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 Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.

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

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.