A Tory press conference. Photo: ANDREW COWIE/AFP/Getty Images
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Even as a political obsessive, I have reached for the remote control during the television news

The main parties are running campaigns so safe that the media coverage has gone from "shiny" to "dull".

This was going to be the digital election, the flowering of politics for the internet age. The campaign started with high expectations among the broadcasters, as their satellite trucks fanned out across the country and the new platforms and shiny graphics were readied for the most closely fought battle in a generation.

And then they ran into the controlled and defensive campaigns run by all the major parties and “shiny” rapidly turned to “dull”. The election began to sink in the running order of the bulletins and we heard some introductions beginning with: “The party leaders were on the campaign trail today...” – which is a sure sign that nothing has happened and there isn’t really any story to report. The tragedies in the Mediterranean and the earthquake in Nepal rightly dominated the news instead and, at times, the 2015 election didn’t even make one of the lesser headlines.

In rejecting the broadcasters’ plans for debates, David Cameron said that in 2010 they had sucked the life out of the campaign. Now a campaign with fewer debates is exposed for what it is: one with a photo opportunity for the Prime Minister and Boris Johnson doing a jigsaw with children, and a similar aversion to unplanned encounters with the public from Labour and the Liberal Democrats. The removal of televised morning news conferences nullifies the chance of a coherent journalistic story emerging, which is why the parties got rid of them. At a local level, the hustings culture seems alive and intense in many constituencies; but that engagement isn’t carried through to the national campaign that we witness on the flagship TV and radio programmes.

Even as a political obsessive, I have reached for the remote control during the television news – preferring the off switch to another clump of anaesthetising soundbites and feeling the lack of enough Nick Robinson to cheer up the nation. Dispiritingly, the closeness of this race has made the parties take even fewer risks.

For the broadcasters, the commitment to a huge volume of coverage has therefore begun to feel overstretched. The long set-piece leader interviews in particular have delivered a low return on the investment in them. They have been OK and there has been the odd flicker of illumination but few memorable news lines.

The BBC has a particular problem because of its huge reach and its army of programmes; so both BBC News and BBC2 broadcasted an hour-long Radio 1 Newsbeat debate from Birmingham on 21 April in which the Tories were represented by Paul Uppal and Labour put up Emma Reynolds. No, me neither.

It is frustrating because the public – especially the younger voters targeted by Newsbeat – deserves better than what the parties are offering them. There is some culpability among the broadcasters for not devising formats in their peak schedules that engage and enlighten their audiences, irrespective of whether the main parties choose to be involved. It can be done. Channel 4 has an advantage over the BBC and ITV in that it is more of an insurgent – going for the high-profile raid rather than a sustained war – but it has used its position well. In the run-up to the campaign, Ukip: the First 100 Days was a provocation as much as a drama documentary but it had huge talkability; likewise James Graham’s Coalition, the sparky reconstruction of the Cameron-Clegg pact in 2010, which was transmitted at the end of March. On election night, More4 has a live broadcast from the Donmar Warehouse in London of Graham’s The Vote, a play set at a polling station. Channel 4 has also done a good job with comedy. Ballot Monkeys, filmed aboard mock battle buses, is funny and topical in a way that Newzoids on ITV is not; and The Last Leg has, however improbably, had success in getting an audience to laugh along with Nick Clegg. BBC2 is also having a go at comedy with outings for Jack Dee, Charlie Brooker and Rory Bremner.

The obvious gaps here remain in genres from factual entertainment to high-end current affairs. It’s a reminder that innovation isn’t simply about more and more digital iterations of core content: if the parties churn out the same soundbites, the broadcasters run the risk of merely delivering the same drab stuff in a different way. Whether the next election is months away, or the statutory five years, the coverage will have to be rethought if this is the way the parties choose to play their campaigns. There is an obligation on the media to fill the void left by cynical political game-playing. It is also increasingly clear that the media must provide the platforms for the debate about the future of the United Kingdom and its governance in a more compelling way than putting hypothetical questions in interviews about votes in a hung parliament.

In the meantime, we should welcome innovation where we find it. Following the BBC’s insights into its editorial meetings as part of its Democracy Day, Sky is taking the idea a step further on 7 May with Election Newsroom Live – a broadcast on Sky Arts that will show the decision-making behind the results programme on Sky News, including interviews with editors about the choices they are making. Perhaps next time round they could deconstruct some of the campaign coverage in real time, too, to hold to account broadcasters and, more importantly, the politicians.

Roger Mosey is Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a former BBC executive

Roger Mosey is the BBC’s director of London 2012.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Scots are coming!

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.