When Michael Buerk joined the podium at the Royal Television
Society’s journalism awards last week, the editor next to me groaned
Buerk was looking tanned and relaxed after a cannily-timed holiday. Most
(grey-faced) news executives spent that evening monitoring their mobile
phones, aware that the countdown to the Wirral South declaration and an
inevitable Labour victory was underway as they ate.
Spend time in the company of those responsible for covering the
forthcoming election and you instantly realise they are heartily sick of
the phoney war. Many have been on stand by for more than a year, praying
for a snap election, rather than this long haul.
One executive running a major national programme said his team was
trying to leaven the politics with more general stories, because they
know audiences are bored rigid. This week Conservative high command even
resorted to that tired ritual: thumping the BBC for alleged left-wing
bias. The Corporation swatted it away wearily like a troublesome fly,
but no wonder its brightest executives, as Mark Damazer, head of weekly
programmes revealed, are longing to start a post-election debate about
abandoning ’yah boo’ soundbites to search for a better way of covering
politics and policies.
All of this raises fundamental questions. It is an article of faith that
audiences will start paying attention once the real election starts, and
Labour’s vague policies come under heavy artillery. Titles, such as the
Independent, see 1 May as a big sales opportunity. But if a Labour win
is viewed by the vast majority as inevitable, then the sense of theatre
and drama has gone. What editors are waking up to is the fact that the
real story this time may begin after the election, if power changes
hands in a dramatic shift, something not seen for 18 years.
What is already evident is that this election is not conforming to
For example, the tabloid papers which caused Labour huge damage
throughout the 1980s and helped destroy Kinnock five years ago are far
Blair’s charm campaign has worked. The Sun’s political editor, Trevor
Kavanagh, has even hinted that Murdoch, mindful of his media business
interests, may swing behind New Labour. This time the heavy use of
posters, advertising techniques and even direct mail will have to do the
dirty work for the Tories.
Meanwhile TV election plans, bound by impartiality codes remain
exhaustive but extremely conventional, with extended main news bulletins
and interviews with the three party leaders. This is why both the BBC
and ITV are praying for a televised debate along US presidential lines
between Blair and Major. It is about the only way to spice up coverage -
and get a mass audience - that they can drum up