever held in Britain.

Over half (55%) of the 18-24 year olds said that as a result of having seen the first debate they had become `more interested in the campaign', compared with less than a third (31%) of the 40-54 year-olds and just under a quarter (24%) of the respondents aged 55 and older.

Nearly three-quarters (74%) of first-time voters considered that they had learnt something about the parties' policies from the debates, compared with 63% of those aged 55 and older.

Professor Stephen Coleman, Professor of Political Communications at the University of Leeds, will deliver the lecture, based on the study he has conducted for the RISJ. He said: "Importantly, half of the 18-24 year-olds in our sample said the debates had helped them to make up their minds about how to vote.

"We note that turnout amongst 18-25 year-olds increased by seven percentage points in last year's election, three points higher than the average increase in turnout compared with 2005. While I cannot claim that this was a direct effect of watching the televised debates, I doubt very much that it was an unrelated effect."

The lecture will also reveal that the reasons for viewing were particularly encouraging: two out of three of the politically uninterested said that they watched the debates 'to help make up my mind how to vote', compared with only 28% of the 'very politically interested'.

The rather less encouraging finding, however, was that after watching the debates, the politically uninterested were almost twice as likely as the politically interested to state that they were 'none the wiser' about what the parties or candidates stood for.

Professor Coleman commented: "The debates succeeded in arousing the curiosity of the least motivated potential voters, but failed to help them make their minds up. This is perhaps a reminder to future debaters that winning over the least politically interested calls for a form of political discourse that goes beyond the orthodoxies of appeals to the already interested."

Professor Coleman's analysis considers the ways in which the debates were perceived both by the media and the public and assess the extent to which they have affected public understanding of the issues around the election.

The Reuters Institute/BBC David Butler lectures are supported by the BBC and have been created in recognition of the huge contribution made by the recently knighted Sir David Butler to the academic study and TV analysis of elections over more than half a century. David Butler of Nuffield College, Oxford, wrote or co-authored the standard election study of every UK election from 1945 to 2005. He was an expert election analyst on BBC TV and radio and was the person who first introduced the 'swingometer' to UK election audiences. His contribution was recognised by a Knighthood for services to political science in the New Year Honours list.

For more information, contact the University of Oxford Press Office on +44 (0)1865 280534 or email press.office@admin.ox.ac.uk or Guy Dixon, University of Leeds media relations on 0113 343 8299 or g.dixon@leeds.ac.uk

Notes for Editors:

  • The lecture will be delivered on 7 February in London where it will be chaired by David Dimbleby, the moderator of the third televised debate. The lecture will be recorded by BBC Parliament and transmitted later that week, as well as made available through the websites of BBC Democracy Live and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.
  • The total sample size was 1,455 adults aged 18-80. The survey was carried out online (there were five surveys: before the first debate; after each of the debates; an after polling day). The figures have been weighted and are representative of all adults in Great Britain, aged 18 and over.
  • Other key findings from the study:

    The top three reasons for viewing the prime ministerial debates were to see what some party will do if it gets into power, 79%; to understand the problems facing the country better, 65%; to judge who will make the best Prime Minister, 64%.

    The most important moments in media reception occurred after people had watched the debates, as they integrated them into their interpersonal conversations, reinterpreted key points to fit in with their own experience and debated amongst themselves whether the media and the pollsters had got the verdict right. When asked whether they had talked to other people about the debates after they had watched or listened to them, 87% of respondents to the RISJ post-election survey said that they did and this figure was higher amongst younger voters than over-55s.

  • 2011 marks the first lecture in this new series. Subsequent lectures will cover the issue of the media and elections internationally, as well as in the UK.

  • The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism is University of Oxford's centre for research into news media. The Thomson Reuters Foundation is the core funder of the (RISJ) Institute, based in the Department of Politics and International Relations. The Institute was launched in November 2006 and developed from the Reuters Fellowship Programme, established at Oxford 27 years ago. The Institute, an international research centre in the comparative study of journalism, aims to be global in its perspective and provides a leading forum for scholars from a wide range of disciplines to engage with journalists from around the world. For more, go to http://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/

  • Stephen Coleman is Professor of Political Communication at the Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds. His two most recently published books are: (with Jay G. Blumler) The Internet and Democratic Citizenship: Theory; Practice; Policy (Cambridge University Press, 2009) - awarded best book of the year on its theme by the American Political Science Association - and (with Karen Ross) The Media and the Public: 'Them' and 'Us' in Media Discourse (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010) Also recently published is Public Trust in the News: A Constructivist Study of the Social Life of News, published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford.

  • The University of Leeds

    The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise showed the University of Leeds to be the UK's eighth biggest research powerhouse. The university is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. The university's vision is to secure a place among the world's top 50 by 2015. www.leeds.ac.uk