Many argued that the internet would be the key to the election. Instead, the leadership debates proved that television is still kingby Peter Bazalgette / May 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
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…