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11 June 2001

The BBC still managed a landslide victory

Election Night Television - Andrew Billen on how a Dimbleby got muddled and the Bell suit c

By Andrew Billen

The were-you-still-up-for-Portillo moment came tolerably early. At 1.45am, Peter Mandelson, sporting a boy band fringe, delivered his mad aria to the puzzled vote counters of Hartlepool. “I am back,” he ranted, “on the political map.” They said his career was in tatters, those enemies of his, but “they” had undervalued Hartlepool and undervalued him, undervalued his “inner steel”, and on and on until, at last, in the studio, David Dimbleby asked Andrew Marr, the BBC’s political editor, what he made of it all. “I have never heard a speech like it,” Marr replied as neutrally as possible. “He thinks he is one of the reasons Labour got this victory” – as opposed to one of the reasons Labour did not get a majority of 350.

Marr, who in less than a year has proved himself the best political editor the BBC has ever had, was not consulted nearly enough, mainly because he had to share the long end of a triangular desk not only with Anthony King, the Canadian who succeeded the Canadian Bob Mackenzie, but Alison Park of the National Centre for Social Research. Much had been made of having a woman in the studio (as if Sue Lawley, Anna Ford et al had not popped up in such studios 25 years ago), but Park was the wrong one to choose. When Dimbleby noted with horror that the British National Party had won 11 and 16 per cent of the votes in Oldham’s two constituencies, she breathily remarked that lots of small parties were doing well. You could almost hear the crash as a ton of bricks landed on her.

It was never going to be a patch on last time – still less last year’s knife-edged American fiasco. King, who four years ago dismissed “landslide” as an inadequate metaphor and announced that the result was like an asteroid hitting the earth, palely reminded us that the Tories were still “up in the asteroid belt”. Jeremy Paxman, up on the upper floor of the BBC’s set, had nothing to equal “Ready to drink hemlock yet?”

But Paxman did press on, largely in vain, to divide his Tory interviewees between those who would publicly bash William Hague and those who counselled a decent period of mourning before doing so. From the Hague home, Huw Edwards told us (a) that he was “optimistic” and (b), four hours later, that he had conceded defeat.

It was all so much more elaborate than in the days of old. In 1979, ITN’s election studio boasted 100 TV monitors and outside broadcast cameras at 19 locations around the country. This time, the BBC was running 300 monitors and had 200 cameras out in the field. But, with so many feeds to choose from, the editors on all the channels still managed to miss the good bits. Humiliatingly, Jonathan Dimbleby, in his second attempt to compete for the title of natural Dimbleby anchor, had to hear from Estelle Morris herself that she had held Birmingham Yardley; he also missed Richard Taylor’s sensational win at Wyre Forest, which Jonathan seemed to believe was near Chesterfield. The BBC by now actually had Chesterfield’s ex-MP, Tony Benn, in Paxman’s cockpit. Benn rued Blair’s “error” in setting up a “new party” called new Labour.

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Nevertheless, ITN produced a good, expensive-looking programme for the commercial network and discovered a real chemistry between Jonathan D and its wise steal from the BBC, John Sergeant. It declared Blair the winner 20 minutes before the BBC did at 3am, but then, as Sky News’s linkman, the untiring Adam Boulton, explained to a gloating Lord Falconer, that was because ITV has the disreputable habit of issuing results before they are announced. In its entirely virtual studio, Sky News was almost a perfect alternative to the terrestrial services, although Boulton of all people should know that results captions should include the swing as well as the proportion of votes cast.

For the first time after six outings as BBC anchorman, the senior Dimbleby began to look tired and confused about quite important facts such as who had called whom “a thug”. He is still the best anchorman in Britain. And in its authority, the clarity and imagination of its graphics – and above all in Paxman – the BBC enjoyed its usual landslide victory over the opposition.

Which images will remain stained on the retina? The skinhead reps of the BNP. Martin Bell’s suit, in defeat at Brentwood and Ongar, more crumpled than white. Blair, giving a good impression that somehow the electorate had taught him a lesson rather than invited him to a second coronation. Michael Ancram, speaking dead slowly in front of an ashtray. Charles Kennedy, with the look of a man who does not know what he did right. Hague, at last looking the age a potential PM should be, just at the moment when he must have known he never would be.

And we, the viewers and voters, as the great Alastair Burnet once said, had done it all to them.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

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