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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Where Labour has no chance, hold your nose and vote Lib Dem

May's gamble, MacKenzie's obsession and Wisden obituaries - Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

In 2007 Gordon Brown allowed rumours to circulate that he would call an early general election for the spring of 2008. When he failed to do so, he was considered a coward and a ditherer and never recovered. Theresa May has tried a different strategy. After firmly denying that she would call an early election and killing off speculation about one, she suddenly announced an election after all. Will this work better for her than the opposite worked for Brown?

The Prime Minister risks being seen as a liar and an opportunist. Her demand for “unity” at Westminster is alarming, because it suggests that there is no role for opposition parties on the most important issue of the day. If Labour and the Lib Dems are smart enough to co-operate sufficiently to rally the country against what looks like an attempt to instal an authoritarian, right-wing Tory regime, May, even if she wins the election, could find herself weakened, not strengthened. I never thought I would write this but, in constituencies where Labour has no chance, its supporters should hold their noses and vote Lib Dem.

Taken for granted

I wonder if May, before she took her decision, looked at the precedents of prime ministers who called unnecessary elections when they already had comfortable parliamentary majorities. In 1974, after three and a half years in office, Edward Heath, with a Tory majority of 30, called a “Who runs Britain?” election during a prolonged dispute with the miners. He lost. In 1923, Stanley Baldwin, a new Tory leader sitting on a majority of 75 obtained by his predecessor just a year earlier, called an election because he wished to introduce tariffs, an issue strikingly similar to the one raised by Brexit. He also lost. The lesson, I think (and hope), is that prime ministers take the electorate for granted at their peril.

China’s long game

Commentators compare the crisis ­involving North Korea and the US with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. It doesn’t feel that way to me. For several days that year, nuclear war seemed, to my 17-year-old mind, all but inevitable. I went to the cinema one afternoon and felt surprise when I emerged three hours later to find the world – or, at least, the city of Leicester – going about its business as normal. Two nuclear powers were in direct confrontation. The US threatened to invade communist Cuba to remove Soviet missiles and blockaded the island to prevent deliveries of more weapons. Soviet ships sailed towards the US navy. It wasn’t easy to imagine a compromise, or who would broker one. Nobody doubted that the two sides’ weapons would work. The Soviet Union had carried out nearly 200 nuclear tests. North Korea has claimed just five.

For all the talk of intercontinental missiles, North Korea at present isn’t a credible threat to anybody except possibly its neighbours, and certainly not to the US or Britain. It is in no sense a geopolitical or economic rival to the US. Donald Trump, who, like everybody else, finds the Middle East infernally complicated, is looking for an easy, short-term victory. The Chinese will probably arrange one for him. With 3,500 years of civilisation behind them, they are accustomed to playing the long game.

Mussel pains

Whenever I read Kelvin MacKenzie’s columns in the Sun, I find him complaining about the size of mussels served by the Loch Fyne chain, a subject on which he happens to be right, though one wonders why he doesn’t just order something else. Otherwise, he writes badly and unfunnily, often aiming abuse at vulnerable people such as benefit claimants. It’s a new departure, however, to insult someone because they were on the receiving end of what MacKenzie calls “a nasty right-hander”, apparently unprovoked, in a Liverpool nightclub. He called the victim, the Everton and England footballer Ross Barkley, who has a Nigerian grandfather, “one of our dimmest footballers” and likened him to “a gorilla at the zoo”.
The paper has suspended MacKenzie, a former Sun editor, and Merseyside Police is investigating him for racism, though he claims he didn’t know of Barkley’s ancestry.

Several commentators express amazement that Sun editors allowed such tripe to be published. It was not, I think, a mistake. Britain has no equivalent of America’s successful alt-right Breitbart website, disruptively flinging insults at all and sundry and testing the boundaries of what it calls “political correctness”, because our alt right is already established in the Sun, Express and Mail. To defend their position, those papers will continue to be as nasty as it takes.

Over and out

Easter is the time to read the cricket annual Wisden and, as usual, I turn first to the obituaries. Unlike newspaper obituaries, they record failures as well as successes – those who managed just a few undistinguished performances in first-class cricket and, most poignantly, some who promised much but died early. We learn of a 22-year-old Indian who, during demonstrations against the alleged molestation of a schoolgirl, was shot dead by police and whose grieving mother (invoking the name of one of India’s greatest batsmen) cried, “Bring my Gavaskar back!” In England, two young men drowned, having played one first-class match each, and a 22-year-old Sussex fast bowler, described as “roguish” and “enormously popular”, fell off a roof while celebrating New Year with friends in Scotland. In South Africa, a young batsman was among five municipal employees killed when their truck crashed; the local mayor fled the funeral as his workmates “chanted menacingly” about unpaid wages.

Among the better-known deaths is that of Martin Crowe, probably New Zealand’s best batsman. In a Test match, he once got out on 299 and reckoned the near-miss contributed to the cancer that killed him at 53. “It tore at me like a vulture pecking dead flesh,” he said. Cricket can do that kind of thing to you. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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