It is an event producer’s nightmare. You book three big speakers, and they pull out with two hours to go. Reader, that was my nightmare on Tuesday.
Five day after polls had closed and Britain was still without a government. I had the general election editors of the BBC, Sky News and the editor in chief of ITN all set to go head-to-head on ‘Who won on TV?’ at Westminster University for a Media Society debate. The debate looked promising until Gordon Brown decided he had to go and would be replaced by David Cameron that very night. The broadcast editors decided they had better, well, broadcast.
Fortunately, the audience was nearly as distinguished as the panel, and veteran media commentator Raymond Snoddy and Professor Ivor Gaber were recruited to join Dorothxy Byrne, head of news and current affairs at Channel Four. They were joined by the doyen of political documentary makers, Michael Cockerell, and were under the watchful eye of ex-Sky News editor Nick Pollard, who chaired the debate.
The televised leaders’ debates came to dominate the election campaign and they very nearly dominated discussion on Tuesday night. Given the tight rules laid down by the politicians in advance, many claimed ‘debate’ was something of a misnomer. David Hill, Tony Blair’s ex-spin doctor, felt anything was better than the bear pit Question Time had become in the 2005 election. The audience at Westminster felt that broadcasters ITN, Sky and the BBC had too easily rolled over and accepted the preconditions laid down for them. The BBC was largely felt to have produced the best of the three debates thanks to the magisterial presence of David Dimbleby.
There was a different opinion of Dimbleby on the BBC Election night programme though. Some felt he looked tired and over-rehearsed, and a little lost in the behemoth of a set. While admiring his stamina, at least one person remarked on his miscall of a couple of swings. Jeremy Vine and his virtual reality graphics show divided the audience as did, inevitably, the Jeremy Paxman experience.
It seems that the BBC got it mostly right, but very wrong in one case in particular, namely the ‘Ship of Fools’, a barge on the Thames full of celebrities being quizzed about the results. The political opinions of Bruce Forsyth and Joan Collins were both predictable and irrelevant on a night of high drama. Nobody defended the ship. Clearly a wrong move.
As to network alternatives on the night, both ITN and Sky were seen as sharper and quicker than the BBC, partly because they got to the locked-out voters story earlier. In terms of set design and presentation though, there was no match for the BBC.
Where all the networks scored was in putting the newspapers in their place. The printed press was following the agenda in this election not leading it. Nowhere was this seen better than the live interruption of our debate to show the Gordon Brown resignation statement live from Downing Street. That moment really summed up this year’s election coverage – fast, exciting, and on television.