They said this time would be different

Ballot
Box Jurors, Battle Buses, summons from Michael Howard and the drinking
habits of the PM: political journalists on the highlights of the
campaign

Eoin Callan, senior reporter, Financial Times

The days start early when following Tony Blair on the campaign trail.

The Labour leader’s tour has covered well over 3,000 miles by the
half-way point, with many more constituency visits and stump speeches
to go before polling day.

To keep himself going, Mr Blair drinks tea constantly, while his entourage of press handlers stick to Diet Coke.

The
traditional battle bus – the package tour of journalism – has been
abandoned. Labour is instead concentrating on local and regional media,
leaving the national press to piece together leaked emails, whispered
rumours and wild guesses about the elusive leader’s next campaign stop.

The
Diet-Coke brigade, as Mr Blair’s logisitics staff and press officers
have become known, borrow their jargon from the West Wing, the hit US
television series. “It is a tight lid” means: “No, we’re not going to
tell you where the leader will be today”. Almost everything is a “tight
lid” in this election.

The best the press can hope for from tour organisers the night before a Blair trip is a vague compass point.

“Head
west” is a common refrain. The only way of reaching an event before Mr
Blair’s helicopter is to set off before dawn in the general direction
given and await further details.

The main national newspapers
have been kept at arm’s length in favour of a pooled correspondent from
the Press Association, along the lines of the model used during the
Iraq war for embedding journalists with troops.

The press strategy was first floated by Alistair Campbell in the wake of the 2001 poll, which saw a historically low turnout.

Campbell’s
replacement, Labour veteran David Hill, has helped rebuild press
relations, but his predecessor’s plan to “go local” is still in place.

Bob
Franklin, a professor of media studies at Cardiff University, says the
strategy makes sense for the parties. “At a time when public trust and
readership of national newspapers is waning, it is logical to reach
voters through local media outlets with high local penetration and a
strong bond with their readers, listeners, or viewers,” he says.

For
local and regional media it is a welcome change from being frozen out
by the main parties. Mr Blair has granted interviews after almost every
stump speech exclusively to local press.

But others see Labour’s approach as a cynical attempt to duck the tough questions that national media ask.

The
most important verdict on the new communications strategy may come on
polling day, when turnout figures will show how well the parties have
managed to engage voters in the democratic process.

Jonathan Walker, political editor, Birmingham Post & Evening Mail

A few weeks before the general election was called, Labour chairman
Ian McCartney told me I would be “more important than Andrew Marr”
during the campaign.

He was explaining Labour’s plans to reach out directly to voters,
using face-to-face meetings, the internet and the regional media,
rather than depending on the national press and broadcasters.

It
may have been an exaggeration to suggest this made me more important
then the BBC’s political editor. But it is true that every party has
been targeting newspapers like the Birmingham Post and Evening Mail as
they battle to reach voters.

In the “phoney war” before the
election was officially called, the regional media enjoyed
unprecedented access to the party leaders.

The prime minister
invited regional lobby correspondents to join him for lunch in Downing
Street, in March. A summons from Michael Howard became a regular
occurrence.

Regional reporters in Westminster don’t usually enjoy
the same access to senior politicians as our national media colleagues.
This changed as the election approached.

When the campaign
officially began, the action shifted away from Westminster and into the
regions as the party leaders took to their helicopters.

For
reporters in places like Birmingham, Liverpool or Newcastle, this has
meant the chance to meet Tony Blair, Charles Kennedy or Michael Howard.

It
also has to be said that this campaign has failed to take off. There
have been few exciting new policies, Gordon Brown is keeping his
contempt for Tony Blair firmly under wraps, and even Puncher Prescott
has kept his temper. And there’s little drama about the end result.

Gary Gibbon, political correspondent, Channel 4 News

Friends tend to ask two questions these days: “Are you enjoying the
election?” and “Have you been on the campaign?” It set me wondering
where exactly “the campaign” was. A party strategist put me right.

“The campaign,” he said, “happens in the newsrooms, the edit suites,
the newspaper offices.” The campaign, my source suggested, is the bits
of the parties’ messages and activities that the media choose to run
with.

Each day, the parties, starting with the Liberal Democrats,
try to set the agenda with their own chosen topic of the day. Each day,
a top story appears. The strategists’ rule of thumb is that if it’s not
your party’s chosen topic, you’ve probably lost the battle of the day.

No-one’s
truly having the time of their lives in this election. Tony Blair has
had to abandon the “unremittingly New Labour” campaign he dreamt of and
his acolytes briefed about. He looked distinctly uncomfortable at the
first joint press conference with Gordon Brown. Since then, he’s been
surer footed, but not inspirational.

Are we enjoying ourselves?

Sure
– like Labour’s Thursday press conference when the party seemed to have
slipped into a time warp. Gordon Brown rhapsodised about the wonderful
certainties of the Thatcher years, Tony Blair was nostalgic for the age
of the Kray Twins. And Michael Howard’s delivery of the slogan “Are You
Thinking What We’re Thinking” sounds increasingly like a discarded Dick
Emery catchphrase from the 1970s. If you’re thinking what I’m thinking,
it may all be over already.

Adam Boulton, political editor, Sky News

This is the most dislocated, perhaps even distracted, general
election campaign I can remember. The television screen is probably the
only place where it all comes together. Even there the story did not
get full attention at first, thanks to the papal excitements at the
Vatican.

The decision by party leaders to abandon battle buses means that there are no logical ‘regional tours’


for example, on one campaign day Charles Kennedy started in London,
flew to the Midlands and then on to the West Country before returning
to the capital for interviews.

There is no automatic morning ritual of news conferences.

To
keep the hacks at arm’s length, the parties brief as and when they
choose. There is also a lot the campaigns don’t want to tell us. Labour
in particular is kicking into touch pensions, national insurance,
council tax and Tony Blair’s own future.This is the People’s Election.

There
is a national climate of scepticism. In Vote ’05 we are reporting on
more sides of more issues and talking to more people of more different
kinds than ever before.

Mark Austin, presenter, ITV Evening News

Broadcasting into the living rooms of Britain is one thing, but
broadcasting from living rooms is quite another. Since the beginning of
the campaign, we have taken the ITV Evening News to the homes of
undecided voters in marginal constituencies.

Hailstones in Tavistock, ghetto-blasting youths in Hinckley
determined to drown us out, and then there was the elderly woman in
Glasgow who told me she was sick of all those home makeover shows and
why didn’t we all get lost?

We visited a selection of the
country’s so called “golden voters”, carefully selected by the
pollsters, Populus. They’re the floating voters every party is
desperate to win over and we’re calling them our Ballot Box Jurors.
Each night on the Evening News, one of them gives their verdict on the
day’s campaigning.

The BBC’s political editor Andrew Marr sees no
value in such an exercise, saying it’s a waste of time talking to
ordinary people who are “not interested in politics and who won’t
vote”, writing in The Daily Telegraph recently of the “terrified cringe
of the informed to the ill-informed”.

In my view, he’s quite simply wrong. Surely it’s our job as broadcasters to make politics more accessible.

The
point about the people who have been selected is that they are going to
vote, they are informed, but have yet to make up their minds. On many
occasions, the Ballot Box Jurors really added to the debate on the
story of the day.

Incidentally, they are also the people who fund
the BBC’s election Battle Bus. Hop onto it some time, Andrew, and give
the Westminster village a miss for the day!

Adrian Van Klaveren, deputy director, BBC News

After 2001, the politicians promised next time would be different.
As they move from staged event to news conference, I’m not sure what
they are doing really is. But we’re putting far more effort into
finding out what people really are talking about. Whether it’s the
election bus on News 24, the Newsnight helicopter or the Breakfast
motorbike and sidecar, we’ve been out and about across the UK.

This has played into another feature of the election – how different
it seems to feel from place to place. Old tribal loyalties are less
strong and many people have a collection of views which span the party
divides.

The development of broadband and interactive services
has made a real difference, whether it’s another chance to watch
leaders’ interviews, pressing the red button for depth or the results
service we’ll be offering on election night.

These services are increasingly becoming part of our main television offering – without doubt the shape of things to come.

But
the most downloaded feature from the BBC website in the first week of
the campaign was the Andrew Neil version of Amarillo, used as the
titles for This Week during the campaign. We shouldn’t forget that,
among all the things our audiences want from election coverage, fun
does have a part to play.

Bill Rogers, managing editor, BBC Radio News

In BBC Radio News we’re trying to connect with a range of network
audiences with varying appetites – and the devices in our repertoire
are a mixture of new and old.

The tried and tested are still there – constituency profiles,
campaign-days-with-the-leaders, regular panels, Five Live phone-ins,
Election Call, outside broadcasts from vans, buses and the upmarket
vehicles required to move Radio 4 presenters around.

Our teams at World Service are also out on the road explaining the whole thing to a global audience.

The
engaged audience is steering more of our coverage than before –
pointing out story ideas, duff arguments, issues they want covered –
through emails and texts, as well as face-to-face with reporters and
presenters on the road. Unless I’m missing something, at the time of
writing, there’s less sign of 21stcentury innovation in the various
parties’ electioneering techniques (apart from the odd Photoshop
abuse). I’m not sure the 2005 campaign marks an e-election turning
point. But there’s still time.

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