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Review: Election 2010

Robert Weedon | News | Tuesday 18th May 2010

The 2010 Election? What was all that about?

Well, it was about a nationwide ballot to elect or re-elect a parliament to govern Britain. However, watching the media's coverage of it, one might not have thought so, with the inevitable comparison that it became more like a television reality contest.

Yes, the 2010 election has been one of the most drawn-out television events of the last few years, and even though, officially, the campaign had only been underway since April 5th, in reality there had been blatant electioneering by all sides since January. To top it all, the hung result and the subsequent political manoeuvring by all sides led to the result only officially being declared on Tuesday 11th May. This made the whole thing seem like it had lasted forever, and kept Nick Robinson & Co in clean shirts and clich├ęs for months.

Even though many said it would be the first 'Twitter' election, as it transpired, television, and in particular 24 hour rolling news was probably the biggest contributor to the maelstrom of media covering the election. Although BBC News 24 has been going since 1997, albeit now uninspiring rebranded as "the BBC News Channel", this election was the first time it really felt like it was covering events unfolding in "real time", with more helicopters, cameras, correspondents dotted around the country than ever-before.

The BBC and Sky News' coverage was relentless, following the politicians around giving speeches and meeting people at carefully stage-managed events, all in the hope of catching one of them doing something embarrassing or getting harangued by a disgruntled voter. This year, probably more than ever, this focussed upon the leaders; it was very much a leaders' election, with other politicians being given very little air time.

After Channel 4's early Chancellor's Debate (very much a sop to stop them complaining about not being given one of the three the Leaders' Debates), we didn't really hear much from any of the three chancellor hopefuls for most of the election, despite the economy supposedly being the biggest single issue. As for other former/shadow ministers, we didn't really hear much from them at all. Even Vince Cable, who in the early days of the election accompanied Clegg everywhere (leading to one wag suggesting it looked like Clegg had had to bring his elderly uncle along for the day), was conspicuous by his absence later in the campaign. Of course, this wasn't because they disappeared; it was just because editorially, the three leaders were deemed to be of most interest.

The greatest single influence on the coverage was probably the three leaders' debates, held respectively by ITV, Sky and the BBC, each one trying to out-do one another with increasingly elaborate sets and opening titles, with the BBC's gothic revival hall at Birmingham University clearly designed to trump anything the other two channels came up with. The debates themselves have been analysed in so much detail already, it's not really worth adding anything, but needless to say, they certainly increased the profile of Nicholas Clegg MP, and gave proceedings a certain phoney spontaneity (although in reality a specifically choreographed one, as captured in this photograph of Gordon Brown's joke sheet.)

Although newspapers liked to think they were going to decide the result, in reality, they didn't have as great bearing upon it as in previous years, as by the time they were printed, they were already printing old news - even the underhand recording and subsequent broadcast of the "bigoted woman" incident had already been chewed over, swallowed and sicked up again by the time of the next day's papers. Newspapers rarely had to report "news" as much as their own editorial line, followed by extensive comment and commentary by their columnists, usually following their own paper's particular political persuasion.

This time, most backed the favourite, often before the campaign got going, which is why we ended up with bizarre incidents such as the Clegg character-assassination attempt by Conservative-supporting papers the day before the second leaders' debate, which was largely greeted with a resounding raspberry. After all, they suffered from the problem that any accusation of "poshness" about Clegg's background largely rebounded by implication on their own man.

Indeed, compared to, say, 1992, it certainly wasn't "The Sun Wot Won It", even though Cameron has now come to power in with the help of another party, with the newspaper having to resort to parodying Barack Obama's hope poster on their election day front page instead of using anything near as cutting as stinging repost to Neil Kinnock in the '92 election. Indeed, as several commentators are pointing out, a few years from now, we may see the 2010 election as the decisive event when the print media finally lost its position as a major player.

As for the election night itself, it was all a bit of an anti-climax due to the predicted hung result turning out to be correct, leaving the through-the-night coverage almost a bit of a waste of time. Like a mug, I decided to watch the BBC's coverage, assuming that their cathedral-sized studio meant that it was going to be an exciting night. It wasn't.

As a result of very little happening until about 1am, the first few hours required relentless padding leading to embarrassing scenes, such as Ken Clarke being interrupted mid-interview to see a car leave a house, or the BBC's pointless election boat on which we were invited to hear the astute, considered political opinions of Joan Collins, Bruce Forsyth and Ben Kingsley as Armando Iannucci tweeted in disgust that it was (as the result of an impromtu powercut) "the worst place in UK to be right now, apart from Brown's trousers." Meanwhile, ITV, for all its sins, at least decided to offer some considered opinions of political commentators, mainly as a result of not having the budget for the whizzy graphics and studio of its opponents.

With hindsight, the best place to be was Channel 4's Alternative Election Night (possibly inspired by Iannucci's impressive 1997 Election Night Armistice), which went so well that there are plans to make a series of late-night satire programmes based on the format.

Ultimately, though, there was little to see during the night, except David Cameron going to the pub and a shouty woman who turned up too late to vote. One presence that did impress was the 70-year-old anchor of the BBC's proceedings, David Dimbleby, who stayed on in the election studio until 4pm the day after, seemingly without a toilet break or a sleep. I wouldn't have liked to have sat in that chair afterwards.

Unfortunately, the hung result did mean that we had to contend with several days of absolutely nothing except torrid speculation, misplaced headlines, and an increasingly large group of people gurning and shouting in the background at the Palace Green studios of the rolling news stations as they realised that they would definitely get on the television. Indeed it says something when the highlight of this week was Sky News' Adam Boulton doing a John Sweeney and losing his rag in an interview with Alastair Campbell.

When the results were finally announced, and each leader invited to make their resignation/acceptance speeches outside Number 10, they were largely drowned out by the sound of the election Skycopter hovering overhead. Perhaps that's a metaphor for the election?

RW



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