Election fever gives press chance to flex its muscles
A view from Chris Blackhurst

Election fever gives press chance to flex its muscles

Election fever is gripping all media but, for those in the press, the significance of the event is always magnified.

On national newspapers, the build-up to a general election comprises numerous editorial planning meetings. One senior news executive is usually allotted the task of pulling the coverage together. It’s a mammoth task, justified by two factors. Elections are journalistically exciting – they’re unpredictable and historically significant. And they’re good for circulation. Alas, such is the control exerted by the campaign teams of the main parties that the former has largely disappeared. So far in this battle, I’ve been unable to think of one event – apart from some minor heckling of Nick Clegg in Surbiton – that did not form part of that day’s spin doctor script.

That may change, but so determined are the PR managers to avoid the sort of encounter that befell Gordon Brown in 2010, when he was accosted by a lifelong Labour supporter and then caught calling her "bigoted", that such an occurrence is highly unlikely.

Newspapers believe they are more than conduits of information but actual players in the election

Even the TV debate, the great unknown of 2010, has now been all but neutered. The leaders’ tours are heavily orchestrated, vetted affairs. The days of the would-be PM letting their hair down with reporters at the end of a punishing schedule and saying something off-piste are long gone. Again, all we’ve had this election that falls into that unguarded territory is David Cameron saying to James Landale that he would not stand for a third term. But did Cameron, the consummate PR man, really make a slip of the tongue in front of a BBC journalist? It must have been deliberate, mustn’t it?

On the circulation front, election campaigns are not the major drivers they were. They might push digital traffic but, with the exception of election night itself or a sudden event happening, there is little evidence even for this. There is another reason for the six-week adrenaline rush – newspapers like to feel they influence the outcome, that the journalists are not just reporting history but steering it as well. Hence, much time can be devoted to high-level internal discussions as to how a paper will vote or, rather, how it will advise its readers to vote. Newspapers believe they are more than conduits of information, analysis and comment, but actual players in the election.

This was illustrated, famously, by The Sun, with its front-page claim "It’s The Sun Wot Won It" after the Tory victory in 1992. But far more damaging than the title’s Labour-bashing, arguably, was the then leader Neil Kinnock’s triumphalist eve-of-poll rally.

Still, on we go. Nobody wants to be the party pooper – not this time, anyway.

Chris Blackhurst is the former multimedia head of business at The Independent and London Evening Standard