The "challengers" TV debate. Photo: Ken McKay/ITV via Getty Images
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Broadcasters must be more robust to tackle multiparty Britain

This was the campaign that saw the network media recognition of smaller parties - and they weren't quite prepared.

There will soon be shedloads of empirical research about this campaign, and the broadcasters will have their seminars about what went right and what went wrong as they trudge their way towards the next set of elections. But if I had the misfortune still to be stuck in those cheerless meeting rooms, there are items I’d want to be on the agenda based on a personal and subjective view of what we’ve just witnessed.

This was the campaign that saw the network media recognition of multiparty Britain. In previous elections there had been a tight focus on the three biggest parties, and it was refreshing to get a wider range of opinions that reflected more people in the UK. And yet there is a difference between a fair hearing for smaller parties and over-­representation, especially in the biggest events, which can distort the election outcome. My instinct is that an early mistake was made by adding Ukip to the list of major parties. It’s all very well talking about opinion-poll performance and European elections, but media representation has historically been based on the House of Commons – where Ukip won no seats in 2010.

Once you lost the anchor of the composition of the Commons and the 88 per cent of the vote won by the big three in 2010, and started looking at the transient polls and by-elections instead, the appearance of Ukip in the plans for leaders’ debates understandably provoked a challenge from the Greens and the nationalists. Although the Conservatives never really wanted debates at all, and were at times simply obstructive, they were right that allowing in only Ukip would have been unfair.

So, that then led to Plaid Cymru, which had entered the campaign with three MPs and only 165,000 votes, having two UK-wide debate appearances on a status equal with Ed Miliband’s. There would have been an unfairness in Wales in excluding them altogether; but the outcome felt disproportionate, and it particularly weighted the scales against Miliband in the contenders’ encounter. At least one senior broadcaster I spoke to is expressing unease at nationalist parties getting such prolonged network exposure in the debate series and, arguably, disrupting the overall balance of coverage.

There was also some injustice to Northern Ireland. I was one of the people who argued against the Irish parties being at the top table because I could see no way of including the DUP without featuring all the other contenders there, too, and 12-way debates would have been impossible. But, leaving aside the lack of visibility that annoyed Ulster voters, it slewed the UK campaign. Labour was asked endlessly about an SNP alliance, while the scarcity of DUP ­appearances helped the Tories avoid challenges about a deal with a party that has some startling views about social issues.

The broadcasters probably ended up being over-kind to the SNP. It was right that they were in at least one of the debates, and given full attention on BBC Scotland and STV, but it’s not clear why Nicola Sturgeon was granted additional UK set-piece interview slots when she could be voted for only in Scotland. There was an additional problem in the news bulletins where the SNP clips were almost entirely on their favoured territory about the power they would wield in a hung parliament. They were seldom heard talking about policy or defending their own record in government in Edinburgh. Across the board, there was too much chatter about what would happen after the election compared with coverage of manifesto issues.

The television campaign most came alive when it focused on the choice of who would be prime minister: the highlights were the Channel 4/Sky interviews with David Cam­eron and Ed Miliband, and the BBC Question Time that added Nick Clegg into that mix. It was particularly cheering to see what a difference it made having a passionate audience in Yorkshire, fuelled by the sense that they were taking part in something which mattered. That is why the broadcasters were right when they tried to protect as many of those defining moments as possible. The success of the highest-visibility Jeremy Paxman and David Dimbleby programmes underlines why executives should resist the argument in future that every debate has to feature everyone.

What the broadcasters need to preserve is their right to make judgements – in the way they construct the framework of the campaign as well as in their journalism. They have a public-service obligation to reflect democracy in action, but they shouldn’t shy away from making choices based on the evidence. It doesn’t do anybody any favours, least of all Natalie Bennett, to pretend that the Greens will be in government; or that we need to spend much time discussing Ukip’s policy on higher education. But with this comes an obligation to be more transparent about decision-making. It still hasn’t been properly explained why the Lib Dems were not in the contenders’ debate, and there was the mystery of why Nigel Farage got his own mini-Question Time when that was not part of the announced plans.

Fortunately for the broadcasters, though, the final lesson is about the indispensability of the old battalions. For all the partisan huff-and-puff of the press, and despite the hyping of digital and social media, it was most often network television and radio that drove the agenda. In this lacklustre campaign, that wasn’t always a blessing.

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 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder