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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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