Election coverage – week two

Sunday, May 27, 2001 by

When Baldrick stood for election in the constituency of Dunny-on-the-Wold, his campaign manager Edmund Blackadder proposed a strategy to win that focused wholly on “issues, rather than personalities”. It helped that the entire population of this rotten borough were three rather mangy cows, a dachshund named Colin and a small hen in its late 40s, but as Blackadder and a bewigged 18th century Vincent Hanna discovered, the strategy paid off.

The line was of course an intentional parody of the same wish often voiced by figures on the British political scene – namely, that their brand of political campaigning would somehow rise above the commonplace contemporary hustings and seek to thwart the media’s thoroughly base interest in a person’s character. Just such a familiar wish reared its head once more this week, as TV coverage of the present election campaign came in for a remarkably brutal assault from forces within the Government.

The BBC always boasts how it feels it’s not doing its job at election time unless it receives regular accusations of bias from both Tory and Labour camps. Over the past few months the Tories have persisted in making barbed comments about the appointment of the apparently pro-Labour Andrew Marr as BBC Political Editor. This week it was the Government’s turn to advance charges of partisanship, claiming that the BBC, ITN and Sky were complicit in enabling both the efficient execution of anti-Labour protests and that they were then capably caught on camera. Meanwhile both sides continued to bemoan the condition of political reporting as being too many correspondents talking to correspondents, but then systematically refused to allow their representatives to appear on Newsnight and Question Time claiming they wouldn’t get a fair hearing.

It’s true that the TV coverage of the election so far has pushed the conventions of political reporting to a new level. On various news bulletins this week, for instance, presenters have quizzed correspondents not just on what candidates have been saying, but how and why – “What was this speech designed to achieve?”, “Why was the leader adopting such language?” and so on. This could however be the inevitable consequence of present day politics being so constructed upon notions of perception and, that familiar word, spin, and also the fact that the election campaign so far has been by all accounts terribly dull and relentlessly negative. How can broadcasters focus on “issues” if questions of personality get in the way thanks to the actions of politicians themselves?

Conversely, while the level of campaigning may be pretty unremarkable, the style of reporting and particularly the kind of “summarising” that Marr on the BBC and John Sergeant on ITN provide each night seems increasingly typical of a more widespread and deliberate step away on the part of all broadcasters from a previous, more deferential kind of coverage.

One example was the return this week of Election Call, that staple of BBC campaign broadcasting and still the chief means for members of the public to get access to top level politicians directly. This time round the programme is once again going out live on both radio and television, but instead of its usual slot on BBC1 it’s been dumped onto BBC2 as if to slightly downplay its significance and prestige. It’s a shame, because the show boasts a fine reputation for encouraging many an infamous gaffe or blunder by politicians of all parties, while also exposing them to far tougher, bitter and more biased interrogations than presenters are traditionally permitted to make. In addition the programme is not only up against Kilroy over on BBC1 – clearly far too important to be dropped even in the run up to a General Election – but also C4′s main political discussion programme Powerhouse. Once Trisha has begun on ITV at 9.25am, and The Wright Stuff on C5 at 9.35am, the viewer has been faced with similar debate-based shows on all main channels within the same hour.

However Peter Sissons has so far made for an adequate host, and despite a tendency to appear patronising towards certain callers slow to make their point he at least displays no exaggerated courtesy towards his guests – who this week represented some top brass from each of the three main parties, including forthright performances from both Gordon Brown and Anne Widdecombe. Sissons is far better than his lauded predecessor and pioneer of Election Call, Robin Day; he avoids both the ponderous turn of phrase and strange verbal tics Sir Robin peppered questions and conversations with. But as yet there’s been nothing in the way of dramatic viewer-politician showdowns or amusing slip-ups to rival incidents such as when Margaret Thatcher appeared on the programme when it was being televised for the first time (1983) and demanded on hearing the first caller, “Where is he? I can’t see him, I can only hear him.”

Unfortunately the campaign has also produced some of the worst TV so far this year in the shape of the Party Election Broadcasts. They have been pretty dismal simply as pieces of television, never mind their respective political colours. It’s hard to see how these five minute bursts of naff acting and clichéd gimmicks can impact upon anyone to the extent of helping them make up their mind – let alone change their mind – as to which way to vote, simply because they pretty much all fail at utilising the small screen in a new and exciting way.

For instance, Labour’s three PEBs to date have comprised a simple recitation of what they have done over the last four years read by Kevin Whately; a pastiche of disaster movies designed to warn voters off voting Conservative; and a profile of the Prime Minister. The first felt dull and repetitious – isn’t it more important to explain not simply what, but how and above all why a Government has done what it has? The second was an unimaginative parody of a genre itself based on parody – and you can never successfully spoof a spoof; the third was open to criticism as contradicting that wish to focus on issues above personalities. Meanwhile the Conservatives’ two PEBs so far have also fallen back on familiar, tired devices, combining negative campaigning with another old chestnut, the “Britain as an Orwellian future nightmare”, presenting us with crazy apocalyptic scenes of wild-eyed children (always children) scavenging for food and terrorising grannies.

There’s also been numerous broadcasts from the smaller parties, where the budget has clearly been blown on either proudly parading one celebrity relentlessly back and forth across the screen (the Socialist Alliance), or investing in an expensive computer software package (the UK Independence Party) but nothing else. As Francis Ford Coppola explained of Apocalypse Now, there’s terrible danger in having “access to too much time and too much money”. It can threaten to sabotage and completely undermine projects of whatever scale, both large and small. Legislation for limiting spending during Election campaigns may be taken further in the next Parliament; for the moment the electorate have to negotiate PEBs every single night of the week, though it’s still possible to get from 8pm to 11pm on any channel without encountering them at all.

As polling day nears it will be interesting to see whether any of these trends intensifies – the PEBs become even worse, the news bulletins more brazen, more cynical – and whether any more unforeseen events helpfully conspire to liven up what is increasingly being talked about as one of the dullest, badly fought campaigns for a generation. Viewing figures for this week showed the BBC’s Six O’clock News lost nearly 1m viewers, while the Ten O’clock News was down 600,000. ITN’s Early Evening News also suffered, losing 900,000 viewers, while News at Ten shed 800,000.

Perhaps help will come in the unlikely form of the media student – for it was one of their number who valiantly chased the Prime Minister’s car up a hill in an effort to confront him over the abolition of student loans and the introduction of tuition fees. Helpfully, perhaps deliberately, creating one of the most significant TV encounters of the campaign so far, Andrew Chaplin of Glamorgan University not only gave himself something to base his final year project around, but made the election somehow come alive and seem real again. Let’s hope for other media students around the country to start skiving lessons on Cathy Comes Home and follow his example.


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