Paxman recumbant. Photo: Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images for Advertising Week
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Paxman and other traps: how should the media tackle the election?

It's easy to get swept up in the thrill of the media and the shiny lights of the debates - but broadcasteres have a serious role to play in the election, too.

It is the law in the media world that campaign programmes must always have a transport gimmick; and in this multiparty election in a turbulent UK, the London media stars are reaching places that their output usually ignores. They have discovered that there are donkeys in Great Yarmouth and there is a curling rink in Paisley and a racecourse in Bangor. Not only do they have to tick the geographical boxes this time but – in the spirit of the televised debate – almost every programme has to feature every significant party. It is impressive to see the newsgathering machines swinging into action and cheering to see more of the country than is usually permitted. But it can be a nightmare for broadcast journalists trying to make a coherent narrative out of seven leader clips or more within cramped bulletins. Because of the commitment to balance, there is none of the simplicity of the partisan press or the freedom of digital’s limitless capacity.

The leaders’ debate showed why broadcasting still matters so much. As in the 2010 campaign, it was the most watched programme of the night, proving that audiences want to see politicians live and unfiltered before they cast their vote. ITV’s confident production justified the months of trench warfare by the broadcasters to get the Prime Minister to turn up and it suggested that the threat of an empty chair still holds some sway. This was never going to win the broadcasters plaudits from the parties. One well-informed media source characterised the negotiations as sometimes “quite nasty”. And it’s a reminder that the independence of the BBC still matters a lot. It’s a concern that so many commentators and some politicians made the link between the corporation’s conduct around the election debate and its charter renewal. This echoed some of the ridiculous behaviour in the last parliament when select committees tried to intervene in the BBC’s editorial agenda.

During the campaign, there will be – as always – a daily battle between the spin doctors and the broadcasters. Parties will huff and puff if their preferred story is not at the top of the news and there will be skirmishes about questions on the Today programme or segments of Channel 4 News. Whether this will amount to undue political pressure and sustained bullying is not yet proven. In my days as an editor at the BBC, we had a grisly time in the 1992 election with combative teams at both Conservative and Labour HQs and the run-up to 1997 was made thoroughly unpleasant by the New Labour operation, which could be brutal.

But then the 2001 and 2005 campaigns passed peacefully, with little bad behaviour. Indeed, 2001 was so dull that the only thing I can remember is John Prescott’s punch and a half-hearted plea to play it down – which we, of course, ignored. I hope this time the journalists will feel confident in telling the politicians to take a running jump if they seek to intervene inappropriately.

The BBC will think that it has most at stake, although for the corporation not to dominate the election campaign would be the equivalent of the ravens leaving the Tower of London. There are certainly challenges this time. Teeth will have been grinding at ITV’s capture of the only debate between all the main leaders, and the BBC’s five-way scheduled for 16 April without David Cameron and Nick Clegg is an odd-looking creature. The Jeremy Paxman interviews on Channel 4 and Sky News also confirmed the BBC’s carelessness in losing one of the TV greats and the spotlight will be on Evan Davis – who hasn’t yet quite found his stride on Newsnight – when he takes over the party leader interviews scheduled for peak time on BBC1. On election night, two further traps lie in wait: Paxman will be hosting Channel 4’s coverage, which could be more entertaining than the David Dimbleby experience; and the broadcasters will have to cope with social media chirruping away with alleged results hours before the returning officers have got to their feet.

In all of this, it is easy to get swept up in the thrill of the news coverage and the shiny lights of the debates. But there will be appreciation from many voters if the media engage with the tougher policy issues, too. I would love to hear a proper dissection of the parties’ plans for education: not just tuition fees, but how we lift the aspirations of millions of children. Others would like to know how the NHS will be changed by a future government, or how best the country’s housing plans can cope with our rising population. I hear these kinds of discussions across BBC Radio 4 and we occasionally find some depth on policy rather than process on the fringes of the television schedules: Daily Politics on BBC2 does a good job.

But the days of peak-time TV specials tackling the big issues seem to have gone and even the threatened break-up of the UK last year generated little landmark programming outside the scheduled bulletins. Commissioners generally think that this sort of thing is ratings death, but as a result of fragmenting audiences the risk is lower than it used to be – and public service sometimes requires doing what’s right rather than what maintains your channel’s market share.

Above all in this election, broadcasters have the ability to capitalise on a national mood that is unsettled and disillusioned with business as usual – but in which voters are still seeking answers. If the media can give them more than soggy old soundbites, they should be rewarded.

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 09 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue 2015

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.