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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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”