It’s not often you get to elbow the Secretary of State for Defence. OK, it was an accident, but let me revel in the glory anyway… Bob Ainsworth was behind me worming his way towards Kay Burley to demand an interview, my mobile was glued-to-ear, I turned round quickly and my elbow clipped him. “Sorry”, I said, as recognition instantly made it a polite lie. Disappointingly, he brushed on past leaving my minor assault wholly unacknowledged – he was so desperate to get on the goggle box it left him oblivious to pain. The media circus was in town and nothing was going to stop Ainsworth playing his role as a clown. For Bristol yesterday this circus was the only show in town.
I was on a blag as a guest of Sky TV with a ring-side seat to the razzmatazz. A picture-postcard sunny day saw the troupe rock up, pitch their tents and bring the place to a standstill. The venue was amongst Bristol’s newish waterfront development and so the whole area was ringed by shirt-sleeved machine-gun-toting policemen, grubby looking students with obligatory anti-war placards, fancy-dressed attention-seekers and stressed looking TV crews rigging up kit. Pubs opposite the venue were packed to the rafters, the lager taps flowing which added to an atmosphere seeped in anticipation. Bristol was buzzing. By the time the Prime Minister arrived the mob was well oiled and it was briefly more pantomime than circus as they made their feelings about him known.
I’ll not dwell on the debate itself – every utterance and mannerism has already been scrutinized to the nth degree by every journalist and blogger in Britain. I’ll just share my general impression that all three raised their game from the first debate, it was more compelling to watch and I would ‘score’ it in terms of public perception roughly the same: Clegg first. Cameron second. Brown third. Albeit I’d have Clegg not as far ahead and Brown not as far behind as last time. Brown wins the sound-bite of the night for his ‘Big Society – Little Britain’ jibe. Despite a good performance I’m not sure the debate has helped bolster David Cameron. The Conservatives should be able to put the Lib Dem surge to bed on a Foreign Policy centred debate but it didn’t happen. I know there are a multitude of instant exit polls which will either contradict or support that view but I can only call it as I saw it and I trust my gut-instinct on these things more than I trust any paid-for poll.
For me though the real education of the evening was watching up-close the dance between the media and the politicians. When you first arrive at the media centre the scale of the operation seems huge. Banks of desks, loaded with wi-fi laptops showing the journo’s twitter accounts, big screen monitors showing various feeds from around the building. Camera men. Sound men. Print men. News Anchors. Everyone looking earnest and busy. At the side of the room the politicians and their minders wait. The politico’s blackberries purr right through the debate with every statement by the opposition instantly fact-checked, whenever the opposition scored a perceived hit the blackberries again buzzed with quickly crafted rebuttal phrases to get out to the press later. And then the debate ended and the madness began…
All parties know that the immediate spin after the debate can define public perception as much as the debate itself. Getting to the big hitter media straight away is everything. Suddenly, as you watch you realise that what seemed such a huge operation and a mass of media is really quite a small cliquey affair. Fundamentally, on camera we have BBC, SKY and to a lesser extent ITV. That’s it. The print journos that matter are the Times, Telegraph, Guardian, Sun and Mirror (to a lesser extent the Independent) and that’s it. Get to those people and every other commentator simply feeds off their output. In a nod to the blogosphere Will Straw (from Left Foot Forward) and Tim Montgomerie (from Conservative Home) were both afforded the same access as the key newspapermen. So really even the blogs have gone mainstream! There used to be an expectation that the blogosphere would mean that these few key news organisations would lose their prominence and importance. Not a bit of it – the blogosphere feeds off their output – true there is wider comment nowadays and the relationship is symbiotic – but it’s the old media who are still the daddy. The politicians worked the room on their unspoken rota, mentally ensuring they got to each of that hit-list of folk to talk to. The traditional image of the journo chasing the interviewee and begging for them to be granted the great favour of a quick line is turned on its head here. Instead, the key journos stay in place and the politicos come to them and beg for the interview. It was a sight to behold. We had Ashdown, Milliband (Snr), May, Ainsworth (oblivious to his new bruise), Campbell, Huhne and Gove to name-drop just a fraction of those in the room fighting to get on camera. Brown, Clegg and Cameron would by now be on the way home but make no mistake that round two was continuing with brutality in the Media Centre. And so it went on….
I went back up to the Sky Party and watched the last of the interviews in the bar. There was a healthy mix of people with different voting intentions discussing it. Of those who would confess to a clear party allegiance unsurprisingly everyone (except me) saw their man as the clear winner. The interesting thing was the undecided lot – none of them would pin their flag to a clear winner. Perhaps then it wasn’t as bad as I feared.
For a party activist these debates are nerve-wracking. You know that all those thousands of leaflets you stuff through letter boxes, all the door knocking, and all the other local campaign stuff is only ever really worth, at most, about three percent of your local vote. It’s the national stuff that counts most and we’re helpless to control that. Here in one hour your leader can wipe out all that good work with one poor phrase. Cameron did not do that. But he didn’t land any huge punches either. Am I nervous? A little. Am I losing any faith that he is the right man for the job or he has the right vision for Britain? Not a bit of it. Do I wish we didn’t have the debates? The pragmatic campaigner in me says yes – they haven’t helped us and have risked damaging us – but the democrat in me over-rides that. These debates have helped re-engage the public after a full-on collapse of trust in politics. The debates are healthy for our democracy and frankly that’s more important. Roll on the next one.