PR is so un-British

Our media are wedded to first-past-the-post because it makes for a great front page and somehow capt

Irish general elections don't tend to attract much attention in the British press, but when they do, you may count on one thing: the coverage, even in upmarket ­papers, will include references to the "complicated", and often the "fiendishly complicated", electoral system - something these papers never even attempt to explain to their readers.

I am Irish by background and I confess I take pleasure in the notion that a process which is run-of-the-mill to Irish people, and with which they have coped happily for the best part of a century, is supposed to be far too complicated for British newspaper readers to comprehend.

The British media have no enthusiasm for, or interest in, electoral reform and the reasons for this are also, no doubt, complicated. Although they extend some way beyond the stupidity of journalists or the presumed stupidity of their readers, these factors should not be overlooked. First-past-the-post may have few virtues, but even the most passionate British Liberal Democrat has to concede that it is terribly, terribly simple.

Not only does the voter perform the ­sacred democratic rite by writing an X - the mark of the illiterate - but the ballot papers are so crude that even illiterates could count them, and the result is out in no time. The only thing more simple is not to bother having elections at all.

Consider now the challenge for editors and journalists of dealing with, say, the single transferable vote. First, they would have to understand it themselves and, as readers of Ben Goldacre's Bad Science columns in the Guardian will know, ­numeracy is a strong point of the trade. Then they would have to share this hard-won knowledge with their readers. Dear me, how dull. All those numbers, and so abstract and pedagogic ("candidate E then receives 142 transferred votes from the eliminated candidate G, but is still short of the quota by 73 votes, so . . ."). You can imagine the editor wincing at the prospect and asking in desperation: "Has Prince Edward done anything interesting lately?"

Next is the delay with the election result. It can be two or even three days before Ireland is able to tell the world the outcome of its elections - clearly unfair on anyone working to normal news deadlines. Transfer that to British elections, and the news media fear a sort of political coitus interruptus: all that pumping and sweating in the build-up to polling day, and then . . . nothing.

Punch and Judy . . . and PR

Hard though it may be for British readers to believe, the Irish actually enjoy the ­delay. They like the way candidates are made to suffer and wait until the voters' verdict is exposed in all its glory, and they love the vagaries of a system which can produce the unexpected.

I recall an old newspaper cartoon showing a despondent young man boarding a train, clearly bound for the building sites of England. His mother is running along the platform shouting: "Michael! Michael! You don't have to go! By a miracle of PR you were elected on the 34th count!"

And what about the outcomes of PR elections? I suspect that many editors and journalists, deep in their viscera, feel an utter terror at the fairer, calmer politics that PR would probably bring. Punch and Judy make good copy; Punch and Judy and Nick Clegg isn't quite the same. And Punch and Judy and Nick Clegg and Alex Salmond is a dreadful lot of phone calls to make and press conferences to attend.

PR may be indisputably more democratic, but there is no denying that it would change the political culture, a culture of which our news media are, equally indisputably, a part. They moan about political deals made in smoke-filled rooms, supposedly the inevitable consequence of PR. No doubt this fear is sincere: while the politicians are busy filling the room with smoke, after all, the journalists would be outside drumming their fingers.

But closed-door meetings aren't the exclusive preserve of PR politics. When Tony Blair struck his deal with Paddy Ashdown before the 1997 election (the one he failed to keep), did he do so in public? No. Does David Cameron invite the press into every shadow cabinet meeting? No. In the end, I suspect the principal reason the British news media have so little time for PR is not to do with stupidity or fear of the unknown or love of unnecessary drama, but something altogether bigger and sadder. They know their public.

First-past-the-post is like the pound, the mile and driving on the left - fundamentally inconvenient and, internationally speaking, eccentric, but also familiar, part of the heritage and, for better or worse, British. Most editors believe - and they are usually right about these things - that most of their readers feel that way most of the time, and they see no advantage in upsetting them.
Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University