by RAY FLEMING

SO Britain is going to move its politics into the TV age at long last. In three ninety-minute broadcasts in the weeks before next year's general election Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg will debate the issues in front of studio audiences. Those from the parties who have negotiated this agreement deserve praise on a number of counts -- for heading-off BSkyB's premature attempt to take over the whole show, for agreeing that questions should come from the public and for accepting that the Liberal Democrats should be present on equal terms with the other two parties. Another important decision is that there will be no debate in the final week before polling day -- it would be a good idea if this restriction could also be applied to the opinion polls.

Among issues remaining to be settled is whether a part or the whole of each broadcast should be devoted to a single theme -- foreign affairs, the economy and public services are three subjects that have been suggested. But where would membership of the European Union or reform of the UK's political and parliamentary processes fit into such a thematic approach? The important thing is not to confine the debates into the risk-free straight-jacket of statement-and-rebuttal that has so reduced the interest of American presidential campaign debates. The whole point of these debates in the UK should be the very presence of the risk factor.

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