If there’s one thing the election debates have failed to do it’s to capture the depth and range of opinion of the voters. The row instigated by Nigel Farage about the BBC audience for the so-called challengers’ debate focused on whether some opinions were applauded more than others, which is a sign of just how uncontroversial the public’s appearances have been in those events so far. What we’ve had is polite people putting polite questions, and the ITV leaders’ debate in Salford was so well organised that for most of the transmission you hardly knew there was an audience at all. It was therefore more reassuring than alarming that the people assembled by the BBC at Central Hall in Westminster occasionally proved that they hadn’t dozed off.
For these big events, broadcasters want to be fair but they also know that the parties would be unforgiving if a debate generated an awkward encounter between politician and public – of which the classic remains Diana Gould’s televised interrogation of Margaret Thatcher about the sinking of the Belgrano during the 1983 campaign. But this desire to avoid ruffling feathers seems to be the instinct when the public is allowed to speak in the most viewed news bulletins, too. The BBC has been running a series entitled “My Election”, which features voters from around the country, and it is pleasant viewing – but it seems to focus on nice people doing picturesque things, whether it’s going for walks in the Peak District expressing mild worries about planning or bantering amiably at their fishmonger’s stall.
Vox pops, as they are universally known in newsrooms, are a staple element of many reports year round. Even outside a campaign, they tend to be rigidly balanced – so an interviewee in the street who thinks the NHS is marvellous will be followed by one who thinks it needs improvement. It perks up a piece otherwise full of talking heads but it is seldom illuminating. In campaign reporting, I was struck by the blandness of many of the vox pops featured in the run-up to the Scottish referendum. There was the battle you could witness being fought on social media, with its raw emotion and at times brutality, and then the standard Yes/No fodder that appeared in the flagship news programmes.
I had a similar insight at the recent Lincoln parliamentary hustings at Bishop Grosseteste University. There was a passion that gets squeezed out of a lot of the broadcasting, whether it’s the commitment to issues close to students’ hearts or the anger at a disenfranchising political system. This is of a piece with some views that are underplayed in the media: a report for the BBC Trust in 2013 identified the relative absence from the airwaves of the case being made for the renationalisation of the energy companies or for active trade unionism – opinions held by millions on the left – or for private education and more private health care from the right. Equally, we seldom see people of faith engaging in the highest-profile political debates, and my guess is that the producers would run a mile from a devout Christian or Muslim putting a question based on belief.
This doesn’t mean that the broadcasters aren’t trying to reflect the country in this campaign. The geographical range remains impressive, and radio – with its greater flexibility – can let the people speak at greater length. It also doesn’t mean good practice is absent from television. BBC3’s Free Speech programmes have been lively; and within the more constrained bulletins I’ve been taken by Joey Jones’s pieces on Sky News where he lets viewers into his confidence about how his grass-roots reporting is done. Sometimes an item is shot with two cameras to show the filming taking place, and he tells us when he hits a problem. He struggled to find a Labour vox pop in Ipswich, he tells us, and people in Perth were cagey: “…not once in my trips to marginal seats over recent weeks has it been so hard to engage voters in political conversation”. Jones avoids the standard trap of pay-offs that say it’s now up to the voters or only time will tell: he leaves you with a judgement based on his experience.
More broadly, what we see happening in this campaign is the intersection of the old broadcasting world and the digital future. The web and social media are unregulated, which is both liberating and at times unsettling. The broadcasters are regulated in a way that ensures impartiality, but risks overpoliteness and homogeneity. Given that the established media still dominate consumption, and that fairness to all parties is a democratic obligation, it would be a mistake to rip up the rules and let anything go; but the broadcasters should take more risks with opinions that challenge established thinking and grab your attention. They should aim for conclusions as well as reportage.
I know that if I’d still been at the BBC, I’d have raised questions about the audience at the Central Hall debate; and I’m sure executives will be crawling over the invitation list for the Question Time specials with the party leaders next week. But now I’m outside I can see the greater virtue in letting the people speak and react as they see fit; and we should trust the audience at home to make their own mind up about what they observe. If the electorate is mature enough to choose a government, it can be a vigorous and wise part of the campaign, too.
Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a former BBC executive