Media: Can television provide the only hope for the Tories?

When you consider the way John Major has been increasingly mauled and undermined by the press, culminating in the Sun’s historic but threateningly worded decision this week to back Blair at the start, rather than the conclusion of the campaign, it is not surprising that he is looking to TV - hamstrung by impartiality rules - for salvation.

When you consider the way John Major has been increasingly mauled

and undermined by the press, culminating in the Sun’s historic but

threateningly worded decision this week to back Blair at the start,

rather than the conclusion of the campaign, it is not surprising that he

is looking to TV - hamstrung by impartiality rules - for salvation.



Indeed, even as the Sun’s leader writer was honing its aggressive

editorial, over at Sky News, the editors were polishing their stop

watches, starting to time sound-bites to the second, and promising to

act as the honest brokers of the election airwaves (exploiting the fact

that they are still the only 24-hour UK news channel and in possession

of three times the audience they had at the last election).



But what the debate about the exact power of the press to swing the

’don’t knows’ overlooks is something more unscientific but potent:

newspapers create a sounding board and climate within which everyone

operates. What strikes me about the rest of the national press is how

faint the Tory Party’s support has become. You search in vain for the

full-blooded true blue believers of yesteryear. Instead you are greeted

with confused coverage.



The Express, under Labour’s Lord Hollick says: ’in the weeks to come we

will make our preferences known’. The Daily Mail is promising to ferret

out hard detail. The Times is sitting on the fence and also promising to

serve up facts, although I bet editor Peter Stothard will join Stuart

Higgins and Rupert Murdoch and back Blair. Of course the Telegraphs will

stay Tory. But Central Office has failed spectacularly to keep their

once natural allies in print on side.



So there will be even more intense pressure over the representation of

Tory policies on TV and radio (although in this area too Central Office

is acting clumsily). A televised debate between the leaders looks not

only inevitable, but as Major’s keenness demonstrates, a godsend. But

how should it be staged? And who should do it? I think it should go out

on all networks (or those prepared to screen it) simultaneously. That

would create a true sense of occasion.



The conventions of TV suggest that a two-headed debate, with a deft but

discreet referee (a Dimbleby rather than a Humphreys, please) would

provide the best TV. Viewers want to see Major and Blair together,

interacting, getting cross. A triangle would not work, especially since

it would pit two against one. But Britain is not electing a president

Our democratic system is different to that of the US. There is simply no

ground for excluding Paddy Ashdown, especially since Labour’s commitment

to constitutional reform might well boost the power of the LibDems. So

we are most likely to get three separate debates. Too many? Well, after

the big one there is always the off button.



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