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  1. Politics
2 July 2024

The media’s bad election campaign

The BBC in particular should not have indulged in such policy-light reporting.

By Roger Mosey

Neither the politicians nor the broadcasters have distinguished themselves in this election campaign. They proclaimed that the nation faces big decisions in a complicated world, but have spent their time obsessing about polls and process and the kind of trivia that alienates voters. Journalists working for traditional organisations scorned the anger and disinformation that dominates social media, and yet they played the game: Twitter too often set the agenda and tone for daily coverage. One former head of a major broadcaster puts it bluntly: “The election has been stupid because politicians and hacks connive in keeping it that way.”

When the conventional media did have its breakthroughs it tended to be the kind of stuff that pushes the audience towards the “repost” button. It was Beth Rigby on Sky News who first skewered Keir Starmer on his past support for Jeremy Corbyn, and ITV’s Paul Brand who elicited the hard-luck story from Rishi Sunak about his lack of satellite TV as a child. Nick Robinson provided a significant intervention by uncovering Nigel Farage’s soft spot for Vladimir Putin. These were enterprising moments from interviewers. But too often the bulletins defaulted to the easy options. The BBC’s Chris Mason had exclusives on the Downing Street betting scandal, but the corporation then lost its mind by abandoning any sense of proportion. The low point was when the Today programme interviewed the Conservative and Labour work and pensions spokespeople entirely about the ethics of betting and not at all about the welfare policies (which will be an enormous issue for the new government).

The conventional media operated too much as one. As Boris Johnson said, in a different context, “The herd instinct is powerful and when the herd moves, it moves.” So the credulous herd clattered off to Clacton to promote the Farage coup in the Reform Party, and then eagerly monitored the polls for the first sign of Reform overtaking the Conservatives. This has a real impact on the campaign. With a week to go, the media belatedly decided that Reform was full of dodgy people.

The overall result was what one experienced former editor describes as “a woeful lack of in-depth analysis of the issues. Hardly anything about foreign affairs, Labour’s attitude to a Trump presidency and their view on Europe or their stance on Israel.” You can add to that list climate change, social care, the crisis in prisons and the justice system – all of which are of far more significance to the people of this country than a candidate placing a bet.

The BBC has a particular responsibility here. Its charter requires it not to provide merely an average news service but to ensure that audiences can engage in the democratic process by offering “a range and depth of analysis and content not widely available from other United Kingdom news providers”. It did a decent job locally and regionally, but it is hard to see how the BBC has achieved this in its flagship network programmes. It even cut back the running time of Newsnight when the election was called.

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The stakes are therefore higher than usual for the corporation on election night itself. Coverage of the campaigns over the decades may have been variable, but at 10pm on polling day the nation has traditionally turned to the BBC and stayed with David Dimbleby or, later, Huw Edwards as the results unfolded. This time the BBC faces unprecedented competition, and it has been forced by the departure of Edwards into taking a gamble. Its anchor team will be a double-header of Clive Myrie and Laura Kuenssberg – both estimable in their own way, of course, but Myrie made his name as a foreign correspondent while Kuenssberg has had her own show as an anchor for less than two years. They have never presented together except for an appearance on BBC1 from the Nottingham debate spin room. It was not an automatic choice: I would have given the programme to Mishal Husain, who combines authority with political expertise and, as she showed in the leaders’ debates, never fails in the tasks she is given.

In contrast to the new pair on the BBC, ITV has Tom Bradby, who has done this sort of thing before; and supplementing his regular panel of George Osborne and Ed Balls is Nicola Sturgeon, which is a good booking. Sky offers the familiarity of Kay Burley and Beth Rigby with the addition of Trevor Phillips. But even more intriguing is Channel 4, where the channel’s regular news presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy will be joined by Emily Maitlis along with Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart in an attempt to bring the insight and banter of hit podcasts to network television.

“For the first time I will not watch the BBC on election night,” says one former member of BBC News management, who will opt for Sky or Channel 4 instead. The corporation will hope that not too many others take the same route, and that it can claim victory in the ratings. But more troubling is the question of whether the BBC deserves the reputation it likes to create for itself, as the broadcaster that inspires and brings together the nation. There are still enough occasions when it does: Glastonbury has been magnificent. But if the BBC can’t make the case for its future during an election campaign and on results night, that self-styling will become more untenable.

[See also: Inside the shadow Tory leadership election]

     

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