Broadcasters must be more robust to tackle multiparty Britain

This was the campaign that saw the network media recognition of smaller parties - and they weren't quite prepared.

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There will soon be shedloads of empirical research about this campaign, and the broadcasters will have their seminars about what went right and what went wrong as they trudge their way towards the next set of elections. But if I had the misfortune still to be stuck in those cheerless meeting rooms, there are items I’d want to be on the agenda based on a personal and subjective view of what we’ve just witnessed.

This was the campaign that saw the network media recognition of multiparty Britain. In previous elections there had been a tight focus on the three biggest parties, and it was refreshing to get a wider range of opinions that reflected more people in the UK. And yet there is a difference between a fair hearing for smaller parties and over-­representation, especially in the biggest events, which can distort the election outcome. My instinct is that an early mistake was made by adding Ukip to the list of major parties. It’s all very well talking about opinion-poll performance and European elections, but media representation has historically been based on the House of Commons – where Ukip won no seats in 2010.

Once you lost the anchor of the composition of the Commons and the 88 per cent of the vote won by the big three in 2010, and started looking at the transient polls and by-elections instead, the appearance of Ukip in the plans for leaders’ debates understandably provoked a challenge from the Greens and the nationalists. Although the Conservatives never really wanted debates at all, and were at times simply obstructive, they were right that allowing in only Ukip would have been unfair.

So, that then led to Plaid Cymru, which had entered the campaign with three MPs and only 165,000 votes, having two UK-wide debate appearances on a status equal with Ed Miliband’s. There would have been an unfairness in Wales in excluding them altogether; but the outcome felt disproportionate, and it particularly weighted the scales against Miliband in the contenders’ encounter. At least one senior broadcaster I spoke to is expressing unease at nationalist parties getting such prolonged network exposure in the debate series and, arguably, disrupting the overall balance of coverage.

There was also some injustice to Northern Ireland. I was one of the people who argued against the Irish parties being at the top table because I could see no way of including the DUP without featuring all the other contenders there, too, and 12-way debates would have been impossible. But, leaving aside the lack of visibility that annoyed Ulster voters, it slewed the UK campaign. Labour was asked endlessly about an SNP alliance, while the scarcity of DUP ­appearances helped the Tories avoid challenges about a deal with a party that has some startling views about social issues.

The broadcasters probably ended up being over-kind to the SNP. It was right that they were in at least one of the debates, and given full attention on BBC Scotland and STV, but it’s not clear why Nicola Sturgeon was granted additional UK set-piece interview slots when she could be voted for only in Scotland. There was an additional problem in the news bulletins where the SNP clips were almost entirely on their favoured territory about the power they would wield in a hung parliament. They were seldom heard talking about policy or defending their own record in government in Edinburgh. Across the board, there was too much chatter about what would happen after the election compared with coverage of manifesto issues.

The television campaign most came alive when it focused on the choice of who would be prime minister: the highlights were the Channel 4/Sky interviews with David Cam­eron and Ed Miliband, and the BBC Question Time that added Nick Clegg into that mix. It was particularly cheering to see what a difference it made having a passionate audience in Yorkshire, fuelled by the sense that they were taking part in something which mattered. That is why the broadcasters were right when they tried to protect as many of those defining moments as possible. The success of the highest-visibility Jeremy Paxman and David Dimbleby programmes underlines why executives should resist the argument in future that every debate has to feature everyone.

What the broadcasters need to preserve is their right to make judgements – in the way they construct the framework of the campaign as well as in their journalism. They have a public-service obligation to reflect democracy in action, but they shouldn’t shy away from making choices based on the evidence. It doesn’t do anybody any favours, least of all Natalie Bennett, to pretend that the Greens will be in government; or that we need to spend much time discussing Ukip’s policy on higher education. But with this comes an obligation to be more transparent about decision-making. It still hasn’t been properly explained why the Lib Dems were not in the contenders’ debate, and there was the mystery of why Nigel Farage got his own mini-Question Time when that was not part of the announced plans.

Fortunately for the broadcasters, though, the final lesson is about the indispensability of the old battalions. For all the partisan huff-and-puff of the press, and despite the hyping of digital and social media, it was most often network television and radio that drove the agenda. In this lacklustre campaign, that wasn’t always a blessing.

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 appears in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle