Roger Mosey argues that broadcasters were tested as never before in a rancorous campaign.
Whatever your view of the result, it was a wretched and dispiriting election campaign. Politicians seldom broke away from churning out the same sound bites, and on social media there was a level of viciousness that was unbearable.
It’s therefore not exactly a surprise that the mainstream media, pressured by parties and harried by online trolls, had a rough ride in the 2019 general election, too. It is difficult, as the proverb goes, to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
Could broadcast media have done better, or are we doomed to a grim cycle of aggressive politics and battered journalism?
Without any doubt, the best bit of this campaign for television was when it ended. From the striking graphics of Sky’s realisation of the exit poll onwards, all three of the main channels had an excellent results night.
Huw Edwards took to the BBC anchor’s chair with charm and authority, and the strength in depth of the BBC’s talent line-up was evident. A special round of applause to the designers and directors who, working for the first time within the confines of Broadcasting House, made the operation feel big and spacious, even if it wasn’t Elstree or TC1.
Often, though, the most watchable moments were on ITV. Its panels were the sparkiest. Ed Balls and George Osborne, first paired in 2017, remain a wonderful combination. The interaction of Labour centrist Alan Johnson with Momentum’s Jon Lansman produced some of the most telling exchanges in the early coverage. Widiane Moussa, who led the guest booking team, should take a bow.
On Sky, John Bercow looked like a good hire before the event, but his value crumbled as the scale of his opponents’ triumph became clear.
Coverage of the election campaign itself was less sure-footed. It has to be said that, these days, political journalism is much more difficult than it used to be. That’s because the parties are trying to control much more – the open daily news conferences disappeared long ago – and also because the scrutiny from social media is so intense.
An error – or worse still, an imagined error – is immediately pounced upon and cited as an example of bias or conspiracy. The BBC was absurdly criticised for two cock-ups: one, when the wrong footage of Boris Johnson at the Cenotaph was used on Breakfast; and the other when laughter directed at Johnson during a peak-time live programme was edited out of a subsequent news clip.
Within the vast amount of BBC output, and with journalists working under intense pressure, it’s understandable that mistakes happen. It’s daft to ascribe them to partisanship.
But there were much more serious challenges to impartiality. The Prime Minister sent his apologies for Channel 4’s debate on climate change and was irreverently replaced by a melting block of ice instead. The Conservatives’ bullying response to this, and their threats to the BBC licence fee, were disturbing.
It was, however, the saga of Johnson’s invitation to be interviewed by Andrew Neil that dominated the middle part of the campaign. The media loves to talk about the media. Neil’s interrogations of the party leaders on BBC One were one of the television highlights – first unsettling Nicola Sturgeon and then eviscerating Jeremy Corbyn.
But Johnson’s refusal to commit to the same treatment gave the BBC a headache. It reacted by first talking tough and saying it would not let him take part in the Andrew Marr programme if he didn’t also appear with Andrew Neil. Then, citing the London Bridge terrorist incident, it gave in and let the Marr interview go ahead anyway.
With Marr obviously under orders to be super-tough, and Johnson determined to bash ahead with a political agenda, it was the most unwatchable prime ministerial interview in television history.
A few days later, when it was clear that Johnson was a no-show for the peak-time programme, Neil delivered a withering put down of the PM – which was not to the taste of many former senior broadcast executives, who saw it as too much of a political intervention during a campaign.
There was a happier experience with the party leader debates – unless you were Jo Swinson, of course. It was good for viewers that the two men contending to be prime minister agreed to take part in head-to-head encounters. ITV achieved a coup in having Johnson and Corbyn standing alongside their presenter Julie Etchingham as a piece of political history was made.
Etchingham was, as ever, terrific, and Nick Robinson also did a fine job in refereeing the BBC equivalent. The virtues of the two-way debate were reinforced by the unsatisfactory seven-way alternatives.
It is right that all the parties should be featured, of course, but the more politicians who are involved, the messier and more difficult to control it becomes.
Similarly, studio audiences can be a nightmare to balance. I was struck by the relatively subdued role of the public in the prime-ministerial debates. This was in sharp contrast with the vociferous BBC Question Time broadcast with four party leaders from Sheffield.
The latter seemed to have an oversupply of Corbynites, some of whom got to put soft questions to their leader, whereas Jo Swinson was battered by opponents with no contingent of Liberal Democrats to cheer her on.
But the biggest questions for the broadcasters are whether they missed the actual story of the election. There was an enormous effort to get out and about around the country.
It didn’t, however, prove to be particularly illuminating. Too often, a constituency piece majored on voters doing everyday tasks, such as buying Christmas trees or visiting livestock markets, while grumbling about politicians in general.
One person would be quoted giving one view, while another would then immediately reply with the opposite. It was impartial, in the sense that both sides of an argument were represented, but it lacked insight into which view would prevail.
The most common line from correspondents was that both party leaders were equally unpopular and many voters had not decided which way to vote. With hindsight, we know that was untrue. Corbyn was markedly more disliked by traditional Labour voters than Johnson was by potential Conservative supporters; and the Remain versus Leave fault line was the determining factor of this election.
More editorial decisions made in the north of England and fewer in metropolitan London would have helped. Some reporters did identify and dwell on the collapse of the Labour vote – Lewis Goodall on Sky was one – but it was never as clearly defined in this campaign as it was in 1983, when Michael Foot actually won more seats.
Accompanying this was a tendency to spend too much time on the parties’ agendas, rather than the public interest. I have some nostalgia for the days of the former BBC Director-General John Birt’s journalism empire and, subsequently, the election grids produced by Mark Byford as deputy DG. They ensured that proper attention was given to all the big issues: defence, housing, social care and all the rest. It is difficult, though possible, to divert the politicians from their preferred topics.
This campaign showed that the terrain for television journalists is tougher than ever. Public service broadcasting is under threat as never before. Its imperfections were sometimes glaringly apparent, but no one should be in any doubt that we’d be worse off without it.
Roger Mosey is master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a former head of BBC Television News.