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What a mockery of political coverage

November 14, 2008

ISN'T IT GREAT that we have such superb, expert, political, journalism these days? It’s just as well, or we might have been completely blindsided by the Glenrothes byelection. I mean, wouldn’t it be really, really embarrassing if every journalistic source, from TV and Radio, through all the major newspapers, and all over the web, had predicted a stonking SNP win, a great upset for Gordon Brown, which would have been extremely damaging to the Prime Minister and his future leadership if the Labour Party.

 

Imagine how embarrassed they would all be if this actually didn’t turn out to be the case, and that Labour had actually got more votes than they attracted at the last general election, and held the seat with a substantial majority of 6,737 votes.

 

Ooops. That didn’t really happen, did it?

 

Presumably all the skilled political analysts, including many, many dozens of British political journalists, were all looking the other way. Actually most of them were in the USA at the time, observing the US Presidential election – a contest in which they were fairly uninformed. being, after all, experts in the UK political system rather than the US one.

 

One rather ridiculous example of this was the weekly BBC1 show, This Week, which is the only evening TV show that specialises in British politics. As a Thursday night show it went out exactly as the Glenrothes by-election polls had closed and the votes were being counted. 

 

After all, Glenrothes was a pretty big political story. Everybody had decided that this was a massive test for Gordon Brown, and after the drubbing suffered by Labour in the Glasgow East by-election, was a hugely important event, made even more significant by the fact that it was being held in the constituency bordering his own. So you might expect that this TV programme might have relocated itself outside of the ‘Westminster Village’ and moved, temporarily, to central Fife.

 

Well, it moved out of the Westminster Village all right – but it actually moved to Times Square in New York where they were actually a couple of days late for the big breaking story. The US Presidential Election having been held on the Tuesday, two days before This Week is broadcast.

 

Never mind, it gave Michael Portillo, Dianne Abbott, and Andrew Neil the opportunity to bask in the aftermath of the historic win for Barack Obama. In a small diversion from all things American, they took a brief report from Newsnight’s Michael Crick, who looked startled and reported that all was not going the SNP’s way in Glenrothes and that Labour might, actually, just hold on to the seat. This report was treated almost as an irritation, and they quickly got back to taking in the sights and sounds of Times Square.

 

Of course, the US Presidential Elections was a huge story – one of the biggest in living memory. It was, unusually, an open competition in which no President or former Vice-President was standing. It was, of course, partly a referendum on the Bush administration, and it was, after all, the first time that either a black man would be elected as President, or a woman as Vice-President.

 

But I wonder if was right for the BBC to carpet-bomb the USA with their British-based correspondents. The election was covered as if it was happening here in the UK. David Dimbleby was shipped over to anchor their coverage (presumably because of an obscure clause in the BBC’s Constitution that all election night programmes must be hosted by a Dimbleby), even though they have resident experts in Matt Frei and Justin Webb, both of whom know much more about the US political system.

 

It is not as if the USA speaks a different language and needs interpreting back to the British. Most discerning viewers following the election in the UK found that the coverage on CNN, CNBC or Fox News, readily available here on satellite, provided a much better service than the BBC, ITV or Sky. CNN even beamed their correspondents in by ‘hologram’, in a spectacular Hollywood-style stunt.

 

One can only imagine what it cost the BBC to cover the US Presidential campaign and their production on Election Night. Clearly a massive sum was invested in all these correspondents, studios, links and parties.

 

But surely we pay our BBC license fee largely for its comprehensive news coverage, and we are entitled to expect the BBC to provide excellent, thorough, and incisive reporting of major UK political stories. And this is also true of political coverage from all of our major newspapers.

 

So what happened in Glenrothes? Even as the polls closed, the assumption was still that the SNP would give Labour a run for their money. 

 

Compared to the complexity of opinion polling a massive, diverse, country, such as the USA, and coming up with an accurate result, it should be a doddle to run an accurate opinion poll in such a homogenous community as Glenrothes and accurately interpret the feelings of the Fifers.

 

Or maybe they couldn’t be bothered, because their journalists were all having fun on the other side of the Atlantic. 

 

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