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Reflections on campaign TV coverage of UK elections 2015

Dr Maya Even, Visiting Fellow at the Reuters Institute, provides her reflections on campaign TV coverage of the UK elections, based on a paper she presented at the RISJ/Nuffield College Media and Politics Seminar ‘Reflections on the UK General Election and the Media: Two perspectives’ on Friday 8th May.  Professor Ivor Gaber also presented to the same seminar.

Maya also chaired a session on Who won the UK Election, How and Why?, on Thursday 14 May organised by Nuffield College Oxford at Europe House in London at which leading academics and pollsters analysed the result of the General Election, from. Watch this seminar via BBC iPlayer.                                             

REFLECTIONS ON CAMPAIGN TV COVERAGE - 2015*

Written by Dr Maya Even

In many ways this was the most challenging election for broadcasters since 1959, when they first took cameras into the contest.

Not 2 or 3 or even 4 but 7 parties to consider.

A result too close to call throughout the campaign.

A frustratingly controlled and stage managed contest.

A forecasted post-election scenario so fragmented and outside the UK normal election narrative that discussion about its implications took over the TV campaign.

And its length. At twenty-five days - the so-called short campaign was significantly longer than the previous 17-day election timetable, and any other campaign this side of the war.

But a few things hadn’t changed.

In the 2015 contest, TV news still remained the way most voters experienced the general election and for many this was further underlined by another recent trend.

For the 90% or so of non-marginal constituencies, there were no posters, billboards, hoardings, leaflets, canvassers, election meetings, walkabouts, photo-ops or politicians.  If you were not living in a marginal seat, election activity might as well not exist unless it were on TV. These really were the forgotten voters. And this was even truer for parts of the electorate who were not frequent users of Facebook or Twitter. Or whose broadband still wasn’t up to scratch. Apart from local radio and newspapers, TV –especially TV news – would shape the campaign for them.

For parties, even though there had been an increasing movement to the internet, television and news bulletins were still the primary battleground of the so-called air campaign and still (just about) the most important means of communicating with voters. 

These things were true of every campaign since the 1960s. They were still by and large true of 2015.

The Main Battleground - TV News

The decision to accord UKIP major party status was always going to make the life of the TV news editor in this election more complicated. Add to this the task of balancing coverage across so many more parties – it made it uniquely difficult.

The main bulletins on BBC and ITV were not formally extended in length, as they were for example in 1987 where they were doubled to 50 minutes, or in February,1974 where the BBC extended the main news to one hour and ITN to 47 minutes.

The proportion of time given to the election in each major news bulletin was roughly in line with previous elections –about 55%. 

News bulletin formats were similar to previous elections as well – typically with leaders tours, constituency reports, opinion polls and two-ways with correspondents on location or in the studio.

But the effect of so many parties in the field, particularly with the surprise impact of the SNP, was to make election news seem even more leader-dominated.

Campaign news has always focussed on leaders. From the 1960s to the 1990s the percentage of leaders compared to other party figures quoted in news bulletins ranged from about 48 % to about 60%. Mrs. Thatcher averaged about 51% against her party in the three elections she fought as leader. Tony Blair –about 56%.

But something changed in the last election. In 2010,  the figures shot up to over 70 percent for each of the three main party leaders. Some of this of course was due to the debates making their way into the bulletins.  And in 2015, the debates (now with 7 parties on show – 5 of which were making the political weather nationally) added to the fact that bulletins weren’t extended, meant other political figures were squeezed out; most virtually disappeared from the main bulletins. The leaders together swallowed nearly 3/4 of their parties’ coverage.

Where was the Chancellor? Or Ed Balls? Or Iain Duncan Smith -  architect of the much-mentioned welfare reform and prospective cuts?   Or any senior female politician for that matter? The leaders’ wives received more coverage than any non-leader female politician.

This  ‘presidentialisation’ of coverage was important for many reasons, but I’ll single out one: the election was increasingly cast by the broadcasters as a battle between leaders rather than parties. To some extent, this was the way that the parties elected to present themselves on TV, and this suited the broadcasters - nothing beats a personalised clash as a way of simplifying party messages. And it might have been too complicated and time-consuming to allot coverage to other figures, when there were so many parties in the field. But voters in the UK elect MPs not Presidents. And more time spent on leaders’ tours which were little more than glorified photo-ops, meant less time spent delving into the fairly complex issues at stake. 

Other things were squeezed out of the main news.

The morning press conferences – a long-standing feature of lunch and teatime bulletins for decades,  had been steadily losing prominence since 2001. By 2015, they’d been erased from the daily campaign of the two main parties.  In losing these, journalists lost their only daily opportunity to question leaders and other senior politicians and to ferry political arguments between rival camps. Lost too was a sense of structure and rhythm to the day. It also fed that central impression that the main parties were fighting risk-free campaigns on Planet Tory or Planet Labour with fewer challenges from journalists, from each other – or indeed from voters. 

Because even the-much maligned walkabouts and photo opportunities, which were largely created for, and a longtime staple of TV election news, had changed.

For one thing, where had all the voters gone?  One possible answer was they had decamped to Scotland to see Nicola Sturgeon. Every news bulletin that covered the Scottish campaign seemed filled with throngs of voters posing for selfies with the SNP leader.

But in England – they managed things differently.

As journalists complained about throughout the campaign, almost all the news clips of the main leaders were either amongst vetted employees or activists in office canteens or, even more weirdly, in out of the way building sites, where you couldn’t  tell the builders from the media from the politicians because they were all wearing high vis yellow vests and hard hats. But they featured barely any passersby.

Security was given as the reason but it was also a convenient excuse for leaders who spent much of the election avoiding unscripted, unvetted, unrehearsed street encounters with voters. So how and why did this happen?

We did not travel to this sanitised universe overnight.

In the 1970s with Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, the 1980s with Mrs. Thatcher and 1990s with John Major, even up to the early Blair campaigns with all the attendant IRA security risks and even in very close contests,  every news bulletin had pictures of leaders plunging into crowds of voters to do what politicians do – shake hands, sign autographs and go through the motions at least, of  engaging with voters. Eggs and flour bombs were thrown, there was vicious heckling, mobs chanted, politicians landed a punch or two – recall our Deputy Prime Minister in 2001. John Prescott was connecting with voters in a tradition which stretched back centuries. Indeed, without his equivalent, where would Hogarth and Trollope have found their electioneering heroes to immortalise? 

When their modern descendant -the television journalist - was finally admitted to the contests in the 1960s, this  campaign rowdiness became an increasingly common feature of the evening news, reaching a peak with the growth of student activism in the 1970s.  But not for much longer. Newly appointed professional campaign managers were horrified by television pictures of roaring hecklers. They were messy, unpredictable and TV cameras seemed to encourage the disorder. The Harold Wilson inspired walkabout (invented, we are told, by the ever-present Marcia Williams) was an early attempt at choreography, and from there it was a gradual slide to the orchestrated media events of the 1979 Conservative campaign. 

Over the next decades, any unpredictable behaviour was gradually erased from TV news. When it DID happen more recently – witness Gordon Brown getting a dressing down from a clearly unsanitised Gillian Duffy- who clearly hadn’t read the script –it was headline news because it had become such a rarity.

In 2015, every political advisor was terrified of a Gillian Duffy moment. And the contrast too, with the old fashioned and entirely Hogarthian campaign north of the border, could not have been  a more vivid illustration of how tame the English contest had become. The Scottish campaign seemed to occupy a parallel universe.

Another potent factor fed this controlling itch - a phobia of social media.  If a slip or a gaffe, a stumble, were caught by any onlooker with a mobile phone, it could be repeated endlessly and forever – the image became indelible. It could, advisers feared,  define the campaign. Now, no voter was going to make up his or her mind on the basis of a stumble but when the polls were apparently this close and campaign managers had become so risk-obsessed, no one was going to take the chance.

Issues: Substance vs Horserace

One of the frequent charges made against broadcasters in recent campaigns was that TV didn't provide enough airtime for the issues that voters wanted to see covered.  In the 2005 election for example, Iraq was number 11 out of 12 on a list of voter concerns according to YouGov  and immigration was number one. Broadcasters must have read that list the wrong way round,  because by the end of the election, the issue which had received the most airtime was Iraq, while immigration –was somewhere near the bottom.

Well with UKIP and Nigel Farage as a sort of issue-list made flesh,  this was clearly not going to happen in 2015.

When voters were asked in an Ipsos/Mori poll at the beginning of the election what issues concerned them the most, number 1 was immigration, 2 - the NHS, 3 - the economy, 4 and 5 – unemployment and education. 

The broadcasters'  top issues in the first week of the campaign as ranked by airtime were:

Number 1- election process- that’s opinion polls, party strategy, horserace issues.

2. the economy.

3. constitutional issues - the consequences of a hung parliament

Immigration? Number 6 and the NHS was 7- both with under 4% of airtime. Education was 16th with less than 1%.

One other statistic. Through the entire campaign, less than half of election news airtime for all five main broadcasters was given to substantive issues of policy - the NHS, economy, education, tax . The BBC gave them the most time with 48.6% of its coverage and  Ch 5, the least time with 31%. The rest of the time was given over to issues of election process.  In the last full week of the contest, Sky News spent 80% of their election news bulletins covering horse race issues and the polls.  For serious broadcasters -this is worth a rethink.  And this is regardless of the unexpected result, which in itself rendered some of the coverage overblown and badly focussed. Most voters never ranked these issues as serious concerns. It a critical area of disconnect between voters, viewers and broadcasters – and indeed between broadcasters and political parties.

Which brings us to the Leaders’ Debates

The most remarkable thing about the debates was the incredibly blithe assumption at the end of the last contest that the leaders’ confrontations were now a permanent part of the general election furniture. Given the further complications presented by UKIP,  it was a minor miracle the debates appeared at all in any shape or form.  The fact that they survived, even without the 'head to head', is the best hope of their reappearance at the next election.

In the event, the 2015 compromise gave us a chance to see if some of the teething troubles of the 2010 debates had been, to some extent, ameliorated.

In terms of the vast and overblown coverage they spawned in 2010, this time, pre and post- comment on the debates was halved, down from 31 % of items mentioning the debates in 2010,  to 15% in 2015.

But viewing audiences, as expected, fell as well.

It is difficult to compare like for like as there were clear differences in format, and the timing of this Easter break might have had an effect, but the totals for 2010 were  approximately 22.7 million. In 2015,  they were down to 15.9 million.

Apart from the news bulletins,  the TV debates were television’s most important contribution to the campaign. So how did they influence it? As far as changing first, public perceptions of the party leaders,  secondly, further coverage of the leaders, thirdly, parties’ strategies and their fortunes and ultimately, the outcome of the campaign - the debates had an impact, though it was not always measurable. Here are just a few examples.

The first debate gave a dramatic visual dimension to the concept of multi party politics – a fairly unfamiliar term to most of the electorate. The sight of seven party leaders, three of whom most viewers had never seen before, all debating as equals on one stage, some with the potential to affect the outcome,  gave the public as well as the leaders themselves a glimpse of how Westminster could change.  Whatever Labour, Conservative and most broadcasters’ insistence that this was a contest between the two main parties, the image was one of the most potent and enduring of the election.

And then there was The Nicola Sturgeon factor.  It is a banality at this point to say that the debates made Nicola Sturgeon an overnight star. But her impact on the TV campaign looks even more remarkable when one delves into some of the statistics. In the weeks after the first and second debate, Nicola Sturgeon received more speaking news airtime than Any other leader on Sky News, and received a greater share of coverage on the BBC than Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage. She even won airmiles from the debate where she was absent, after Ed Miliband promised – sort of – not to talk to the SNP. Her widely broadcast rebuke earned her just about as much airtime as Ed Miliband’s original pledge.  So whatever the polls and the party spinners said about the winners in the immediate aftermath of the first and then second debate – the amount of increased airtime she received tells its own story. For the broadcasters, Nicola Sturgeon was the winner by a mile.

But almost all the players were affected too. Both the Labour and Conservatives parties had to scramble to change strategies because of the Sturgeon factor.

And UKIP and the LibDems had to face the fact of diminishing TV coverage because of her sudden rise to prominence.

And unlike Cleggmania, which sparked a huge surge in the LibDem projected vote but did not translate into seats ( in fact seats were lost in 2010)   the Sturgeon factor appeared to have helped the SNP cement their eventual seat triumph.  The available polling data after each of Nicola Sturgeon’s appearances showed a measurable increase in her support which was maintained till the end of the contest.

For all those reasons, quite apart from the result,  it made the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon the undeniable winners of the TV campaign, even though - extraordinarily - she wasn’t even standing in the election.

And I think I’ll leave it there. Clearly a lot of other things to discuss; the party election broadcasts- very invisible now, the other minor parties, the way the polls hijacked the broadcasters’ agenda, the political interviews, the brilliance of Andrew Neil – best broadcaster of the campaign. And the coverage of an extraordinary night in British politics, where voters, broadcasters, politicians pollsters and analysts all struggled to come to grips with a remarkable exit poll and result -in the light of what had gone before.

*I am grateful to David Deacon and the Loughborough University Communication Research Centre  aa well as Richard Sambrook and Stephen Cushion and the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media  and Cultural Studies for their invaluable election analysis and statistics. Though we found ourselves at slight variance over a result or two (and the fault is surely mine) their data is reflected throughout this paper. Any errors that remain are of course my own.

MAYA EVEN

8 MAY, 2015

Photo credit: Televised leaders' debate in London, April 16, 2015 © POOL New / Reuters