Marr and Neil were exemplary; Paxman, Wark and Snow were insufferable. Overall, the TV election was won by purveyors of self-important obfuscationby David Herman / June 19, 2005 / Leave a comment
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…