It is the law in the media world that campaign programmes must always have a transport gimmick; and in this multiparty election in a turbulent UK, the London media stars are reaching places that their output usually ignores. They have discovered that there are donkeys in Great Yarmouth and there is a curling rink in Paisley and a racecourse in Bangor. Not only do they have to tick the geographical boxes this time but – in the spirit of the televised debate – almost every programme has to feature every significant party. It is impressive to see the newsgathering machines swinging into action and cheering to see more of the country than is usually permitted. But it can be a nightmare for broadcast journalists trying to make a coherent narrative out of seven leader clips or more within cramped bulletins. Because of the commitment to balance, there is none of the simplicity of the partisan press or the freedom of digital’s limitless capacity.
The leaders’ debate showed why broadcasting still matters so much. As in the 2010 campaign, it was the most watched programme of the night, proving that audiences want to see politicians live and unfiltered before they cast their vote. ITV’s confident production justified the months of trench warfare by the broadcasters to get the Prime Minister to turn up and it suggested that the threat of an empty chair still holds some sway. This was never going to win the broadcasters plaudits from the parties. One well-informed media source characterised the negotiations as sometimes “quite nasty”. And it’s a reminder that the independence of the BBC still matters a lot. It’s a concern that so many commentators and some politicians made the link between the corporation’s conduct around the election debate and its charter renewal. This echoed some of the ridiculous behaviour in the last parliament when select committees tried to intervene in the BBC’s editorial agenda.
During the campaign, there will be – as always – a daily battle between the spin doctors and the broadcasters. Parties will huff and puff if their preferred story is not at the top of the news and there will be skirmishes about questions on the Today programme or segments of Channel 4 News. Whether this will amount to undue political pressure and sustained bullying is not yet proven. In my days as an editor at the BBC, we had a grisly time in the 1992 election with combative teams at both Conservative and Labour HQs and the run-up to 1997 was made thoroughly unpleasant by the New Labour operation, which could be brutal.
But then the 2001 and 2005 campaigns passed peacefully, with little bad behaviour. Indeed, 2001 was so dull that the only thing I can remember is John Prescott’s punch and a half-hearted plea to play it down – which we, of course, ignored. I hope this time the journalists will feel confident in telling the politicians to take a running jump if they seek to intervene inappropriately.
The BBC will think that it has most at stake, although for the corporation not to dominate the election campaign would be the equivalent of the ravens leaving the Tower of London. There are certainly challenges this time. Teeth will have been grinding at ITV’s capture of the only debate between all the main leaders, and the BBC’s five-way scheduled for 16 April without David Cameron and Nick Clegg is an odd-looking creature. The Jeremy Paxman interviews on Channel 4 and Sky News also confirmed the BBC’s carelessness in losing one of the TV greats and the spotlight will be on Evan Davis – who hasn’t yet quite found his stride on Newsnight – when he takes over the party leader interviews scheduled for peak time on BBC1. On election night, two further traps lie in wait: Paxman will be hosting Channel 4’s coverage, which could be more entertaining than the David Dimbleby experience; and the broadcasters will have to cope with social media chirruping away with alleged results hours before the returning officers have got to their feet.
In all of this, it is easy to get swept up in the thrill of the news coverage and the shiny lights of the debates. But there will be appreciation from many voters if the media engage with the tougher policy issues, too. I would love to hear a proper dissection of the parties’ plans for education: not just tuition fees, but how we lift the aspirations of millions of children. Others would like to know how the NHS will be changed by a future government, or how best the country’s housing plans can cope with our rising population. I hear these kinds of discussions across BBC Radio 4 and we occasionally find some depth on policy rather than process on the fringes of the television schedules: Daily Politics on BBC2 does a good job.
But the days of peak-time TV specials tackling the big issues seem to have gone and even the threatened break-up of the UK last year generated little landmark programming outside the scheduled bulletins. Commissioners generally think that this sort of thing is ratings death, but as a result of fragmenting audiences the risk is lower than it used to be – and public service sometimes requires doing what’s right rather than what maintains your channel’s market share.
Above all in this election, broadcasters have the ability to capitalise on a national mood that is unsettled and disillusioned with business as usual – but in which voters are still seeking answers. If the media can give them more than soggy old soundbites, they should be rewarded.
Roger Mosey is Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a former BBC executive