With David Cameron appearing to put the latest of a series of final nails in the coffin of televised leaders’ debates, last week’s Journalists’ Charity and London Press Club debate looking at the likely impact of the media on May’s election could not have been timelier.
So naturally the chair of Can it still be The Sun wot wins it? ITV News political editor Tom Bradby started on that topic with his panel comprised of representatives of UK’s major print, broadcast and digital news outlets and a leading pollster. While Times columnist Rachel Sylvester said that the Prime Minister was looking not just scared but arrogant in his attempts to prevent the debates, YouGov president Peter Kellner said that Cameron and Conservative campaign strategist Lynton Crosby were right to calculate that a row about debates will not matter in two months. He also argued that broadcasters had messed up the opportunity – a view challenged by Sky News political correspondent Anushka Asthana – and if they want to hold them in 2020 they should start discussing the principles with the parties shorty after this election.
Associate editor Trevor Kavanagh drew laughs from the packed crowd at the Telegraph’s conference theatre by stating: “The Sun has never been one for ‘on the one side this, on the other side that..’ – there will be no debate.” He added that any chances had disappeared five years ago after Nick Clegg’s strong performance saw him come to national prominence. James Kirkup, Telegraph executive editor, politics, said it was a shame that by being focused on the risks involved the Conservatives were passing up an opportunity to gain. Bradby said he had never seen a more disciplined election campaign than the Conservatives this time around, with Crosby clearly in control.
Addressing the title of the debate, Kavanagh, who was The Sun’s political editor at the time of the 1992 election, described the famous headline as an “emotional spasm” and argued that the previous edition’s headline If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights accompanied by a picture of the Labour leader as a lightbulb, was the crucial one. After Kinnock’s fall into the sea and Ed Miliband’s bacon sandwich were referenced, London Press Club chair Doug Wills asked whether it was in fact the photographers that won it.
The panel downplayed the likely impact of social media on the election. “It is either triumph or disaster – there is no shade of grey,” said Kirkup, while Asthana agreed. “If something lands on the front page of a newspaper it carries much more weight than the white noise of social media.” She added that anyone who argued that newspapers weren’t still influential should think back to Cameron’s recent refusal to be drawn in on the Page 3 debate. Kavanagh took issue with her claim that broadcasters, unlike the papers, were unbiased, stating the BBC was soft left by its own admission – even citing The Archers as an example.
Speaking after the debate Journalists’ Charity thanked Bradby, the panel, the Press Club and the Telegraph for hosting the event, which raised over £1,200 for the charity, which provides support for journalists in need. “With care costs increasing we need all the help we can get so it was great to see such a large turnout tonight. We are in a quite critical situation; we are addressing it but would urge anyone in a position to help to do so.”
Five points from the panel
- Anushka Asthana: Conservative moderators are silent now but after the election there will be a war for the soul of the party
- Peter Kellner: The days of governments “steamrolling” parliament were over, to the extent that a stable, lasting coalition was unlikely this time around; he predicted a second election either later this year or in 2016
- James Kirkup: Conservative MP Ken Clarke is the bumblebee of Westminster: Just as they technically should not be able to fly he should not be able to fly Clarke should not be able to function as a politicians, but he has done to great effect
- Trevor Kavanagh: more people were likely not to vote because Russell Brand, with his 9 million Twitter followers, tells them to, than to vote the way The Sun suggests, despite adding: “The man’s a fool.”
- Rachel Sylvester: People increasingly no longer want a tribal identity, be it one of the major political parties or a particular newspaper