Broadcasters must face up to their political inadequacies

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.

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

modernising coverage.



Now, clearly spin doctoring and stage management has got out of

hand.



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

more adventurous.



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

million upwards.



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

out.



By the next election an audience of 4.4 million for a main BBC news

programme may look perfectly respectable.



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