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Election 2017: It’s the TV wot won it

The ITV Leaders' Debate, a live two-hour debate programme before the General Election. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

The debate that never happened, the mauling at the hands of snarling interviewers and numerous car-crash moments … Television has both shaped and scarred the election campaign

So that’s it. The General Election is done, dusted and decomposing on the scrapheap of political history. Good riddance, over and out… stand by for the next one.

But while millions of long suffering citizens are already trying hard to forget 52 tawdry days of talking head misery, a spot of serious post-match analysis is warranted. Something went wrong with this unedifying campaign and – let’s face it – television was the problem.

Never before have we endured such a strangely disconnected affair. While the robotic Theresa May used television to avoid meeting as any many real people as humanly possible, the artful Jeremy Corbyn made sure he was filmed being adored by baying crowds of his enthusiastic admirers to project an image of incredible popularity. Smoke and mirrors designed to manipulate rather than inform the disengaged masses.

From the moment Mother Theresa announced that she was going to the polls in the forlorn hope she could hoodwink us into believing she was – drum roll – strong and stable, we witnessed all-out television war. And in the bitter battle of the box there were no prisoners, precious few winners and a lot of losers.

Buckling under the relentless demands of more than 40 hours a week of wipe-out electoral coverage, Westminster’s wounded warriors fell thick and fast. The wheat field-frolicking Prime Minister, the Labour leader, Diane Abbott, Tim Farron, Paul ‘Natalie’ Nuttall (RIP UKIP), Barry Gardiner, Sir Michael Fallon, Emily Thornberry and many others … all went down bravely fighting their cause on the telly.

Watching these plodding desperadoes spewing their partisan inanities was at first painful. And then intensely tedious. No one ever won a vote by boring the punters to tears. Which may explain why spreadsheet Phil Hammond the less-than-exciting Chancellor became the invisible man. Where was he?

Meanwhile, apparently content to reduce every interview to a catch ’em out session, the mostly white, old and male television stars were poised vulture-like to pounce on any MP who forgot a statistic or failed to remember something they said in 1974. As if it were a game show: ‘I’m sorry Diane, that’s the wrong answer and I’m afraid you’re out. But thanks so much for taking part in New Police Deal Or No Deal’ … ‘No, Theresa, we can’t accept Coalition of Chaos and you can’t phone your friend, Lynton. But what a plucky contestant you’ve been. Bye’.

Of course, politicians should be across their briefs, but at times the television titans’ lust for exposing their memory lapses bordered on childish. Although, in fairness, he invented it, Jeremy Paxman’s technique of contemptuously huffing, puffing and confecting theatrical anger, looked contrived and dated. Newsnight circa 1995. As for the rest of the 24/7 on-screen interrogations, surely there were simply way too many of them. Andrew Neil, Julie Etchingham, The Andrew Marr Show, Daily Politics, Sunday Politics, All Out Politics, Peston On Sunday, Sophy Ridge On Sunday – the torture never stopped.

That said, in the 21st century it’s anachronistic that our curiously old-fashioned politicians still have no idea how to handle the thoroughly modern medium that more than any other directly influences the way people vote. Instead of staggering into the studios like bumbling amateurs, why aren’t MPs taught how to do television like professionals? Doesn’t matter what side of the fence they’re on, the vast majority of them are clueless.

Talking of clueless, while she made a point of ruthlessly highlighting the hapless Diane Abbott’s comical catastrophes, May deftly avoided confronting her own disastrous deficiencies. Wilting under the harsh light of the unforgiving airwaves, the pusillanimous Prime Minister fared almost as badly as the shambolic Shadow Home Secretary. Lights, camera, lack of action… there she was, an automaton insulated from reality, spouting empty slogans in front of placard-waving sycophants. With star quality horribly conspicuous by its absence, these stage-managed, just-for-TV gatherings were stupefying and did more harm than good. Now, like her career, timid Theresa’s reputation is in tatters.

When hostilities commenced on April 18th the nation was prepared to concede that for all her faults, Chairman May was resolute, experienced and tough. But after she revealed herself to be weak, wobbly and frightened of taking on her rivals, the dramatic downgrade in her status is so severe that the consensus is she’s finished. In stark contrast, the upwardly mobile Corbyn is on an astonishing roll. A hung parliament is a triumph for Labour.

No one’s suggesting that the ability to perform well on television should be the preeminent qualification for a party leader. But it should be a qualification. Poised, confident, relaxed in the limelight – May is none of these things. The downhill road travelled by the Conservatives would not have been so rocky had she not resorted to the constant stilted recycling of those five patronising soundbites that turned her into a national laughing stock.

And needless to say, the Tory ride would have been so much smoother if the scaredy-cat PM had consented to a face-to-face debate with Corbyn. Next time the blue team choose their captain, they’re going to have to recruit someone who isn’t terrified of the small screen. Someone who can sell a manifesto.

In future, please spare us the traditionally mindless debate about the debate. Why not copy the American system where the two leaders vying to run the country are forced by convention to go to head to head? What’s the big deal? Those odd spectacles in which May and Corbyn agreed to be in the same studio but not in the same debate, were faintly ludicrous. And in terms of the lesser leaders’ television clashes, lining up six of the them in a row to snap tetchily at each other from behind lecterns wasn’t worth the effort. The BBC’s belligerent bust-up in Cambridge was a 90 minute waste of primetime.

As was blindingly obvious, the Labour supremo was miles better on the box than Mrs Robot and her bulging bag of life-sapping clichés. But despite his overall success, like so many long-term residents of the Westminster bubble, Corbyn still doesn’t understand what a terrible look it is when he blatantly dodges questions. Particularly, when the tricky topic on the table is the nuclear deterrent he’s desperate to ditch but his party wants to keep. Never once did Jeremy give a straight answer. Same situation with Brexit, about which he delivered nothing but pointless platitudes before blurting out something meaningless about world peace and then running for cover.

As for the all-at-sea Lib Dems’ commander Tim Farron, he learned his television lesson the hard way. Anything less than comfortable in your personal history will be taken down and used in evidence against you. Church-goer Farron ducked and dived over whether he thought gay sex was a sin (in the end he decided it wasn’t) and then got skewered by an ancient interview he’d given to the Salvation Army magazine War Cry in which he questioned the morality of abortion. As a result, we were diverted from the central issues and the Lib Dems’ key Brexit message never really got heard.

Who prepared Farron for his embarrassing mauling at the hands of the BBC’s grand inquisitor Andrew Neil? Against stiff opposition, this was the campaign’s very worst television performance by a politician. Not even car crash Abbott could match wild-eyed Farron’s manic head wobbling and nonsensical verbal diarrhoea. His disconcerting antics probably lost the Lib Dems more votes than his awkward religious convictions. And you can’t say worse than that. What a mess.

But if this was the General Election that television generally spoiled, who’s fault was it? Was it the broadcasters and their insatiable appetite for Westminster showbiz? Was it the party spin doctors who see television as a way to control the narrative by bending the truth? Or was it the prattling politicians who, either in shouty attack dog mode or pathetically not up to speed on their chosen subjects, did little to raise the tone? The truth is both sides need to up their game and the rancid relationship between the television industry and MPs requires urgent recalibration.

The growing attrition between increasingly aggressive television producers and increasingly paranoid MPs is pernicious. As pushy broadcasters jostled to fill their litany of repetitive programmes and politicians preferred underhand tactics and juvenile Lego language to grown-up discussions and honesty, democracy was not served but hindered. After the most condescending campaign in history treated the public like gullible fools, something has to change.

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