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29 September 2014updated 05 Oct 2023 8:35am

It’s time to modernise TV election coverage

Channel 4 bosses have chosen Jeremy Paxman as host of its general election coverage, highlighting how this area of broadcast is still dominated by older men.

By Tom Watson

The rebel in me enjoyed the announcement that Jeremy Paxman would be fronting Channel 4’s election night coverage. 

I love Channel 4 News. The team are contrarian, often swimming against the media tide. And they’re dogged in their pursuit of stories without seeming “worthy”. Yet the announcement has been gnawing away at me for over a week. I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Then it hit me.

You don’t have to be a posh sounding older bloke to be a TV anchor in an election but, oh wait a minute, you do. TV news, specifically the senior political reporting roles is, with notable exceptions, a white man’s profession, usually a posh-sounding middle class man.

I can see the corporate affairs people at the channels shielding themselves behind their Emily Maitlises and Kay Burleys, but when it comes to elections they play secondary roles to the men sitting in the seats in front of camera. And sitting next to the men in the centre seat will be an small army of academics and pollsters, most of them middle class white men too. John Curtice, Philip Cowley, Colin Rallings, Peter Kellner and Bob Worcester – all brilliant, all men.

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TV election coverage is stuck in the 1950s. They’ve got rid of the mechanical swingometer but the basic format hasn’t changed: fatherly male holding the show together with an array of clever men providing analysis and “tough” interviews with winning and losing politicians.

Professional women reporters get the secondary roles of broadcasting from interesting counts and providing vox pop interviews that add the colour to the show. If they’re lucky, professional female reporters will get to give a studio update on the results to the TV audience. 

Does this sound harsh? Maybe. But imagine election night TV with Martha Kearney, Cathy Newman and Kay Burley anchoring the programmes. It would be a completely different look and feel to election night.

You probably can’t imagine it, though, because it’s not going to happen. We have 75-year-old David Dimbleby (BBC), 62-year-old Alastair Stewart (ITV), and now 64-year-old Jeremy Paxman (Channel 4). I’m not sure what Sky will be doing on election night but suspect the fight for the main seat will be between Adam Boulton and Dermot Murnaghan.

I’m also not being ageist here, I want more older people on telly. Yet it is almost always only older men that get in front of the camera, as the brave Miriam O’Reilly has proved. 

I love all these men, particularly Dimbleby and Paxman – they take me back to childhood, when politics was beginning to arouse my curiosity. I love Bagpuss and The Clangers too but Children’s BBC has a markedly different format and content to the days of Watch With MotherTV election coverage needs modernising. Accepting women should play leadership roles is an important part of the required reforms.

I feel guilty writing this article. Alastair Stewart is a legend and he embraces social media better than any other TV anchor. I don’t want to put poor Alistair out of work but I suspect he knows that the all male club that runs TV election coverage needs a shake up. As things stand, if the TV leaders debates ever take place, they’ll be chaired by men too. It’s men, men, men. All men.

We may be too late to change the hot seat for election night coverage but not for the election leaders debates. The shortlist for hosting the leaders debates is probably: David Dimbleby, Jonathan Dimbleby, Huw Edwards, Andrew Neil, Alastair Stewart, Jeremy Paxman, Gary Gibbon, Nick Robinson, Tom Bradby and Norman Smith.

Contrast this list to the alternatives: Cathy Newman, Martha Kearney, Emily Maitliss, Julie Etchingham, Kay Burley, Laura Kuenssberg, Sophie Raworth, Kirsty Wark and Carolyn Quinn.

When you read them, you see just what a difference more women in TV will make to the look, feel, language and tone of election night coverage.

TV controllers you have nothing to lose but the men men in grey suits. Please modernise TV election coverage.

This piece originally appeared on Medium.

Related content: 

50 years of election nights on the BBC [Video]

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