Richard Tait, ITN’s editor-in-chief, did us all a service this week
by publicly opening up the debate about why election coverage turned off
viewers in a lecture to the European Media Forum.
It was a fascinating event, even if the main guilty party, the BBC,
whose lengthened Nine O’Clock News lost one and a half million viewers,
failed to show up. It served as a prelude for raising the whole issue of
Now, clearly spin doctoring and stage management has got out of
The Representation of the Peoples Act could be relaxed to allow direct
interviews with the main candidates: say Martin Bell and Neil Hamilton
on national issues such as sleaze, or the huge surge in women candidates
(something the cameras only caught up with after the event).
But the broadcasters would be quite wrong to simply blame external
factors, or cast themselves as spineless victims of the sound bite
culture they helped create. They must take responsibility too and be
They had years to plan for the election. ITN - whose audiences collapsed
by a relatively modest ten per cent - has already shown gumption by
abandoning stop watches for news programmes.
Broadcasters know the programmes which do best in reaching large
audiences are lively with audience participation, such as ITV 500. As
Tait said, ordinary viewers turn off set piece interviews between
ministers and, say, the Dimblebys because ’they don’t trust the
interviewer’ - they think they are from the same class.
Broadcasters are mortified by the failure to find a formula for a
televised leadership debate, which Tait rightly believes could have been
a ratings sensation: it now appears that ITV had planned to clear its
Sunday night schedules in the hope of creating an event, attracting 12
But the time to strike a deal is well before an election campaign gets
underway, not during one. The negotiation and ground rules should be
established now - although I suspect the rowdy Carlton monarchy debate
has frightened politicians from a hustings-style programme.
This is not rocket science. The USA, Canada, Germany, France and
Australia have these debates. But ITN and the BBC operate in a changing
world. One-off big events will be crucial for the networks because
audiences for humdrum mainstream news are eroding. There is far more
choice. The Internet, especially if BSkyB’s venture with BT gets
underway, will provide a major source of debate next time around -
delivered straight to TV sets, not just PCs. Channel 5, already showing
a far less reverent approach to politicians, will have sorted itself
By the next election an audience of 4.4 million for a main BBC news
programme may look perfectly respectable.