This was going to be the digital election, the flowering of politics for the internet age. The campaign started with high expectations among the broadcasters, as their satellite trucks fanned out across the country and the new platforms and shiny graphics were readied for the most closely fought battle in a generation.
And then they ran into the controlled and defensive campaigns run by all the major parties and “shiny” rapidly turned to “dull”. The election began to sink in the running order of the bulletins and we heard some introductions beginning with: “The party leaders were on the campaign trail today…” – which is a sure sign that nothing has happened and there isn’t really any story to report. The tragedies in the Mediterranean and the earthquake in Nepal rightly dominated the news instead and, at times, the 2015 election didn’t even make one of the lesser headlines.
In rejecting the broadcasters’ plans for debates, David Cameron said that in 2010 they had sucked the life out of the campaign. Now a campaign with fewer debates is exposed for what it is: one with a photo opportunity for the Prime Minister and Boris Johnson doing a jigsaw with children, and a similar aversion to unplanned encounters with the public from Labour and the Liberal Democrats. The removal of televised morning news conferences nullifies the chance of a coherent journalistic story emerging, which is why the parties got rid of them. At a local level, the hustings culture seems alive and intense in many constituencies; but that engagement isn’t carried through to the national campaign that we witness on the flagship TV and radio programmes.
Even as a political obsessive, I have reached for the remote control during the television news – preferring the off switch to another clump of anaesthetising soundbites and feeling the lack of enough Nick Robinson to cheer up the nation. Dispiritingly, the closeness of this race has made the parties take even fewer risks.
For the broadcasters, the commitment to a huge volume of coverage has therefore begun to feel overstretched. The long set-piece leader interviews in particular have delivered a low return on the investment in them. They have been OK and there has been the odd flicker of illumination but few memorable news lines.
The BBC has a particular problem because of its huge reach and its army of programmes; so both BBC News and BBC2 broadcasted an hour-long Radio 1 Newsbeat debate from Birmingham on 21 April in which the Tories were represented by Paul Uppal and Labour put up Emma Reynolds. No, me neither.
It is frustrating because the public – especially the younger voters targeted by Newsbeat – deserves better than what the parties are offering them. There is some culpability among the broadcasters for not devising formats in their peak schedules that engage and enlighten their audiences, irrespective of whether the main parties choose to be involved. It can be done. Channel 4 has an advantage over the BBC and ITV in that it is more of an insurgent – going for the high-profile raid rather than a sustained war – but it has used its position well. In the run-up to the campaign, Ukip: the First 100 Days was a provocation as much as a drama documentary but it had huge talkability; likewise James Graham’s Coalition, the sparky reconstruction of the Cameron-Clegg pact in 2010, which was transmitted at the end of March. On election night, More4 has a live broadcast from the Donmar Warehouse in London of Graham’s The Vote, a play set at a polling station. Channel 4 has also done a good job with comedy. Ballot Monkeys, filmed aboard mock battle buses, is funny and topical in a way that Newzoids on ITV is not; and The Last Leg has, however improbably, had success in getting an audience to laugh along with Nick Clegg. BBC2 is also having a go at comedy with outings for Jack Dee, Charlie Brooker and Rory Bremner.
The obvious gaps here remain in genres from factual entertainment to high-end current affairs. It’s a reminder that innovation isn’t simply about more and more digital iterations of core content: if the parties churn out the same soundbites, the broadcasters run the risk of merely delivering the same drab stuff in a different way. Whether the next election is months away, or the statutory five years, the coverage will have to be rethought if this is the way the parties choose to play their campaigns. There is an obligation on the media to fill the void left by cynical political game-playing. It is also increasingly clear that the media must provide the platforms for the debate about the future of the United Kingdom and its governance in a more compelling way than putting hypothetical questions in interviews about votes in a hung parliament.
In the meantime, we should welcome innovation where we find it. Following the BBC’s insights into its editorial meetings as part of its Democracy Day, Sky is taking the idea a step further on 7 May with Election Newsroom Live – a broadcast on Sky Arts that will show the decision-making behind the results programme on Sky News, including interviews with editors about the choices they are making. Perhaps next time round they could deconstruct some of the campaign coverage in real time, too, to hold to account broadcasters and, more importantly, the politicians.
Roger Mosey is Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a former BBC executive