Since 'Bigotgate', the electronic media's
arrogant control of the election
has been complete
It was a mistake to dismiss Rupert Murdoch's influence on the election as casually as I did recently. Although it is no longer the Sun wot wins it, the greater clout these days is wielded by the same proprietor's Sky TV, which, having recorded the prime minister's private conversation in a car, promptly broadcast it. There was no inevitability about this; nor about the BBC's decision, soon afterwards, to follow suit.
To record a private conversation is one thing; to transmit it is quite another. The former was, by all accounts, one of life's little accidents; the latter was an invasion of privacy, unless there was some public interest defence for the action. It is hard to see any such defence in the words broadcast. Gordon Brown said nothing which cast doubt on the integrity of his political beliefs; all he did was express a personal distaste for the opinions of someone he had just met. Inconveniently for Mr Brown, the someone turned out to personify the media's three favourite stereotypes – pensioner, widow and granny. Later, when she sold her story to a national newspaper, Sky TV and the BBC had very little to say about her new-found status as astute businesswoman.
The ethics of transmitting a private conversation with no obvious public interest defence have not been explored, least of all by the perpetrators. After the election, at some media seminar, it will be fascinating to hear how they justify their behaviour. Would they have taken the same decision to dish a political leader by an invasion of privacy if they had been dealing with an obvious winner – say, Tony Blair in 1997 or Margaret Thatcher in 1983? You bet they wouldn't. The perception of Gordon Brown as a goner was the decisive factor. Unlike the ascendant Blair and Thatcher, Labour's presumed loser was fair game.
Since 'Bigotgate', the electronic media's arrogant control of this election has been complete. The night after Rochdale, in the last of the TV debates, immigration was raised for the third week in succession. No other single question was so exhaustively trawled. They had four and a half hours to cover the waterfront: instead they covered the gamut of human emotion from A to I. About poverty in the cities, the state of our public transport, the breakdown of rural life, the threat to the environment and – most saliently of all – human rights, there was not a single second of discussion. About the I word, somehow there ended up being 30 extremely repetitive minutes.
Just as the broadcasters have an invasion of privacy issue to answer, they have a duty to tell us how they chose the questions for the TV debates. They must explain why none of the questions I have just listed, and many others I could have listed, were not selected. I hope they do not insult us by suggesting that, among the thousands of questions received, none was received on any of these subjects. There must be some other explanation. Lacking any compelling evidence to the contrary, I suggest that immigration, playing as it does to so many fears and atavistic prejudices, makes better television than the erosion of civil liberties or the disappearance of the bus service.
The favoured questions, which have so shaped the course of the campaign, were not selected by a single panel with an over-arching responsibility to ensure balance and fairness, to prevent repetition, and to encourage variety and freshness of topic. Each television company was responsible for choosing the questions for its own part in the mini-series. The internal selection panels consisted only of executives from the companies; there were no independent voices. An exercise in popular participation? Puh-leese. The electronic media set the agenda quite ruthlessly, mostly in the interests of their own ratings, although the risk of bias in the selection was fairly obvious and not always avoided.
If the Labour Party is entitled to feel sore, so is the Scottish National Party. As one of the very few journalists to have supported its case to be included in the last of the debates, I was gratified on Sunday to be joined by a distinguished supporter – none other than the political editor of Sky TV, Adam Boulton, moderator of the second debate, who wrote in the Independent that, in future, the nationalist parties should be included in at least one of these debates. Well, that's nice to hear. It is just a pity that Mr Boulton did not make his position known until it was too late to influence the outcome of the present series. I doubt that it would have altered Lady Smith's judicial decision against the SNP, but the considered view of one of the moderators might have tempered its rather damning tone. The party was not so loopy in its demands, after all.
As the campaign nears its end, the electronic media – rampant from their victory for irrationality in Rochdale – continue to hunt in packs. The consensus throughout yesterday was that David Cameron has something called 'momentum'. This impression, confidently put about, seemed to be based mainly on Mr Cameron's own stated view of the situation rather than on any overwhelming polling evidence.
On BBC1's teatime news, a programme which seems to be pitched at an under-performing 10-year-old, the political editor Nick Robinson declared that 'there is a sense now' that the Browns are on their way out of Downing Street and the Camerons on the way in. Even an under-performing 10-year-old was entitled to know that yesterday's polls had all three parties within five or six percentage points of each other and that Gordon Brown made one of the speeches of his life to an audience of 2,000 in London, earning a standing ovation at the end of it; but these awkward facts were not permitted to interrupt the flow of the BBC's alternative narrative. To borrow from Mr Robinson, there is a sense now that it was the telly wot won it.