It is the 100 metres of the TV Factual Olympics. General election night. The three main news broadcasters – BBC, ITN and Sky News – vie to get results to the nation first. A month on, the election editors of Sky News and the BBC appeared at last night’s Media Society event in London entitled ‘Who won the TV election?‘
The BBC won the greater share of the audience on 6 May. They always do. But John McAndrew, editor of the Sky News offering was there to claim journalistic credit for being not just first but clearest on screen. His was deliberately not a heavily studio anchored show: “We knew what the BBC would do and we aimed off for that,” McAndrew said. He had surprising support from one member of the audience – the BBC’s former political correspondent Nicholas Jones. Jones had switched over early. Sky News, McAndrew said, went with plenty of straight news and little comment.
The David Dimbleby programme on the BBC was at the other end of the spectrum. There were virtual reality graphics aplenty from Jeremy Vine and scores of outside broadcasts. Craig Oliver, their editor, was at last night’s event to defend their coverage, or at least try to. He had a near impossible job when it came to the now notorious ‘ship of fools‘, a BBC barge moored in the Thames full of celebrities giving their take on the election. Not many of those at the event felt that Joan Collins or Bruce Forsyth ‘added to the sum total of human knowledge’, as one audience member succinctly put it. Another pointed out that the £70,000 allegedly spent on the boat (the only cost figure mentioned on a night when all were coy about what they spent) was money wasted.
Oliver was on surer ground defending the BBC position of not calling any result until the Returning Officer had. ITN seems to jump the gun almost as a matter of principle. Oliver, who edited the ITN election programme in 2005 before defecting, was dismissive of presenter Alastair Stewart’s recent tirade in the Press Gazette claiming that the BBC ‘had missed the story’. His absence from the discussion said it all according to Oliver.
Channel 4’s ‘Alternative Election Night’ – featuring comedians like Jimmy Carr and David Mitchell – was a deliberately offpiste offering but it worked, beating ITN in the ratings. Deputy head of news and current affairs Kevin Sutcliffe was there to explain the thinking behind the format and reveal that it would be used again. Their satirical approach attracted a young demographic and twice the audience he expected, Sutcliffe said, adding that he was impressed with the (unintentionally) satirical quality of the BBC coverage.
Attracting the most audience comment last night was the stunningly accurate exit poll shared by the broadcasters and put out on the stroke of ten. It got the result right to within one seat. Some felt it destroyed the drama and made the remainder of the coverage predictable, suggesting a return to separate polls. Sue Inglish, the BBC’s head of political programmes and a moving force behind the poll, was on hand to explain and defend. The sheer size and cost of the 125,000 sample poll made it impossible to do more than once. But Oliver, in a mild mea culpa, said the BBC studio gurus had been wrong to downplay the surprising exit poll results for the first hour after they were broadcast.
The event had the air of an inquest, but not a particularly rancourous one – and the majority of criticism was reserved for the absent ITN. There was mostly praise for the British broadcasters for whom a 100-metre dash became a five day marathon. If the reaction in the BBC Council Chamber last night is anything to go, they had an audience satisfied with the results.
John Mair is events director of the Media Society.This event was jointly organised by the Media Society and the BBC College of Journalism