General Election 2010: Everyone a winner as television lends a shine to the tarnished image of politics
THE sense of loss is palpable. All over Britain – everywhere the prime ministerial wannabes met a "chap", a "fellow" and a "black man" – people are footering around, wondering what to do with their Thursdays. A great, unifying TV event is over, and the feeling is worse than there being no more Brideshead Revisited or World Cup or Lionel Blair having semaphored his last on school-skivers' fave Give Us A Clue. Because we didn't expect the debates to be so gripping.
I've still got all three in my Sky+ trove of programmes tagged K for keep. Four episodes of my daughter's Peppa Pig had to be zapped to fit in the last one. Will there be a box set? Director's cut, with extras? I hope so, and I hope it includes Sky's breathless build-up to No 2. Television for the blind, my father would have called it. "There's Mr Cameron, going round the car to open the door for his wife – opening it now…" And to think Harry Carpenter used to be mocked for commentating on the Wimbledon rain.
Everyone had to up their game – media, parties, leaders – and the real winner has been much-maligned politics. For too many people, "political debate" used to mean the ya-boo-sucks of Westminster. Now it means substantive, grown-up discourse involving intelligent men. Unable to rely on sound-bites for a whole hour-and-a-half, all three rose to the challenge. We got to know them a bit better. We got to know who Nick Clegg is.
The debates were good for the Lib Dems because they gave Clegg equal podium rights and good for every hacked-off voter whose default moan has always been: "One lot's as bad as the other." Now, instead of the same old two, tyrannosaurus rex vs triceratops, there are three. And, since the first debate, the same old two haven't been able to get by beating their chests in the usual way.
From the first debate, Clegg got Gordon Brown and David Cameron staring into the camera. He got Cameron addressing questioners by their Christian names. By the end of the third, Cameron was firing them all over the shop. Never again on TV would a Tory leader be sunk by a moment's forgetfulness, like Margaret Thatcher when she forgot the name of housewife Diana Gould as they argued over the Falklands War.
No 3 was Cameron's best; No 1 was his worst. David Camera, the great communicator, didn't show that night – just one of many surprises thrown up by the process. Brown didn't "die" like some suspected he might; nor was he quite the Gruffalo. And the Lib Dems, as represented by Clegg, weren't as weird as some thought they'd be.
This is not a golden age for TV, re its ability to amaze. Revelations about faked documentaries and the sheer relentlessness of reality programming have dimmed its power. But during the debates we didn't know what was going to happen next. There was drama from week to week (has Clegg, likened to Churchill and a Nazi in the space of 24 hours, peaked too early? Is Cameron's chin too shiny?) and the spin doctors could only watch it unfold like the rest of us. TV, then, was a winner too.
The sheer novelty of No 1 carried ITV through, despite a rubbish set which gave us shots of random chipboard and a stunted, shouty presenter. Sky did a better job and the BBC better still.
The formula isn't perfect; those 76 rules need some amending. For instance, in the closing addresses, when they're allowed to use their "sincere" voices, the leaders come across like Leslie Crowther, Bob Monkhouse and Derek Batey in a face-off to find game-show telly's most oleaginous host. But the blips will be removed, for make no mistake, the debates are here to stay.
On Friday, many papers ran with a photograph of the three at their lecterns, Brown and Clegg kicking up left legs in unison like the more animated members of Kraftwerk while Cameron held down the beat. It's already one of the images of the year. Was it really only three weeks ago that the leaders were trying to "out-town" each other over places visited, then, after the whole country had ridiculed them for it, never mentioning another place-name again? One more example of the debates' power and influence, and how much influence rests with us, now heading for the polling stations in greater numbers.
AFTER the vote on 6 May, no-one will say, "It's the Sun wot won it." Indeed, far from recalling the mythic skewering of Labour leader Neil Kinnock in 1992, this has been a campaign in which the issue of press power has been put on the line. The next incumbent of Number 10 will not owe the press.
After years of being used to the political class kowtowing to press barons, this might seem an odd conclusion. But has press coverage been decisive this time? If we look at Nick Clegg, the answer is no.
Television has changed everything this past three weeks. The first leaders' debate had an extraordinary impact, thrusting Clegg into unexpected limelight. The two follow-up debates also had a profound effect on press coverage. They made leadership performance the dominant story until, after the final confrontation, the papers (and polls) handed the bouquet for the last debate to David Cameron.
There are some telling indications of the press's lack of clout. In the News Corporation camp, Rupert's heir apparent, James Murdoch, and ex-Sun editor Rebecca Brooks apparently stormed into the Independent's offices to berate the editor. They objected to this ad: "Rupert Murdoch won't decide this election – you will." As Cameron's fortunes stalled, fear of losing influence brought about this stushie. The Clegg effect had rattled the cage. Meanwhile,
another ex-Sun editor, David Yelland, revealed that his paper had purposely avoided covering the Lib Dems.
The strange weakening of press muscle was most apparent in two right-wing attacks on Clegg. The Mail on Sunday gave us "The United Nations that make up Nick Clegg", his "internationalism" and "exotic lineage and cosmopolitan lifestyle". Immigration is an explosive topic and serious debate on the EU hard to find. So who could trust a man with a Spanish wife and Dutch and Russian parentage? Much of the electorate, it seems.
The Daily Telegraph went for "Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem donors and payments into his private bank accounts". This thorough piece was widely picked up by other papers and broadcasters. But despite a Telegraph follow-up, the mud just didn't stick.
So Clegg owes the press no favours - although the Guardian's conversion from Labour to Lib Dem is a significant scalp. Cameron, too, might consider television exposure has been more crucial to his success. Brown, however, will rue the day he ever clipped on a radio mic. "Brown toast", headlined a gleeful Sun after his disastrous two-faced response to Mrs Duffy in Rochdale. No credit is due to the Sun. Throughout this election the press has been a follower, not a leader. It was the mic wot lost it.
Professor Philip Schlesinger directs the Centre for Cultural Policy Research at the University of Glasgow
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