“Not another one. What am I going to tell the family?”
That was the near-universal reaction among weary political reporters in Westminster who had started to finally dream of a summer holiday after three long years of referenda and bitter election battles.
Now they are looking forward to some or all of the following: seven weeks of rubbish sandwiches on a battle bus. Listening to the same daily key message in endless stump speeches to the same people in front of disinterested cameras at the back of supermarket car parks next to the recycling bins. Following an election on Twitter while trying to remember where you left your charger. Battle bus bingo. Nervous conversations with an Editor demanding to know why you don’t know about the major breaking Labour story from Newcastle when you’re with the Tories in Bangor.
I’ve covered five elections and loved (and hated) every one. For what it’s worth, here’s ten tips on how to stand out in a General Election:
1: Get out of London and meet the candidates. After Labour’s landslide in 1997, Lord Mandelson infamously asked of his own MPs, “Who are these people?” With just a matter of weeks to do what usually takes three years, dozens of candidates will be parachuted into seats they have never visited before and will be expected to build their local profile. Vetting standards will slip and skeletons will be missed.
2: Keep a forensic eye on local literature. How many local hospitals will suddenly be under threat? How many Labour candidates will avoid any mention of Jeremy Corbyn in their leaflets? What will the UKIP candidate for Thanet South say this time? A story goldmine.
3: Campaign spending. Theresa May dodged a bullet before the complex investigations into spending in the 2015 General Election campaign reached the courts. The Conservatives’ battlebus in 2015 roved around the country bringing a succession of scandals, financial and otherwise. This time the Tories are the only political party with full coffers so it’s time to start examining their receipts.
4: Avoid set-piece interviews. I spent years negotiating for set piece leader interviews. I’ve done them in the kitchen, on a plane, on a bus, a helicopter and even on a boat. They never lead to decent stories as by the time it’s your turn there’s nothing left to say. Instead, ask to spend a few days shadowing a prominent senior politician who thinks their stock will rise after the Election.
5: Hound Jeremy Corbyn. Britain’s most reluctant political leader already hates the relentless personal scrutiny that goes with the job. Now it’s about to be increased tenfold and he has a media team that are completely clueless. He’ll crack daily, disagree with his own policies and no-one will be able to stop him.
6: Avoid any set piece television debates. Although Theresa May has ruled out a face-to-face with Tim Farron and Jeremy Corbyn, further gladiatorial television events will happen. If they happen, they soak up far too much attention and effort and will command a lower audience than the early rounds of Masterchef.
7: Elevate local stories to key campaign moments. The care crisis and cuts to local social services are the real scandal that this government has avoided thus far because they are playing out at a local level. Find an example, preferably an articulate and angry person and put them in front of a politician and a video camera. Bingo!
8: Do some polling, but make it interesting. Every pollster got their fingers burned in the Scottish Referendum, the 2015 Election and the EU poll. To limit their risk they’re now trying to find out why people vote the way they do, not how they will actually vote. Polling on leadership and the economy will be far more interesting than trying to predict precisely how many seats Jeremy Corbyn is going to lose.
9: limit your exposure to twitter. As a crack political journalist you need to be setting your own agenda, not frantically trying to find out what Sky’s Adam Boulton tweeted two minutes ago. Clear your mind of this clutter and start to think laterally.
10: Most importantly, follow the telly teams. Those harassed-looking types with clipboards are the only ones who really know what is going on. I mean the broadcasters, for whom general elections are probably the most challenging news events they have to contend with. For The BBC, ITV and Sky – not to mention CNN and the big TV agencies like AP and Reuters, the logistical planning alone around a general election is a huge challenge.
Arranging live broadcasts and newsgathering from locations up and down the country is a planning operation akin to invading a small country – and it is normally undertaken with the benefit of months of planning. The broadcast big hitters from Robert Peston to Laura Kuenssberg will be clearing their diaries – along with the vast, unseen band of backroom producers, camera crews, drivers and planners who help get them on air.
And spare a thought for the journalists and technical developers behind the nation’s news websites. Increasingly the digital frontline is where the media skirmishes take place as the ability to offer breaking news, instant analysis and comprehensive statistics is a critical element of the campaign. Expect to see quite a few familiar features, apps and tools dusted down and re-branded from the 2015 election.
One last thought, the nation usually turns to the BBC on election night – will this be the year that David Dimbleby is asked to stand aside to make room for Huw Edwards?
Ian Kirby is the former political editor of the News of the World. He covered five elections and is now Head of Media at MHP Communications.
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