The broadcasters have set out their plans for election TV specials in the run up to June 8. As expected, there will be no set piece debate between the party leaders after Theresa May ruled it out completely. Her refusal to take on Corbyn & Co sent ITV, Sky and the BBC back to the drawing board to devise formats that would be acceptable to all parties.
Having been briefly involved in that process while working at the BBC News website (there was a whole sub-section of the agreement which covered online and on demand access) I know that none of these decisions are reached lightly. While TV debates are commonplace in other democracies and have been for years, in the UK they are a recent phenomenon and for a conservative Conservative like Theresa May, they present an unwelcome potential banana skin.
Her decision to go for a Question Time style Q&A will be far more to her liking – not to mention her appearance on the One Show alongside her husband Philip. Her advisors will have seen that as her chance to present her more human face to those electors for whom Question Time and leader debates do not constitute appointment to view television.
In the end the stand out moment was a chat about who puts the bins out at May Towers. Sadly there was no second outing for Theresa’s statement red leather trousers – which can probably now be found in a Maidenhead charity shop – or more likely buried in the same landfill as the notorious “Ed Stone”.
Without a bona-fide Joshua v Klitschko style leader debate to rely on, the BBC will be concentrating on how to breathe some life into its election programme formats. The magnificent seven style programme on May 31, featuring “leading figures” from seven parties promises to be an exercise in crowd control for Mishal Husain who’s been picked to host it. I predict it’s almost certain to generate a lot of heat and almost no light whatsoever. If those US Republican hustings TV specials are anything to go by – the only interest will be if someone decides to “do a Donald”, and attempt a live TV character assassination, complete with personal insults on one of their rivals. It’s difficult to think of many – with the possible exception of Boris Johnson – with the charisma to carry that off. But Boris is TV Marmite and the Tories know that – so I predict he may be used sparingly to limit the number of “Mugwump moments”.
There’s one other sharp-elbowed group who look on the TV election coverage as their chance to shine; the presenters themselves. As mentioned Mishal Husain hosts the seven-way bun fight – which is a big step up for one of the hottest properties at Broadcasting House. But the real prize – presenting the BBC’s Election night TV special – has once more been given to David Dimbleby. He had said that 2015 would be his last stint in the big chair, but the snap election means the 77-year-old veteran will again be in charge. Huw Edwards will have to satisfy himself with reprising his role from 2015, taking over coverage for the morning after the night before.
The BBC Election Special programme, rather weirdly, is broadcast from Elstree, next door to the EastEnders set, and somewhere near London’s North Circular road. That’s an accident of history, but presents several production headaches as guests tend not to just drop in. Keep your eye out to see who Labour offer up as the studio punch-bag on June 8 – it will be interesting to see how they explain what looks likely to be a very difficult set of results.