With no pre-match debate coverage on ITV, host of the first election debate Alastair Stewart had to charge in to the biggest event in his, or any other British broadcast journalist’s, career from a standing start.
And he looked pretty nervous as he sprinted through his opening words.
It took the zen-like calm of Nick Clegg’s opening statement to slow things down.
After that I thought he did pretty well. The complex debate rules meant that Stewart’s job amounted to little more than directing traffic, he could ask no questions himself, but he grabbed the debate by the throat never allowing the candidates the luxury of talking out time by rehashing their party political broadcast addresses.
He shouted “Mr Cameron”, “Mr Brown” or “Mr Clegg” repeatedly when he wanted someone to stop talking and someone else to chip in. At times it appeared pretty rude, but Stewart knew this event was too important to let them get away with the usual politician’s trick of running out the clock.
In terms of the post match coverage the BBC missed a trick by not commissioning its own major poll to find out who voters thought had won the contest. Polls do have to be treated incredibly cautiously, as we found in 1992 when general election exit polls wrongly gave election victory to Labour.
But if Nick Robinson can give his opinion on who came off best from the debate (he seemed to favour Nick Clegg) why can’t the voters?
Having said this, the Sky News instant poll after the debate finished gave a clear victory to Cameron. But as more results trickled in, half an hour later the poll was tied between Clegg and Cameron as winners.
Meanwhile the ITV and Sun polls gave Clegg a clear victory. Then by 11.15pm Sky was, somewhat embarrassingly, now declaring that its poll gave victory to Clegg – possibly as its voters saw the results of the other polls!
Who know? It all goes to show that polls need to be treated with extreme caution and only reported with the necessary caveats (ie. ‘this is what our poll is showing now but that could change’).
The focus group “worm” which the BBC experimented with tonight, as did ITV, just didn’t do it for me – where selected voters pushed buttons to show their approval through the debate via a scrolling graph. When politicians say they want to cut unemployment and invest in the NHS people approve of that – big surprise!
For my money the ITV set at Granada studios was a bit plastic and reminisent of a daytime audience debate programme. A major civic or university venue might have given the event a bit more gravitas as would have putting Stewart behind a desk, rather than allowing him to walk around Kilroy-like.
But having said this, given the limits imposed on him by the debate rules Stewart deserves massive credit for hosting a highly watchable piece of broadcast journalism and facilitating a genuine discussion between the leaders.
My marks out of ten?
Alastair Stewart: 7