Anyone who tells you they know how next year’s general election will play out is either a fool or full of it. No political team in print or broadcast media has got its head around 2015. Once upon a time — even four years ago — there was a simple formula for covering an election on TV. The top dogs followed the bookies’ favourites around the country, the number twos and threes followed the losers and the cubs were sent out on the stump with the Liberal Democrats. But that won’t cut it this time; not in an era of four-party politics and with no party looking likely to achieve a majority.
The shadow of the leaders’ debates hangs heavy over the election, not just in Downing Street but in TV land, too. There is a weird outbreak of unity between the broadcasters. Their plans to get various party leaders on stage to hammer it out live on air rely on an element of good behaviour in a normally bitchy industry made up of fiercely competitive rivals, but it’s still showbusiness and the sniping is never far away. Leaving aside the fact that the debate negotiations might blow up, are the reporting teams ready for the election that is going to be unlike any other?
‘No one knows who is going to win,’ says almost everyone, articulated by a senior Sky News producer. ‘We will have someone with Ukip for the first time, and obviously we won’t be alone in that, but that’s not the only change — it’s not us versus the BBC any more. It’s being able to be the first to get something out there in media beyond television, which a lot of people have not got their heads around.’
Sky is seen as having had ‘a good Scottish referendum’ — the industry’s dress rehearsal for 2015. Their younger team of reporters were spread across Scotland and beat the BBC behemoth to the results throughout the night. ‘It’s a model that will be rolled out next year — all hands to the politics deck,’ say Sky sources. But there are concerns about political editor Faisal Islam, who has hardly set Westminster alight since leaving Channel 4. ‘I think it’s safe to say the wrong decision was made, dontcha think?’ says one of Sky’s household name presenters. The joke among technical staff is said to be ‘and now to the real political editor, Joey Jones’, when they cut to the long-standing deputy.
Meanwhile, the BBC cannot rest on its laurels. First there was the row between David Dimbleby and almost everyone else who thought it was time he let someone else have a go at one of the best jobs in political journalism — hosting the BBC’s overnight show. Dimbers won out and pesky upstart Huw Edwards remains confined to the follow-up coverage. Andrew Neil will succeed Jeremy Paxman as the pitbull interviewer across the coverage, while Jeremy Vine will be let out of his Radio 2 box again to do the naff graphics.
ITV was not as kind to its more senior broadcasters, with News at Ten stalwart Alastair Stewart relieved of overnight and leaders’ debate duties. Questions are being asked about Tom Bradby, the novelist turned scriptwriter, chatshow host and somewhat part-time political editor of ITV News. He is a charming chap, but BBC rivals question his commitment.
At Channel 4, which has bagged Paxman for its theoretical leaders’ debate, there is concern they might be taking the ‘Guardian on TV’ thing too far. ‘Gary is a brilliant impartial journalist, whose work is published in an arena of leftists,’ worries a friend of political editor Gary Gibbon. With tension boiling between Jon Snow and critical Tory MPs whom he lambasts on sight, and number two Krishnan Guru-Murthy taking to Twitter to berate Tory chairman Grant Shapps, a Tory source claimed: ‘I would be surprised if C4 makes it through the election without an Ofcom investigation.’
Back in BBC land, there is a sideshow going on. It is widely expected that this will be Nick Robinson’s last election as political editor. He’s ‘almost irreplaceable’, says one colleague, ‘a brilliant broadcaster who pisses people off and is a slave to no one’. Though others are more disparaging; ‘He’s the only person not to groan when Craig Oliver calls,’ one says, pointing to a closeness not only to No. 10, but also No. 11, where his former producer Thea Rogers spins for the Chancellor. They are big shoes to fill and the campaign is shaping up to be an extended audition. Keep an eye on James Landale and Laura Kuenssberg who, though confined to the increasingly dumbed-down Newsnight, is firm favourite to be the first woman in the role.
The only thing less clear than the outcome of the election is who will win the war of the airwaves.