Two hours that could change Scotland in a big TV debate. It’s big stuff. But as I settled down to watch Monday’s referendum TV showdown, I was slightly apprehensive. Would it be the much hyped game changer? Could it really be that good? Did someone mention Don King?
This time it’s Alex Salmond versus Alistair Darling – independence versus the Union. Would the wedding limo chauffeur thrash the golf club accountant? A game of PR – cat on cat action.
The referendum facts are fixed; the herd understands the nuances of a now familiar script – EU border controls, currency and all that… Salmond is a consistent wily seasoned pugilist, a man who seems well prepared for the opportunity in whatever shape it arrives. Against Darling, the man with all the passion and charisma of an edition of Gardeners' Question Time on a wet bank holiday weekend.
Sadly, the media build up of the debate was a bit like the diminished Edinburgh Fringe festival. This issue should be more important nationally.
Early nerves subdued the opening. Styled in conservative and funeral black Marks and Spencer’s suits, there was nothing to scare the ladies of Comely Bank, Stockbridge and Morningside. I was expecting to see Salmond, in full Biff Tannen (Back to the Future) mode, but sadly the Linlithgow lad was in full statesman guise. Pitifully under prepared, my guess is that Salmond’s PR team had been watching far too many Farage vs Clegg re-runs.
The PR advisers should hold their heads in shame. They forgot the devil is in the detail. Great PR folk know where the cue ball will finally rest. Their charge was overconfident, believing he’d won the encounter before he’d entered the ring. Never believe your own hype, its a recipe for disaster. With an over reliance on bad jokes and sad one-liners augmented by daft scare mongering stories, it was all a bit juvenile.
One wag on Twitter suggested his poor performance was a ruse to lure Cameron to debating with him. Whatever, it really wasn’t Salmond’s best night. I’m sure the viewers were surprised by the less authentic projection of the clichéd political statesman. This stripped back his appeal and his core authenticity.
His passionate strength in the past, has been tackling serious questions whoever goaded him. Here Darling proved a more polished sort of smoothie, rarely breaking a sweat. The battle at times was more heat than light, throwing up familiar rhetoric.
Darling lurked in his corner, delivering a sucker punch and the currency issue became the trump card. A well prepared joker delivered with aplomb – a blow Salmond spent too much time deflecting, blustering, totally skewering on the one issue he should have been scripted to counter. The former chancellor was well rehearsed; he relentlessly pushed on, not allowing Salmond any space and very little light.
Salmond’s team missed a trick to finesse their boy. Those Awareness, Ego And Values classes a waste of time! Poor Alex wasn’t familiar with the quality of his opposion, further proof he was very poorly prepared, particularly as none of the questions were surprising.
Salmond did gags. Darling did detail.
Another Darling win was aided by his Social media wonks. They seemed to provide Darling with great Twitter feed fodder. His soundbites captured Twitter interest throughout the debate – his points neatly repeated and one powerful meme echoed as he laid into Salmond with a scripted remark: “Your answer is that everyone is wrong except you.”
Sadly the platform should have been a space to better inform the public about the confusing issues locked inside the intimidating world of Scottish politics. The biggest surprise of the night was Salmond’s appalling preparation. Instead of owning the night, he struggled against the format, failing to effectively answer the questions posed.
Sadly the broadcaster STV was guilty of the bigger fail of the night. Why do the Scottish media lack ambition? Limiting the debate locally and not providing efficient access to the thousands of Scottish voters isolated south of the border was a mistake.
I wonder how all parties will handle the disappointment? They could cheer themselves up by booking a ticket for the fringe zombie attack thriller: The Generation of Z . This immersive theatre production brings audiences face-to-face with the undead. Now there’s a thought.
Mark Borkowski is founder and head of Borkowski PR