Smallscreen: the TV election

Many argued that the internet would be the key to the election. Instead, the leadership debates proved that television is still king
May 25, 2010
Perfect confection: Channel 4's Alternative Election Night

The managing editor of this magazine told us confidently that this would be Britain’s first internet election. Most unusually, he turned out to be wrong. The politicians may have emailed us to death, YouTube may have hosted all manner of political titbits, ConservativeHome and its army of bloggers may have delivered their parochial commentaries, but this was the television election. There may have been no immediate political winner, but from the debates to the wall-to-wall 24-hour news coverage, from a dramatic election night to the topical comedy on Channel 4 and BBC1, television was the media winner.

Smallscreen must now take issue with another Prospect regular, John Lloyd. He attacked the television leadership debates in the Financial Times (“Far from making it easier to hold politicians to account, it takes us further from that civic goal… as helpful to rational choice as Dr Who.”). Again, how wrong can you be? The three debates represented a dramatic intervention in the political process, and a wholly positive one.

In an age where we are confronted by three parties that are all broadly social democratic, one of the ways we distinguish between them is through the personality of their leaders. The live debates, while surprisingly rich in policy detail, were above all a high-wire test of character, and rightly so when we are being asked to choose a prime minister. Television thus enabled a return to the centuries-old tradition of the hustings, and provided an indispensable aid to electors. Of their three hosts, David Dimbleby (BBC) and Alastair Stewart (ITV) were authoritative, while Adam Boulton (Sky) rather bumbled his way through. But Boulton redeemed himself later—for Sky’s election-night coverage, which he anchored, was superior to that of both ITV and the BBC.

You would not have realised this from the ratings: the BBC attracted 4.1m viewers, ITV 1.3m, and Sky News only 380,000. We tend to go to the BBC for national events so the numbers are unsurprising. But on this occasion we licence-fee payers were ill-served. BBC election night was painfully slow, while the other channels brought us early news of the many upsets as they occurred. It was also uninformative. Sky understood that this live, fast-moving event required style of presentation more akin to the Bloomberg financial channel, with constantly updated graphics covering key statistics such as turnout. Sky managed to put each candidate’s tally up on screen immediately it was announced so we could understand what was going on; the BBC left us clueless. At its main desk, the BBC had constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor, who scowled his way through the evening and didn’t appear to have the necessary anorak’s command of each constituency’s numbers. Jeremy Vine was addicted to the swingometer, which has been rendered otiose by three-party politics. We had to put up with Dimbleby’s fogeyish jokes about Twitter and Jeremy Paxman’s dyspeptic presence in a gallery, a sort of human amalgam of Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show. To cap it all, the BBC, with more money than sense, had positioned poor Andrew Neil at a Thames boat party where he interviewed Joan Collins and Bruce Forsyth, for God’s sake (declaration of interest: I was there and consumed three bottles of beer and four prawn canapés before gratefully returning to dry land).

For those who wanted election-lite, Channel 4 came up with a perfect, alternative confection. This found favour with 1.7m viewers. Jimmy Carr, David Mitchell, Lauren Laverne and Charlie Brooker gave us four hours of good gags and stunts leavened with the odd political statistic. The evening also included the most bizarre but compelling edition ever of Come Dine With Me. Derek Hatton, Rod Liddle, Edwina Currie and Brian Paddick locked culinary horns and for me Edwina, with Eton Mess as her pudding, won the battle for both wit and topicality. Brooker, by the way, known to us as the angry young man of the Guardian column Screen Burn, appeared with a sweeping quiff that made him resemble nothing more than a well-coiffeured pussycat.

Finally, in all fairness, I should point out that BBC1 partially recovered its position the day after the election, with an excellent edition of Have I Got News For You. They recorded it on the morning after the election, having spirited the by-then former MP for Montgomeryshire from Wales to London to act as Paul Merton’s hapless stooge. Lembit Öpik performed this task to perfection and gave no hint of having been up the entire night at a wake for his political career. Perhaps he has a future after all, as a sort of modern-day Vicar of Stiffkey.