Friday, October 1, 2010

A little less conversation, a lot more numbers please

A few days ago, Political Betting stalwart John Loony shared a very funny letter he had written to the BBC, complaining bitterly about their decision to allow Emily Maitlis and Nick Robinson to talk over the announcement of the Labour leadership result, first with Robinson's extrapolation (ahem) that David Miliband had won based on the result of the first count, and then with an explanation of the electoral college system. Here's an excerpt...

"Yet the presenters of the programme decided to start squawking and prattling all through the declaration of the second round, in a way which prevented us from hearing the result being declared, apparently to explain the workings of the Electoral College system and the Alternative Vote system. This was in spite of the fact that every single viewer was, by definition, interested in hearing the result; every single viewer was, by definition, already fully familiar with the way the EC and AV systems worked; and the fact that anybody who did not know or understand how the system worked was, by definition, not watching the programme in the first place. The presenters knew these facts before they started speaking."

Of course in one sense John is entirely wrong - while most people watching would certainly have been interested in hearing the result, that doesn't mean to say that they had the slightest clue about how the labyrinthine electoral system worked. This is an argument I've had on PB many times before - many posters there seem to feel that the BBC makes far too many concessions to its audience's assumed ignorance during election results programmes. But we political obsessives don't 'own' those programmes - everyone has a stake in the selection of a potential future PM, and it's entirely appropriate that a more casual audience is equipped with the information they need to make sense of what is happening. And if Nick Robinson felt strongly that he had advance information about which way the result was going, there was probably also a case for allowing him to communicate that to the viewers. So I'd suggest the real mistakes made were as follows -

1. The presenters' total silence during the result of the first count gave the impression that they were going to remain quiet for the duration. That maximised the irritation when they suddenly started drowning out the result, and then didn't stop. For my own part, I fully expected that the interruption was going to be very brief, and by the time I realised that I really was going to have to switch over to Sky I had already missed the entire result of the second count.

2. Any explanation of the intricacies of the electoral college system should have occurred well before the announcement of the result. Explaining it while the result was being read out almost seemed to be sending the patronising message : "this is why we're not bothering to let you listen, because as you can see it's all very complicated and you probably wouldn't understand it anyway".

3. Any extrapolations or other nuggets of information from Robinson should have been delivered by a caption on the screen, rather than by voiceover. This is standard practice during the live broadcast of the Budget, for instance - the BBC wouldn't dream of talking over the Chancellor while he's on his feet, no matter how incomprehensible the contents of the speech.

4. Robinson should really have done his homework better on how to extrapolate the result from the first count. He seemed to have only looked at the party members' and MPs' sections, and just assumed that David Miliband's stronger than anticipated showing there was being replicated in the unions' section. A much simpler and more reliable way of approaching it would have been to look at the percentage gap between the two brothers in the overall electoral college - I gather there were people in the hall who instantly said "Ed's won" upon hearing that the gap was just 3%.


  1. It is unbelievable and inexcusable that, regardless of the reasons, Robinson talked over the results to such an extent that the viewers couldn't make out who had won.

    I was having car trouble that afternoon and missed great chunks of it as the diagnostician kept calling me out, but the thing that drove me mad (watching it on Sky) was that they must have known the results, and everyone inside the hall and elsewhere was interested on only one thing....and yet they insisted on trotting out Brown to give a completely delusional self congratulatory speech. Seemingly oblivious of the fact that he personally lost the election, it was alternately gut wrenchingly sickening and high comedy.. and then they trotted our Ms Equality Harman ... sheesh.. for some more back slapping nonsense.

    If I'd been watching BBC (fat chance), Nick Robinson's amateur reporting would have paled into insignificance beside the annoyance of seeing these two catastrophes giving themselves 10/10 for everything!

  2. Yes, it did seem bizarre to count the votes on Friday and then keep it secret for 24 hours. The only impressive thing about the whole affair was that they managed to prevent the result leaking out, but what was the point? An open count with cameras invited, and with an immediate announcement of the result, would have been better for all concerned - more transparent, less stage-managed = more interest from the public.