Watching the Election from home

 by Martin Belam, 7 April 2005

I've been stuck at home for a couple of days, which has given me plenty of time to flick around News 24 and Sky News to follow the election campaign. It seems ironic that in not agreeing to a televised debate between the party leaders to avoid the adversarial style of politics in a USA presidential election, the parties seem to have replaced it with an adversarial campaign process that is 'the party machine' versus 'the press'.

Yesterday Blair was getting visibly exasperated by the line of questioning taken by the press pack, and today it was Michael Howard's turn to have a carefully prepared media management event wrecked by the insistence of the leading lights of British political coverage in asking questions he didn't want to answer. ITN's Nick Robinson is emerging as the star of these press conferences, yesterday it was is the Chancellor "thinking what you're thinking", today it was 'don't targets save lives if they get people treated quicker?'. I'm not totally convinced though that this does much to explain issues to the public and get them engaged in the debate.

BBC News have launched a very impressive site to cover the election, which we are pushing by adding a new election panel into the homepage:

Election panel on the homepage

It is the third time we've used this flexible slot, following the tsunami and Comic Relief. I think it is fantastic when we have it there for these kind of one-off events. It means that for April we don't have to have the promo space on the homepage dominated by neutral pictorial treatments of the election. Instead the creative team can concentrate on promoting the breadth of the site, but people visiting for the first time have an easy and obvious route through to the election coverage.

On the Election site itself this year's Swingometer is a much grander flash based affair than the one the BBC had online back in 1997. The ability to look at how swing affects the different pairings of parties is useful, but probably my favourite interactive thing on the site is the poll tracker. The real added value is the context timeline that is underneath the graph, pointing out key moments in the last few months that may have influenced the directions of polls.

The BBC's Virtual Swingometer from 2005

The BBC's 2005 Poll Tracker

The 'Weblog' format is prominent as well, making a stand in the left-hand navigation. It isn't universally popular with the audience though...

"Good Lord Mr Assinder! Do you really think this constitutes a story? Dog doesn't bite man..."
Ron Burns, Poole, Dorset

...was one comment on this entry. That kind of reaction illustrates one difficulty I think the BBC faces with the weblog format. The whole tone or register you'd expect from a journalist or correspondent dashing off and posting a quick paragraph on the hoof (well, in the chopper or on the bus) is different from what you'd expect from a more considered analysis piece. It seems to me that the aim is to convey the immediacy of the campaign, but I'm not sure that all of the audience will identify with this style of reportage from the BBC.

And the Election Battle-Bus hasn't proved universally popular on the Points of View message board either:

"How much is the bus...?
How much to have TWO camera crews outside Number 10?
How much to have that helicopter in the air filming nothing?
How many reporters standing around the country speculating to each other?

How much does it all cost?
Is it really necessary when nothing has yet happened?

Is ANYONE asking these sorts of questions?"

Elsewhere on the web both The Times and The Spectator have adopted the blog format for an election diary. Neither of them though are providing RSS feeds. Now I understand the business driver that wants to get eyeballs onto actual pages in order to deliver advertising, but I think they are really missing a trick here. How many times during my working day am I likely to casually surf over to either of these sites to check their latest election output - not many. How many times during the working day do I check my bloglines subscriptions for news - a lot.

The Time's election coverage    The Spectator's election coverage

BBC News have, IMHO, done the right thing in putting the RSS service of the election weblog right in the users face - I think it is the hardest push the BBC has ever done to get people to use feeds, with the link above the fold on the homepage, and the RSS feed forming part of the left-hand navigation.

The BBC New's election weblog

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