BBC News 50th anniversary - Political coverage

 by Martin Belam, 8 July 2004

On Tuesday I had the pleasure of attending the last panel session held at BBC Television Centre to celebrate the 50th anniversary of BBC television news, an examination of how the news reporting of politics had changed over recent years. The panel was hosted by Jeremy Vine, and consisted of John Cole, John Sergeant and Andrew Marr, all at one time (or currently) BBC Political Editor.

The panel kicked off by showing the now infamous clip of John Sergeant discussing the Thatcher leadership challenge vote when mid-live-to-camera piece she emerged from the building behind him, telling lies that she would fight on when in fact she would resign. According to him Peter Sissons in his earpiece and 13 million viewers were shouting "She's behind You!". John said it was a very satisfying moment, as it made his career, and finished her's off. From his performance today he clearly is a potential successor to the late Peter Ustinov in the raconteur stakes.

On a more serious note they discussed the change that John Cole had bought to reporting on the BBC. He felt that he had bought the keener inquisitive political comment style from newspapers into television. John Sergeant felt that before John Cole the concept of balance and impartiality had been so ingrained that people at the BBC tended to report issues by saying "On the one hand the Conservatives are saying this. On the other hand Labour are saying the other. And the Liberals have said some stuff about it too. There you go". John Cole changed all that, and they used a clip to illustrate it. The report shown was from the Labour Party Conference in 1985 when Neil Kinnock made his stand against the militant tendency.

The package shown featured a long excerpt of Kinnock, followed by the clips of Eric Heffer walking out, and Derek Hatton shouting "liar". At the end it cut to John Cole who said that if Kinnock wins this battle it will change the face of British politics forever. This was a fundamental shift by the BBC from straight reportage to analysis (so naturally they used a clip where he turned out to be almost prophetic).

One thing that struck me very much was Andrew Marr's driven sense of purpose. Early on in the panel he stated that:

a lot of what I do is translating political speak into human speak

and later that

the way to get me off the telly is for them to get better

It was a theme he returned to again and again. He seemed to feel that our current crop of politicians have not done enough themselves to master the art of communicating to the-person-in-the-street via the dominant medium of the day, and therefore political correspondents had to fill the gap. One question from the floor asked if any of the panel would consider following Martin Bell into Parliament. Andrew Marr said he was "biologically" different from politicians.

But he also displayed an admiration of those who do go into politics, pointing out it isn't a good deal. He said most backbenchers get paid less than the people covering their activities, anything in your private life is fair game for journalists, you are mocked and jeered all the way to the top on the very slim chance you reach the top, and then if you finally get there and have something to say "that effing Andrew Marr bounces onto the screen" and tries to say it for you.

John Cole made an interesting point about the fact that there had been a battle for years to get television cameras into the House of Commons, yet now most coverage of parliamentary issues seems desperate to spend as little time as possible showing Parliament, and instead displays an eagerness to get back to the studio and invited guests.

There were questions about whether they felt the media itself had a part to play in the perceived apathy that currently surrounds the democratic process - something John Cole described as dangerous. There was a feeling from the panel that the New Labour party machinery had been very pleased with itself in the run up to Tony Blair's election victory, as they had managed to get the concepts of sex, politics and corruption all wrapped up into one neat package called "sleaze" with which to tar the Tories. They were less pleased when, after a short pause to draw breath, the same newspapers and media outlets repackaged "sleaze" as "spin" and launched the same sort of attacks at the new government.

It wasn't a new phenomena, John Cole recalled watching episodes of TW3 in the sixties alongside politicians from the Labour party who thought the mocking of Alex Douglas-Home was hilarious. Their tune was swiftly changed once in office when the target changed.

They also discussed whether the whole "satire" industry was to blame for demeaning the public's opinion of politicians. With John Sergeant on the panel naturally the subject of HIGNFY came up - and opinion was divided. John Cole was horrified that in a survey a significant proportion of the younger audience named HIGNFY as their principle souce of news. John Sergeant had a different view, and felt that satire could actually strengthen the image and position of a politician. He cited the example of Spitting Image. He felt that for every person seeing Margaret Thatcher as a handbag-wielding tyrant, another person would see the caricature of being symbolic of strong leadership. Likewise he felt that whilst John Major was apparently upset at his grey-man portrayal, the very fact that the media satirically portrayed him as a total contrast to Margaret Thatcher worked in his favour.

I have a awful lot of time for John Cole - he was the man on the telly who explained politics to me as I was growing up, so I have to let one of his stories be the last word here. He recalled how in 1988 the BBC had decided to do one of what to him seemed a whole series of re-vamps of the 9 O'Clock News, and so he got a memo from the new editor. The memo was very flattering about his work, and said that the new editor wanted to make John Cole the face of political coverage on the 9 O'Clock News, and feature him nearly every night. There was just one thing, they felt that in order to be the political face of the 9 this meant that John Cole shouldn't appear on any other BBC programme. John was naturally a little put-out and a frank exchange of views followed - he was the BBC political editor, he had to do the Today programme (which in those days meant physically going into the studio), and he reported directly to the Director-General. John finished his anecdote with the line:

I often wonder what happened to that Editor. Chap by the name of....Mark Thompson

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