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  1. Politics
5 July 2024

The highs and lows of election night coverage

The principal broadcasters were professional but slow to report results as they unfolded.

By Roger Mosey

These are the programmes that record history and live forever in the archives. After a banal and frustrating campaign, the broadcasters threw everything they had into election night – and they offered viewers and listeners more choice than ever before. It was the election when the BBC patriarchy – the decades of David Dimbleby and then Huw Edwards – gave way to a new generation; and when Channel 4 made an audacious raid into the corporation’s territory. It was also an opportunity, if you ventured over to GB News, to experience 2024’s historic result from a raucous watch party in Essex, where presenters were pulling pints at the bar. This was unique, and not in a good way.

The principal broadcasters shared a customary professionalism. But they were interchangeable – almost everything could have appeared on any channel (except for the unsettling response to the surge of Reform on GB News). But they were also noticeably slower than social media: if you followed the right people, the emerging narrative was found first on Twitter. For some reason the broadcasters dwelled for a long time on the exit poll, and were strangely reluctant to bring in the actual results as the unfolded. Take for example Barnsley North: the exit poll predicted this as a Reform gain, but Labour won it comfortably. Why was the expected tally of 13 seats for Reform (three times more than they won) on the screen for hours?

My small focus group of former broadcast executives voted from their sofas for Sky News as best for analysis, thanks largely to Ed Conway. “Sharper, quicker and more engaging”, said one old hand from the BBC. I was less convinced by some of Sky’s studio operation: the set was distractingly busy; early on there were too many different people asking long and windy questions; and they couldn’t help but talk over each other.

Channel 4 started like an express train with Krishnan Guru-Murthy and Emily Maitlis at the controls. They were the most engaging and spirited presentation team. But they crashed into an obstruction on the line in the form of their panel member Nadine Dorries. Her truculence, which was speedily matched in the studio by Alastair Campbell, reduced politics to the pettily personal. In its early stretches, Channel 4 suffered from overstuffing the show. Other Tories – Kwasi Kwarteng and Nadhim Zahawi – were there too. The studio had an audience, none of whom said anything remotely of interest. Things looked up when Dorries disappeared and the programme focused on Campbell and his podcast partner Rory Stewart along with the wise correspondent Gary Gibbon.

By contrast, ITV gave a generous platform throughout to the rival team of podcasters George Osborne and Ed Balls, both excellent readers of the political game, who were supplemented by Nicola Sturgeon. “ITV was more serious and more established than most of the others,” texted one former television controller, adding “though lacking diversity”. In the ageing white male politician stakes, Osborne and Balls were well ahead of Peter Mandelson on the BBC.

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The BBC took advantage of its scale by getting around the United Kingdom, with a bold and welcome commitment to the nations. Jeremy Vine’s map and swingometer, located in Cardiff, were a hoot and won by a mile the award for best graphics. But the corporation’s coverage, delivered through an irritating split screen, didn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts. In particular, the combination of Laura Kuenssberg and Clive Myrie as presenters was an uncertain one. Kuenssberg might, in the event, have been better on her own because she thrives on the minutiae of politics, and this was her World Cup final. Myrie, an affable host, rose to eminence by being a brilliant foreign correspondent, and I sensed that he would much rather have been in Kyiv or Jerusalem than having to ask about the swing in Northampton North. At times he was bypassed by Kuenssberg’s interactions with political editor Chris Mason. Industry colleagues weren’t captivated by the corporation’s performance: “The BBC seemed more like a challenger brand than the incumbent heavyweight”, said one.

It was a different story on BBC Radio. Nick Robinson and Rachel Burden were easy and warm together, and James Naughtie added his incomparable insight into Scottish politics. Henry Zeffman, their main commentator, is a political correspondent with a big future. I heard good reports about LBC and Times Radio too.

Radio remains the more intelligent medium, because it tells the story simply but vividly. And, as we enter a new political era, all the coverage across multiple platforms reminded us that the real job begins again now. The new government must, like all others, be held to account; and audiences will be unforgiving if public media political coverage fails to rise to that challenge.

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