Cllr Peter Golds is Leader of the Conservative Group on Tower Hamlets Council.
On Easter Monday I spent some time watching the BBC day long 50th anniversary re-broadcast of their 1966 general election programme. I first campaigned in a general election as a teenager and as a result of attending counts have never watched or indeed listened to election night live. I have managed to see some coverage, but this was always limited, although video and later youtube provide detail of the coverage. Over Christmas I read a number of books covering the 2015 election and downloaded the BBC programme.
Forget colour, graphics and technology the difference in half a century is that in 1966 the BBC concentrated on results, whilst in 2015 much of the programme became a series of chat shows into which election results intruded.
1966 was a different era. There was a seemingly unbreakable two party system into which a handful of Liberals intruded. During the 1966 campaign opinion polls showed a strong Labour lead which was confirmed in the earliest results. Enoch Powell, the third MP to be returned, appeared to concede the result seventy minutes after the polls closed. Yet there still remained the excitement of an election night.
After what is an election about, if not election results? Most watchers are likely to be those interested in the results of the election and not the lengthy opinions of presenters and commentators. In 1966, Sir David Butler was brilliant, giving a snap analysis of constituencies covering swing, majority and often a few words about the elected or defeated candidates. 1966 was just twenty one years after the end of the war and reference is made to candidates who had lost limbs in the conflict. When Ayrshire South came through it was given with the observation that the Labour MP, Emrys Hughes, was a Welshman representing a Scottish constituency who was also the son in law of Keir Hardie.
Another earlier comment from Hitchin was that “Mrs Shirley Williams was the most popular Labour MP amongst TV and radio producers!”
I also noted two defeated Labour candidates who are currently serving Conservative councillors.
Despite the absence of modern graphics one got a picture of the culmination of the campaign. Interviews with Prime Minister Wilson in victory, Ted Heath in defeat and Jo Grimond on behalf of the Liberals were substantial and inquisitive without being trivial.
Yes, there were commentators, but these spoke in the context of the result rather than personal prejudices and “what ifs”. Although, one man did predict a balance of payments crisis, a run on the pound and an eventual devaluation in the wake of the election. The commentaries increased on the Friday morning whilst results were awaited from those constituencies counting that day. The BBC also televised outside broadcast “vox pops” from Birmingham Bull Ring, Manchester and outside Bank station in London.
50 years ago the results were quicker. Polls closed at 9pm and there were many constituencies with just two candidates from the main parties. These included the first five results which were declared by 10.30pm. There were no combined local elections resulting in ballot papers being separated and delaying the count. Importantly there was no exit poll, just the pre-election opinion polls to cover.
Viewing this programme, after 50 years, what mattered was coverage of the votes, candidates, majority and swing in constituencies, which was the most relevant factor on the night and half a century later.
Contrast this this with 2015 with the “virtual graphics” and the endless chatter that filled the programme.
Last year there was a long delay between the first three results from Sunderland and when results began to flow in. There was the exit poll which we know slightly underestimated the Conservative victory. The BBC, faced with a gap filled their studio with guests who would have been pre-booked and were there to discuss a hung parliament and a Miliband led government.
In addition were the graphics firstly led by Jeremy Vine, who, in 2008 adopted a fake American accent, wore a cowboy suit and was shown entering a mocked up western bar for his election commentary. In 2015, seven years after this farce, he was prancing around a virtual House of Commons, later a virtual Big Ben and then walking down a virtual Downing Street. To what end? Even the most casual watcher could have worked out that 326 seats were needed for a an overall majority in a House of Commons of 650; that the Scottish Nationalists were polling extremely well, the Liberal Democrats were being decimated and Labour was not making up ground.
Indeed the early results from Swindon, Nuneaton and Kilmarnock and Loudoun confirmed all of this. Instead the unfortunate Jeremy Vine constantly appeared doing increasingly frantic gymnastics to state the glaringly obvious. In the studio ever more politicians were interviewed unendingly to spin and re-hash campaign speeches, speeches that were redundant immediately the polls closed.
Sophie Rayworth, for those who were missing Jeremy Vine, was stationed outside BBC HQ with a large map of the UK on which coloured tiles were added to colour code results but rarely identify constituencies. A carefully selected group of people had been selected to give commentaries. Sadly the careful selection did not coincide with the results.
In between, Andrew Marr, Nick Robinson and Andrew Neill talked amongst themselves or with their wildly spinning politician guests. In the midst was David Dimbleby whose position on general election night is now part of the BBC hereditary system; his late father having presented the first ever election night programme programme as far back as 1955. Indeed of the sixteen general elections since 1955 the two Dimblebys have, between them, anchored twelve of them for the BBC.
The absence of commentary on the actual results was cringeworthy and the emphasis on aspects that excited BBC simply annoying. The SNP sweep of Scotland was little short of sensational. However, long into the programme, when Gower rejected the Labour Party for the first time since 1918, nothing was said of that result as the cameras returned to Glasgow for yet another series of shrieks from Kirsty Wark.
At one point, when even the BBC appeared to accept that the trend was obvious, Andrew Marr said that the hours of commentary regarding the hung parliament/Miliband government were pointless. He then drew breath and started on the future Labour leadership, and there was even more wasted time as on that subject as he, along with all the pundits, misread the situation as badly as they had the election.
The BBC had booked the early morning “guests” anticipating the Miliband arrival at Downing Street, by which time it was well known that Ed Balls was about to lose his seat. This panel was led by Jonathan Powell and Alastair Campbell, who sat like a pair of gargoyles at each end of the table with former Blair speechwriter Steve Richards in the centre. It was obvious that there would be no Miliband administration and that Labour would be facing a leadership election.
Regarding the gargoyles, I strongly recommend readers invest in the recent Tom Bower book on Tony Blair. It includes direct quotations by some of the nation’s most senior officials on both Powell and Campbell which leads one to hope that Sir John Chilcott will persuade the BBC to use less of the licence payer’s hard earned money in keeping this gruesome duo in the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed, a lifestyle and profile based solely on their activities on behalf of Tony Blair.
By the small hours, election night is being viewed mainly by those who want actual results. This will include many who get home from their own counts and do not need politicians rehashing speeches. Punditry is as stale as any other prediction after the event. All that matters is the result and that includes the results in constituencies rather than Jeremy Vine graphics which would shame cbeebies.
Accounts published after polling day by journalists who had access to the campaigns indicate that there was a very different picture emerging within the parties by as early as midnight. Labour were well aware that Ed Balls was in serious danger, Nick Clegg was asked did he want to hear even worse news from counts and the Conservatives were sending press officers to counts where support might be needed. Furthermore there was the “twittersphere” which showed strong indications of the unfolding trend.
All of this activity was well known to the BBC. Indeed their own political correspondent, Iain Watson in his book “Five million conversations” says that on May 1st, Douglas Alexander was handed a telephone to communicate to Labour’s shadow secretary for Scotland, Margaret Curran that “her Westminster career was over.” Iain Wilson also knew that very day that Labour were diverting their efforts into just two Scottish constituencies, both of which were lost.
The BBC, with its vast resources, must have had some inkling of a surprise when David Cameron went to campaign in the home village of Paddy Ashdown in his former Yeovil constituency – with all the panoply of a prime mInisterial campaign visit.
On election night the BBC were present at the joint count of both Somerton and Frome, lost by the Liberal Democrats by over 20,000 votes and Yeovil, a Conservative win, the first in 36 years. Yet these results, in their way as sensational as many in Scotland, were ignored, although cameras and a reporter were present, for ever more pointless chat when both seats were declared.
The programme commenced at 10pm and it was almost four hours before the two Swindon seats and Nuneaton declared at 01.52, gave credence to the exit poll, Having had four hours of endless talk, then this would have been the time to concentrate on and show results.
The BBC, does just occasionally, listen. The disastrous coverage of the 2012 Diamond Jubilee River Pageant, also spoilt by a programme dominated with banal comments from Z list personalities. Criticism led by Stephen Fry, who tweeted the coverage was “celebrity driven drivel,” Jonathan Dimbleby and thousands of viewers resulted in an internal enquiry and a promise of more balanced coverage of state occasions in the future.
Last year saw a public outcry when it appeared that the BBC had dumbed down coverage of Wimbledon fortnight. Footage of games was replaced by “guests and a TV audience”, criticism was so high that there was rapid change for the second week. In both of these cases,the public outcry concerned a major event subsumed to banal “celebrity” driven comment,
It is time for those who interested in election night to campaign for the BBC to return to more election results, less election chat and no gymnastics for Jeremy Vine.
Unfortunately the BBC, with its internal culture of self regulation, rarely concedes any kind of error. Therefore those interested in election night as opposed to a programme of speeches and soundbites that have been tested to destruction during the campaign, need to ensure that the BBC understands this before they start planning for 2020.
It will be interesting to see what coverage is planned for this May. Just how much time will the BBC devote to the actual election results in this fascinating round of elections and how much time will be spent on their commentators talking to their guests will be a test of their coverage.
The BBC should be providing the results service for their viewers and listeners, not expecting the licence payer to view blogs and local news outlets just so Polly Toynbee, who has scarcely made an original remark in two and a half decades, can add to her bulging bank account, courtesy of BBC TV.
The 2015 election was a remarkable result, sadly the BBC missed many of the results and the archive will consist of commentary and spin that was irrelevant before dawn broke on May 8th. In 2066 viewers expecting an archive programme may wonder why on earth all these half forgotten figures were talking about what did not happen as opposed to what was happening before them on the night..