Marr and Neil were exemplary; Paxman, Wark and Snow were insufferable. Overall, the TV election was won by purveyors of self-important obfuscation
June 18, 2005

If the 1997 election was Godfather I, 2005 was Godfather II—darker, more complex. Did British television do justice to this complexity?

We all have our favourite television election moments. Diana Gould haranguing Mrs Thatcher in 1983 about the sinking of the Belgrano; Portillo losing his seat in 1997; Mandelson losing his cool in 2001. This is politics as carnival: rejoicing at the humiliation of the mighty. Making sense of complexity, it is not.

But it is not on election night that we expect the hard work of illuminating issues to be done. That should be done in the weeks running up to the election. The two Andrews—Marr and Neil—had an excellent campaign. Marr was smart and judicious, always there with a clear, sensible answer. His replacement as BBC political editor will have a lot to live up to. Neil, meanwhile, played the old-timer of elections ("I've covered every campaign since 1970…"). Banished to the late morning and the post-Newsnight wasteland, he was cleverer and sharper than any other interviewer. His cool demolition jobs of Tessa Jowell and Theresa May were exemplary.

If Marr and Neil were among the winners, the losers were Newsnight and Jon Snow. Their arrogance was, at times, unspeakable. Paxman bullied and sneered in his big set-piece interviews with the party leaders. Kirsty Wark, on the night the attorney general story broke, turned into a screaming harridan, shouting down Patricia Hewitt and illuminating nothing. Jon Snow, given the chance to interview Blair two days before the election, was obsessed with Iraq.

All fell victim to three fallacies. The first was a matter of presentation: if you shout loud enough or ask the same question enough times, you will expose your interviewee. The second was the assumption at Newsnight and Channel 4 News that Iraq had to be the big story. The idea that someone might think that Blair was right about Iraq, or that one of his claims to importance may rest on his role in destroying Milosevic and Saddam, seemed inconceivable.

Iraq, therefore, was at the heart of the major set-piece interviews before the election and, again and again, on election night. So much time and emphasis was placed on Iraq that interviewers and producers rarely gave other factors the weight they deserved: the dark side of the economy (personal debt, the pensions crisis, house prices, fudged figures on unemployment, the inevitable rise in taxes coming our way), or the real state of education. Because the interviewers wanted to "get them" on Iraq, the rest was handed over to Blair and Brown on a plate by default. How often were central policy issues subjected to the kind of rigorous analysis or audit that one might expect of such well-resourced news organisations? 

The third fallacy lies in the contempt shown towards elected politicians. One can understand the desire to get a clear answer to a straightforward question. But these interviewers went too far. Instead of exposing the confusion between having different judgements and being dishonest, they contributed to a political and media culture in which that confusion runs rampant. 

It is symptomatic of all this that the state of television itself rarely came up for discussion. This is strange because the decline of British television is part of a larger cultural story: the decline of a number of public British institutions which erodes a part of Britishness.

One of the great pieces of election folklore is how, in 1964, Harold Wilson tried to bully the BBC into changing Steptoe and Son's 8.30pm slot because he was afraid it would keep Labour voters at home. Wilson's concern is understandable: shows like Steptoe and Sunday Night at the London Palladium were watched by audience numbers barely imaginable today. However, 1964 was not just a time of mass audiences, glued to quiz shows and comedies. It was the year when BBC2 began, and when drama fans could watch Armchair Theatre on ITV and the new Wednesday Play on BBC1. Looking back 40 years on, it is a vanished world. Instead of Steptoe's 19m viewers, Eastenders was the only BBC programme to be watched by more than 9m. In March, BBC1's audience share was down to 24.5 per cent and ITV's 22.5 per cent (it was 45 per cent in 1983). On BBC2, there were two arts programmes in prime time in election week, one new history programme and no ideas programmes. Channel 4 is increasingly dominated by reality shows (Supernanny) and makeover programmes about changing your body or your home (Property Ladder, Ten Years Younger, You Are What You Eat).

The end of the golden age is the end of one of Britain's greatest cultural achievements of the past 50 years. Who will turn this around? Who even acknowledges the scale of cultural loss? Which politician has promised to rescue public service broadcasting? They are happy to let the market rip. That shift, from public service to market, is taken for granted. Like the universities, the railways and the post office, television is a central British institution in crisis. When we tell the story of the crisis of Britishness in the late 20th century, the decline of public service broadcasting, from Wilson to Blair, will be a sad but necessary chapter.