Election coverage – week one

Sunday, May 20, 2001 by

It’s the end of the first full week of the TV election campaign. The extended news bulletins have begun, the Party Election Broadcasts have kicked in, the big set-piece interviews and debates have commenced. And it wouldn’t be surprising to find that viewing figures have already dropped across all channels as a result.

It happened last time round, when roughly a quarter of normal audiences switched off their sets. Analysts offered up several explanations – the quality, and the quantity, of coverage; the inevitability of the election’s outcome; or simply plain indifference to the politicians’ endless spiel. But come 2001, and have any lessons been learnt?

Well, the BBC, regarded as the main culprit in election overkill four years ago, haven’t gone overboard so far as regards extending bulletins and hijacking the schedules. They’ve got a neat excuse for cutting corners, of course, in the shape of News 24, or “BBC’s Election Channel” as newsreaders have taken to calling it. Here, the Beeb imply, is a rolling news service to proudly outdo in terms of coverage all previous elections to date.

But even if News 24 remains unavailable to most of the population, except in the small hours, there’s certainly been an impression over this past week that the BBC for one are playing to a more subtle agenda than in 1997. The Corporation are acknowledging, perhaps, a shift in emphasis concerning political reporting that has filtered across all news providers, reaching an extreme with Channel 4 promoting its own coverage as specifically for the disillusioned and apathetic (its distinctive trailers wondering whether we’d “rather vote for Big Brother“).

As such BBC1′s main evening news has only been lengthened by 10 minutes – and that’s a negligible change given that previously the bulletin usually ended around 10.35pm anyway. ButNewsnight on BBC2, which has so far tended to begin a couple of minutes after 10.30pm, has found itself ballooned to an hour’s duration. This is the equivalent of the BBC’s public service obligations being keenly paraded in front of whichever regulatory body cares to see. It makes for 90 minute block of coverage in total, yet so far it’s been competently delivered.

Andrew Marr has a regular spot on the 10 o’clock BBC1 bulletin rounding up the day’s events. It’s his first election as a TV pundit, and he’s been trying hard to appear as different as possible to his rather flippant predecessor, Robin Oakley. So he treats viewers to some jokes he’s prepared, or a few sarcastic one-liners, even a couple of flippant put-downs if we’re lucky. Like all reporters he wants us to believe he’s enjoying the campaign, so we should enjoy it too.

This strategy has extended to Marr also trying to re-invent himself as a music hall impersonator. On Thursday he starred in a 10 minute sketch broadcast after the main BBC1 news called The Election: Why Bother? This showed Marr debating with himself the point of using our right to vote or whether to just stay at home. It seemed to have been mostly shot in the BBC newsroom, but despite Andrew’s undeniable flair for treading the boards, this was a kind of po-faced worthy Auntie Beeb more common during the Birt-era BBC. A mission to explain at its worst.

The main evening election bulletins on BBC and ITV are going head to head for the first time. ITN’s coverage claims to have been extended, but in reality the News at Ten‘s increase from 20 to 30 minutes has made no difference whatsoever as the last third of the programme is entirely taken up with regional news.

Still, ITN scored a lucky break over their rivals on Wednesday night by being able to lead with the dramatic pictures of John Prescott’s encounter with dairy produce while BBC1 was still caught up in UEFA Cup Final extra-time. Wednesday evening made for quite an exciting TV’s viewing all round, with the tense Liverpool/Alaves match unfolding on one side, and the bizarre, slightly surreal images of deputy prime ministers and mulleted egg-wielding locals swapping blows running continuously on various other stations. Jon Snow breathlessly brought us a still of Prescott rammed against a wall (all that was needed was a cameo photograph of the reporter holding a phone and we could have been the early ’80s again) and then we cut to a rather pointless item about an artist erecting facsimile TARDIS models around parts of London.

ITN were lucky to have footage of the fracas photographed from the front, with Prescott’s leading jab plain to see. The BBC were trapped behind the deputy PM meaning the crucial left hook was off camera – until they were able to barter for some of Sky’s footage, which revealed the punch in gruesome detail. But even then the Beeb weren’t able to run with the story until gone half past ten, as the UEFA Cup Final had to give way to the midweek National Lottery Draw (it’s amusing to think how long Brenda Emmanus and Alan Deddicoat had been kept waiting in Manchester to provide this vital broadcast to the nation), and then some trailers, before the news began. There’ll be letters …

Despite once again not securing that ratings-busting head to head debate between all party leaders, BBC and ITV have tried to offer up the next best thing via those familiar set-piece interviews with key figures. BBC1 viewers in England enjoyed the late-night treat of twoQuestion Time specials back to back from 11.40pm on Tuesday as the leaders of Plaid Cymru and the SNP respectively fielded questions from invited audiences. Insomniacs and night owls interested in nationalist party agenda would clearly have flocked to this marathon 120 minutes of heated debate. It transpired viewers in Wales and Scotland had seen the programmes in their regions at 9pm, while English viewers had been blessed with The Savages anddinnerladies.

Two days later, however, the whole country could enjoy the first of the national leaders’Question Time interrogations, as Lib Dem boss Charles Kennedy faced David Dimbleby and an inquisitive, primed audience, for an hour from 9pm. ITV had got a headstart here, however, by having already aired a similar question-and-answer session with no less than the PM himself.

Perversely this had been initially scheduled to go out at 11pm on Wednesday, after some popular drama at 9pm (An Unsuitable Job for a Woman), News at Ten and Tarrant on TV. At the last minute Tarrant was switched to after the debate, so Tony Blair’s pre-recorded encounter with the Watford voters went out at 10.30pm – perhaps in recognition of the dramatic events of the day (Prescott and the egg, and Blair and the Angry Woman), even though the programme was filmed before news of the deputy PM’s brawl had broken.

Those intriguing, visually arresting incidents may turn out to have re-energised interest in a hitherto pedestrian, flat TV election. It certainly gave the terrestrial networks and especially the rolling news services chance to show off and behave like something really important had happened. Before then it had been too easy to respond with plain indifference at the way all the political parties had strived to use broadcasting media to their own ends, and the extent to which the broadcasters have been compliant in this. Postponing the last few episodes of The Wonder Years for extended coverage on Channel 5 – honestly.

With the prospect of Party Election Broadcasts every single weekday from now till 7 June, some genuine entertainment has got to come from somewhere. So basically we need more shameless gimmicks. We should have Jeremy Vine and his Newsnight van gatecrashing other channel’s live news coverage, driving behind ITN’s John Sergeant waving a large BBC banner and singing. Failing that: Peter Snow on every night. Isn’t that what he’s for, after all?


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