Today I got the opportunity to learn from some of the biggest names in British journalism at the Polis 2015 conference, on journalism and elections, at the London School of Economics.
The sixth annual Polis conference included speakers such as: Andrew Marr, Adam Boulton, Mary Ann Sieghart, along with 40 other influential journos from across the media sector including BBC, Sky, The Times, New Statesman, Guardian, YouGov, Twitter, Vice, and Buzzfeed. We are 40 days away from – what the BBC’s Andrew Marr believes is – the most interesting election in the whole of our lifetimes. All speakers at the conference focused on how, as journalists, it is so important to rethink how we are covering it. Contrary to what many people think, there will be dramatic changes after May 7th – well according to Mr Marr. “The outcome of the election will have massive implications for everyone in the UK”, he said. One of the biggest things, for Marr, is the referendum on the EU.
(See a published article I wrote on this here)
“Britain will look very different in five years time”, Andrew Marr predicted “and that’s possibly no bad thing”.
Commenting on last nights live TV non-debate, on Sky and Channel 4, where Jeremy Paxman interviewed David Cameron and then Ed Miliband, Marr said journalists do not need to be so aggressive. He warned against treating them as liars and scoundrels. His advice for dealing with politicians who are obviously avoiding questions, is to maintain eye contact, ask the question again a few times and then tell the audience that their question has not been answered and move on. He said he’d like to see more women in parliament… maybe this could help change the ferocious atmosphere?
“The thing about Jeremy [Paxman] is that he’s a genuinely tortured, angry individual. He looks angry because he is!” laughed Marr.
It is important to remember that sitting in the interviewer’s chair does not mean you are up for election. This is a point that Adam Boulton (from Sky) was also keen to make. In his keynote speech, which kicked off the conference, he showed video clips of the 2010 TV debate which he chaired and he was very much “out of the spotlight”. There is a line though, the public do need journalists to hold politicians to account.
A question from an audience member was “why should I vote if each party is going to break its promises and not put its policies into practice?” To this, Andrew Marr suggested journalists need to look through the party manifestos to find out whether each party is an innate tax raising party or spending cutting party. We can work out what is likely to happen and press the politicians on these issues. Reminding the public of the 2008 banking crisis and its impacts is a crucial task for journos. Living standards have fallen as a direct result of that disaster. We should be continually putting things in context and communicating that message. Any government that is in power after the election will inevitably have to save money. They’ll do that by raising taxes or cutting public spending. Although politicians want to calm everybody down and get people to trust them and turn a blind eye, it is journalists’ job to encourage people to do the opposite.
“Broadcasters need to engage audiences and get them to make informative choices. Conservatives want to put the campaign to sleep”, Sky’s Adam Boulton said.
The Tories will be relieved that only 2 millon (approx) watched Thursday’s TV debate then! (In 2010 there were approximately 10 million viewers). More people watched the Great British Bake-off final, Strictly Come Dancing etc… So how do we engage young disillusioned voters?
That question was the central topic of two or three lectures today. Well firstly, it needs to be made absolutely clear to them what implications their vote could have said Georgia Gould, who was elected as a Labour party councillor aged 23. She spoke about her enthusiasm for engaging young people and, after having met thousands of individuals from diverse backgrounds across Britain, she says they are aspirational but they need politics to be more direct.
Most the young people Miss Gould spoke to were ambitious about having their own home one day and were not the lazy, useless, narcissistic people they are often made out to be. When she mentioned politics they weren’t interested, but when she mentioned particular issues they were very keen to discuss them, ask questions and put forward their opinion.
“The apathy the youth show actually shows us that our formal political institutions are outdated” said Georgia Gould.
So what were some of the suggestions for positive change?
- A 7 day voting period – rather than polling day only being on a Thursday,
- Registration allowed on the day of voting,
- Online voting,
- Registration (to vote) in schools,
- Politics on the national curriculum,
- We can promote apps, programmes and websites that make sense of manifestos. That compare them and help young people become politically literate.
- We can promote platforms that raise up young people’s voices – like Sky’s “Stand Up and Be Counted”.
- After the election people need to get heard to ensure policies that affect them positively will be implemented
- Remind them that politics isn’t only important near the election but decisions are made all the time. Volunteering, charity work, engaging with local issues are all forms of political action.
- Devolution of power. People care more about the issues that are close to them.
This last point on the devolution of power brings me back to Andrew Marr’s speech; he argued that local issues are more important for the election than issues about the leaders. He hopes that the BBC will start to focus on the marginal seats, those hotly contested areas where real people can swing the vote. He believes there are honestly hard working, serious politicians fighting to be heard in those areas and its important that they are on TV more. That TV goes closer to the people in the marginal areas. Lets give the microphone to those who are not normally heard. We’re all sick of hearing about Ed Miliband’s brother anyway! Relating to the state is an issue for the public and there is a crisis of authority. Mr Marr says both Labour and Conservative narratives are in danger. People just don’t trust them.
Andrew Marr said “you should NOT vote if you don’t care how much tax you pay, you should NOT vote if you don’t care about your health care… But if you don’t vote… you are insane”.
Other people will vote and the non-voters will suffer the consequences. They will have no say in how their country is ruled. As journalists, getting this message across is vital.