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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 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.

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.