ITV’s Facebook live stunt was a poor substitution for TV debates

By Jack McCormick

16th May 2017

Theresa May’s question and answer session on Facebook Live yesterday was a revealing one. Not insofar as actually giving the electorate anything solid to inform their vote next month, but by showing just how difficult it is to replicate a successful TV format on a social media platform.

Anchored by the ITV News political editor Robert Peston, the tryst with the current Prime Minister had all the hallmarks of a debate for the history books. But, by choosing to broadcast the whole thing via Facebook, ITV gave poor Peston no chance of delivering the sort of probing interview he’s known for.

This isn’t a dig at his line of questioning. Indeed, this was no repeat of the One Show’s insipid love-in with Mr and Mrs May last week, and Peston certainly didn’t duck the difficult questions being fired off by an audience of tens of thousands. But, preoccupied by sifting through more than 30,000 comments to find something worth asking, the interview was, frankly, shambolic.

Eyes fixed on the smartphone in his hand, Peston barely had time to look at May as she wheeled out one carefully prepped response after another. Rather than challenging answers that steered well clear of the original question, it was immediately onto the next – more often than not a completely unrelated topic.

At least it kept May on her toes, and I have to admit she did a fine job. She won’t have won any new voters, but her PR people – so clearly trying to target a younger, social media-savvy audience – were no doubt high-fiving in the background.

Ironically, considering the flack May has had for allegedly pre-approving journalists’ questions in recent weeks, what was missing here was an editor vetting the public’s comments as they poured in. More than once the interview stalled as Peston frantically swiped at his screen in search of his next question.

Had there been a producer passing these on, ensuring everything flowed smoothly and the next question made sense in the context of the last, the whole thing would have been more valuable for the viewer. It’s the sort of editorial stewardship you’d expect from any major news brand.

As far as ITV News’s Facebook post goes, it certainly saw a huge level of ‘engagement’, with live comments and reactions providing instant gratification for anyone taking part. At last count the video had close to 700,000 views. But, with a large portion of viewers preoccupied hammering out questions or clicking the ‘angry’ emoji as many times as possible, were the majority of watchers truly ‘engaged’?

Those in charge of ITV’s social strategy will have realised there are more than a few creases to iron out before Facebook is ready to host a serious political discussion. However, live, social media-powered debates clearly have potential.

ITV News needs to apply its 60 years of expertise in the same way it would for Peston on Sunday – employ an element of editorial control, giving the interviewer room to breathe and do his or her job, and you have a powerful tool on your hands.

Unfortunately for Peston and his team, Facebook is far too public a forum to use as a test bed.