MEDIA: TV ELECTION COVERAGE - 24-hour pressure for political editors. The explosion in types of media means TV political editors are changing their approach to general election coverage, reports Ed Shelton

Some say political editors have performed a great service to the PR

industry. Communication has become 'spin' and press officers have become

'spin doctors' as political editors' preoccupation with Labour's

presentational skill has glamourised the whole industry.



Their fixation might be explained by the way the ground has shifted

beneath political editors. Never before has their pre-eminence been so

challenged, as outlets compete for scoops from Westminster.



For political editors working for the main TV news programmes, the

change is the greatest. Aside from the three 24-hour domestic TV news

channels that now exist, the forthcoming election will see details of

the day's campaigning delivered to WAP phones and on e-mail long before

the evening news bulletins go out.



It is with some justification then that Sky News political editor Adam

Boulton - whose channel started the whole thing with the introduction of

24-hour coverage more than ten years ago - calls election coverage on

the main channels 'anachronistic'.



Perhaps in response, there is to be a reduction in the overall time

allocated to the election by the main channels this time. This follows a

drop in viewing for the evening news programmes during the 1997 election

(while viewing of continuous services rose), and comes against a

background of pressure to deliver large audiences across the channels as

a whole.



Political editors on news programmes are increasingly being asked for

instant analysis as part of the fashion for 'two-ways' (live

interrogation of correspondents at Westminster by a studio-based

presenter). One advantage of the technique is that it allows increased

flexibility to compete with continuous news services.



Another response to the erosion of the main channels' role may be the

increased prominence given to 'froth,' or personality-led stories. The

logic to this is that those really interested will already have got the

important stories from other sources, and the rest are more likely to

enjoy trivia.



It seems to be a change accepted by political editors. ITN's John

Sergeant says he sees himself as 'an old-fashioned story-teller', while

Boulton believes that with viewing of entertainment programming

fragmenting, it is increasingly the political soap opera rather than

Albert Square which binds the nation together.



BBC



Andrew Marr



Position: political editor



'There is a perception the parties are so close (on policy) as to make

no difference, so people will want to be reminded why they should bother

to vote.



'Online and 24-hour services reduce the role of the political editor of

the main channels, but I am political editor for the BBC not just the

main evening news and I can see myself doing more online stuff.



'I am trying to find the clear and fresh language to give the widest

audience the best feel that politics matters.



'Working on TV is different from press. On TV there is no page two, so

things that might make a page lead in the press just will not get on air

- you are only really working with the top story of the day.'



ITN NEWS ON ITV



John Sergeant



Position: political editor



'Political coverage is changing as the public is less prepared to

tolerate bullshit. On TV we are expected to answer fundamental questions

live, but on a newspaper you just avoid the things you don't know.



'Labour has to straddle party and government, but the Tories make one

hit and run away. The government communications machine is doing well -

they have 1,000 professional press officers. Government members are also

very good at it, like Gordon Brown - just look at the budget

coverage.



'Spin is difficult. Take the most extraordinary recent event - Peter

Mandelson's resignation. How are we meant to interpret that - is no-one

meant to put bones on it? There is always the question 'Is that as

important as unemployment going down?'.'



SKY NEWS



Adam Boulton



Position: political editor



'We are a 24-hour station so as well as covering breaking news and

giving instant analysis, at the end of the day, I turn into the others

and do a competitive bulletin service summarising the day.



'The BBC is migrating towards the 24-hour coverage we have done for ten

years. In 1997, audiences went down for TV news programmes but up for

us. On terrestrial TV, less time goes to dedicated election programming

- less BBC news time, and no election coverage on Panorama, for

example.



'This year on Sky you will see more and more live coverage. I will do

two evening programmes for an hour each at seven and 11, which will be

everything you want to know about the election.'



CHANNEL 4 NEWS



Elinor Goodman



Position: political editor



'On Channel 4 I have more time to be analytical and features-led. But we

have to combine this analysis with news, which means we work under

stricter time pressure.



'Millbank is much slicker than the Tory operation and has the weight of

government behind it - you want to know what they are saying. The Tories

are learning what it is like to be in opposition.



'Government communications are patchy and though some are better than in

1997, often the press offices are not in the loop as much as special

advisers.



'There is an element of truth to the idea that we talk too much about

spin when people want us to concentrate more on what is happening on

hospitals and schools.'



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