SHOULD a TV leaders’ debate enhance democracy, tackle Scotland’s truly big problems, blow away empty slogans and test the intelligence of politicians – or just measure their readiness to take random pot-shots at rivals?

A better standard of debate must be possible, otherwise intelligent, engaged Scottish voters will rapidly switch off. Of course, Tuesday night’s BBC Leaders’ Debate gave Yessers an immediate reason to retune. Kicking off with three questions hostile to independence was no indication of public opinion – it was a BBC production choice and, given its charter and statutory requirement for fairness and balance during elections, a BBC production mistake.

Quite obviously, a TV audience is consciously and carefully constructed. It doesn’t appear out of thin air. With only 20-odd virtual audience members, the production team and presenter would certainly have known the outlook of each questioner in advance and thus the likely political impact of inviting them to speak.

After a lengthy apprenticeship watching Question Time and its bussed-in “locals”, independence supporters are now sceptical about BBC Scotland’s claims of neutrality – to put it mildly. And in five televised minutes, it managed to blow it again.

Indeed, thanks to the eagle-eyed Phantom Power, it seems one particularly outspoken audience member has become a regular. Unionist punter “David” managed to be randomly chosen from hundreds of applicants to appear and ask questions in both BBC Scotland’s Debate Night and then the Leaders’ Debate weeks later – not a product of chance, but of BBC/Mentorn audience selection procedures. Giving David a free pass might be fine if folk with contrasting views were also engineered in and asked to contribute early on, but that didn’t happen.

So in the court of Yes opinion, BBC Scotland and its error-prone presenter were on the back foot from the start, and the programme never really recovered.

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The independence campaigner in me was infuriated. The broadcaster in me was riled. But more importantly, the viewer in me was soon bored rigid. And that actually matters most. Does BBC Scotland think its mission is to make political issues interesting and digestible, or to reduce five grown adults to childish point-scoring?

Viewers expect more, and complex issues like Brexit, the climate crisis, Covid recovery and independence are capable of delivering more, if BBC Scotland had taken the decision to shape and organise the debate.

Politicians could have been made to work through Scotland’s problems instead of getting off the hook with an empty slogan here and an unscrutinised promise there. But that would have meant broadcasters really getting involved.

Take housing. A massive issue. Numbers were trotted out last night without analysis. Do we want the promised 10, 40 or 100-thousand new homes to be built by volume house builders on land-banked land? Do we want affordable homes which are beyond the reach of folk on zero-hour contracts?

And what about the council tax? On Tuesday night, Douglas Ross taunted Nicola Sturgeon about her failure to replace it. True – in 2018 the SNP and Tories together voted down a Green plan to scrap the council tax in favour of a new system including a land tax. Has either party since devised an alternative? No, they huvnae.

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Does any party bar the Greens plan to overhaul a ridiculous local taxation system that combines the regressive council tax with a business rates system that allows the Queen to pay less for Balmoral than the rates paid by the local school? Fa kens.

That wee misleading intervention by Douglas Ross was also a missed opportunity.

If the programme had been working methodically through policy issues, Douglas Ross’ haughty refusal to work with “separatists” would have been given some real context. In reality he leads a group of MSPs who’ve voted with the SNP more often than the Greens and raised an issue on which the Scottish Conservatives have no policy proposals. Sweet. But in the structure-free melee of the Leaders’ Debate, none of this became apparent.

THE scary thing is that Douglas Ross was so clearly confident that no-one would be able to contradict him. Partly because he talks over everyone else. Partly because it’s easier to make a false assertion than correct it (see Donald Trump). Partly because a bold porkie puts him on the front foot and everyone else on the back foot (see Donald Trump).

But mostly because the debate wasn’t well planned. This isn’t good enough. Take another subject raised last night, a universal basic income.

Unionist leaders were baying at Nicola Sturgeon for her apparent failure to have a UBI system or pilot up and running. In fact, five pilot projects have been waiting to go ahead in Scotland – most stymied by Westminster’s unwillingness to play ball. I don’t know why the SNP leader didn’t point this out, but the audience deserved clarity they didn’t get. Instead, time was wasted badgering Nicola Sturgeon for a precise indyref2 date. Right. We don’t know if Christmas 2021 will be “normal”. We don’t know if travel abroad will resume. But we can expect a precise date for the next indyref to be decided right now? C’mon.

The public are entitled to know more about Nicola Sturgeon’s thinking and SNP strategy. But the determination to grab a quick pointless headline blew yet another opportunity for greater insight.

The quick-thinking Lorna Slater did manage to interrupt a Douglas Ross monologue, pointing out that the Tory transition deal is directed at oil and gas companies not renewables – and that could have been the springboard for detailed debate on the nuts and bolts of Scotland’s future energy policy and thus the oft-mentioned but little-explored Green Covid Recovery. But no. In short, we could have had a properly planned, policy-driven leaders’ debate which measured the knowledge and problem-solving capacities of each candidate, not just their ability to duck, weave, summarise complex realities in three seconds and SHOUT.

Nowadays, folk are chosen for top jobs by working through problems and scenarios while the selection panel (the electorate) looks on.

Obviously, that wouldn’t suit Douglas “it’s ma ba” Ross, but it would quickly reveal who has plans or just slogans, and who has ambitions for Scotland that match our resources and political aspirations, not the ill-fitting constraints of the Union.

This vigorous, deep-dive approach to politics debate is where independence really scores. Take any policy, explore it in depth and and see how quickly progressive party leaders hit the brick wall of reserved powers. Proper policy debate is what broadcasters need so that TV debates do not become unsatisfying switch-offs. It’s what the electorate needs for insight into the electoral choices before them. It’s what decent politicians need to build credibility. And it’s what independence desperately needs to be recognised as a component part of every policy debate and not an arid, abstract-sounding addition – a distraction from what “really matters”.

So how to change? Probably not by complaints from politicians. Party leaders who quibble about debates will easily be portrayed as muzzling the media and challenging the independence of programme-makers.

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That’s why civic society must question what the BBC is doing with licence-fee payers’ cash – because politicians can’t. But independence-supporting leaders can do something to improve forthcoming debates.

Fewer lists with hard-to-remember last-minute promises, and more big policies, pictures of a different future and inspiring long-term visions.

Of course, it will be tempting to just armour up and prepare for another slanging match. But as Anas Sarwar demonstrated when he broke out of deadlock and urged Douglas Ross to grow up, a moral message can work. An appeal to higher standards can be successful.

Reaching beyond the noise and name-calling is worth it.

Even if broadcasters seem hell bent on getting reasonable viewers to give up and tune out.