Earlier this year, I was a judge for the Royal Television Society’s regional journalism awards. There was a surprising common factor among the entries in the Best Presenter category: pretty much all of them featured an interview with David Cameron. He perched himself on a sofa in Salford for the news in the north, appeared live from an outside broadcast in the West Country and displayed expert knowledge of improvements to the A14 on the BBC’s Look East.
This was not a phenomenon of the imminent general election. BBC local radio websites show activity throughout the parliament. In November 2012, Radio Lincolnshire was advertising a double bill: “David Cameron and Matt Baker from The One Show will be on Melvyn in the Morning.” In July 2013, he was on Radio Leeds. “David Cameron gives you SEVEN reasons why you shouldn’t be too glum about things,” proclaimed the station’s Facebook page, before he headed off to Radio Merseyside, Radio Manchester and more. Other parties do the same – Nick Clegg, for example, has developed a useful profile on LBC – and these stations are as much bound by the need to be politically balanced as their bigger network colleagues. But I’m told that Downing Street and the Conservative campaign remain particularly well organised in regional and local broadcasting strategy; and I’m sure that no other serving prime minister has popped up on those stations quite so often. Margaret Thatcher certainly didn’t when I was working in local radio.
Partly this reflects the two campaigns in this election. There’s the national one, obsessively watched by inhabitants of the Westminster bubble, and there’s the ground war, in which a party leader’s chat on local radio can be a useful supplement to the constituency effort. Regional TV has the additional advantage of getting the biggest news audiences of the day and of reaching voters who would never watch Channel 4 News or Question Time. Hence politicians’ eagerness in this campaign to subject themselves to panels of voters on Look North and equivalents elsewhere on the BBC and ITV.
It is not right to imagine that these are always an easy ride. But this strategy is lower-risk than appearances in the 8.10am slot on the Today programme and infinitely less of a gamble than Ed Miliband’s agreement to take part in the “challengers’ debate” on BBC1 on 16 April. Most of the local appearances stay below the radar – unless, like Miliband, you’re unfortunate enough not to recognise the name of Labour’s leader for Swindon when appearing on Radio Wiltshire. Because of the potential for free hits in the more relaxed parts of its output, the BBC monitors closely where party leaders are giving interviews. Its 2015 guidelines confirm that all bids for political leader interviews and offers from the parties must be referred to the chief political adviser.
An additional feature of this campaign has been the way that the softer interview has spread into the more mainstream news programming. The highest-profile was James Landale’s series of films for BBC News that took Nigel Farage on a ferry trip to Europe, Ed Miliband into one of his kitchens, Nick Clegg to see his mum and David Cameron to his son’s football match. The series was justified by the scoop about Cameron not running for a third term and it was generally a good watch: there’s no harm in some light and shade within bulletins. A similar approach is being pursued by ITV’s Tonight programme, with half-hour profiles of the leaders at peak time. “He is a father, a family man, a husband with many things on his mind,” it told us about Cameron. Tom Bradby and a film crew found him up and working in Downing Street at 5.45am, a fortunate antidote to the “chillaxing” image.
The balance is just about defensible: the local strategy and the soft-focus domestic portraits are balanced by debates and set-piece interview programmes. It was, however, striking that so many people thought it was a rare event to see Cameron and Miliband subjected to a high-profile grilling on TV; and the debates are a flimsier affair than in 2010, as confirmed by the absence of Cameron and Clegg from the challengers’ debate. If we’re not to risk further personalisation and Americanisation of our politics, there needs to be vigilance in ensuring that the more challenging formats remain.
It is also incumbent on the serious interviewers to use their time wisely when they have a politician in their studio. I’m finding the process questions less rewarding than the policy ones. Political anoraks are transfixed by the permutations of a hung parliament and that leads to the grilling of Tories about deals with Ukip, or of Labour about partnerships with the SNP. I can now chant their answers about “only thinking about a majority government” in perfect harmony and I hear the echoes of many pointless interviews with the Lib Dems over the years about which way they might jump in a hung parliament. None of those interviews ever gave a glimpse of the Tory-Lib Dem government that we actually got in 2010.
This time round, by all means explore – in the more specialist programmes – the red lines that politicians say they might have. But connecting election politics to the voters will be achieved by talking about the issues they care about and not by exploring the multiple scenarios that may face us after polling day. We’ve had quite enough kitchens for now, too.
Roger Mosey is Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a former BBC executive