British election night coverage is the best in the world and I will not hear otherwiseby Peter Kellner / June 4, 2020 / Leave a comment
Let us celebrate a British success story. Look past the disappointments: that we no longer rule the waves; that our railways, schools and life expectancy could be better; that we invented soccer but haven’t won the world cup since 1966. Instead, bask in the glory of the one claim that can be made with total confidence: our election night television programmes are the best in the world.
Over the past month, the BBC’s Parliament Channel has broadcast the results programmes from five elections of the past six decades: 1959, 1964, 1979, 1997 and 2010. Those of us who delight in such things have enjoyed 70 hours of televisual bliss. Having contributed to the 1997 and 2010 programmes, I admit I’m biased. But having seen the equivalent programmes of a variety of other countries, I insist that any objective election-obsessive would agree with me.
It’s because of the unique way our election nights combine human and statistical drama. In European countries with proportional voting systems or directly-elected presidents, the drama is usually over minutes after the exit polls appear on TV screens. American and Australian election nights are better; but as their votes are counted separately at thousands of polling stations, with the figures aggregated remotely, their systems lack the catharsis of politicians caught in the camera lights at their moment of triumph or disaster. Think of the Michael Portillo’s defeat in 1997; or Theresa May’s gaunt, tearful face when she turned up at her count in Maidenhead in 2017, knowing that her gamble on a snap election had gone horribly wrong.
In 1992, the broad grin on David Amess’s face when he had held Basildon early on for the Tories told us that John Major had defied the polls and won outright. Five years later, an equally broad grin from Gisela Stuart, marking Labour’s first gain of the night on a huge swing, converted the high probability of a landslide into cast-iron certainty.
True, the accretion of votes counted locally can provide its own studio-based drama. In presidential elections, CNN’s John King does a wonderful job analysing the county-by-county numbers as they come in from key states such as Florida and Pennsylvania. And Fox News provided a delicious moment in 2012, when the arch-Republican, Karl Rove, challenged the network’s…