Alastair Stewart: BBC election 'catastrophically wrong'

ITV News presenter criticises the BBC's "lavish" election programme at a time of economic trouble.

Veteran ITV News presenter Alastair Stewart has hit out at the BBC's election night coverage, criticising the corporation for staging a lavish set-piece show at a time when the country faces economic austerity.

Stewart, who anchored ITV News' election night coverage for the first time and chaired one of the first ever leaders' debates, said the BBC "missed the story" and failed to learn from previous election night mistakes.

"I thought they got it catastrophically wrong...in the sense that it was just the wrong time to approach a results programme with a blank cheque. I don't think people watching expected that..." Stewart told Press Gazette.

He added: "In that cacophony of expensive graphics and that army of stars they just didn't actually get the story right."

Stewart rounded on the BBC decision to hold an election night Thames boat party - later unflatteringly dubbed the Ship of Fools - where Andrew Neil, former Sunday Times editor and presenter of the BBC's This Week show, interviewed a gaggle of celebrities about the election.

"They didn't learn the mistake we made five years ago when we had the party on the London Eye, " Stewart said.

"Andrew Neil is a brilliant political journalist and what a waste to have him in that mix."

ITV's comparatively low budget election night budget, Stewart said, didn't prevent it from using its network of "stringers" to more efficiently and quickly deliver news of which MPs won which seats.

Stewart was also upbeat about ITV's coverage of the first ever live leaders' debate in the run-up to the election where the primetime ITV1 show peaked at 9.9 million viewers.

"From a ratings perspective it was a loss leader, in the context of public service broadcasting and our brand it was perfection," he said.

The series of three leaders' debates - broadcast on ITV, Sky and the BBC on consecutive Thursdays up to the election on 6 May - came about after months of behind-the-scenes negotiations between the major political parties and the broadcasters.

The process was brought to a head in September when the head of Sky News, John Ryley, threatened to proceed even if participants from all the leading parties had not signed up.

"One of myths doing the rounds is that John Ryley and Sky single-handedly brought this off," Stewart said.

"Historically the truth is that BBC, ITV and Sky have for a very long time been gently lobbying to get leader's debates."

Stewart called Ryley's threat to "empty chair" anyone didn't want to participate in the debates a "misjudgement".

"The way to negotiate enormously delicate political matters is with the subtlety that Sue English at the BBC and Mike Jeremy and Jonathan Munro at ITV brought to the debate.

"There was very nearly a wobbly moment...You don't achieve moments of political history by threats and truculence."

Dominic Ponsford and Oliver Luft both write for Press Gazette.