E is for Election

By Cooper James, 10 September 1997

Cooper James on Election 97 at the BBC

Now that the dust from the election has settled, it's time to look back and try to discover just why it was that after 18 years in the coverage wilderness the BBC managed not only to win on May 1st, but to rout ITV and score their biggest election victory since 1812.

John Birt's large scale restructuring of the organisation obviously played a major role; his introduction of an internal market and his fostering of a culture of managerial accountability has done a great deal to make the station once more appeal to the middle class viewer. But many politicians are now agreed that the deciding factor was in fact the BBC's superior deployment of 'presidential style' graphics on election night itself.

In a contest that has become increasingly bitter as the years have gone by, May 1st saw the estranged Dimbleby brothers lock horns once again. As far as running mates were concerned, both stations had traditional tickets: John Snow and Alistair Stewart demonstrated a regard for professionalism in the campaign teams of both sides. But just look at the difference in presentation.

ITV graphics were disappointing from the outset. They plumped for an injection moulded aesthetic, closely modelling on David Mellor's face, and did little to embellish it. A translucent grey pop-up menu at the bottom of the screen, a simple graph swing-o-meter and a tedious 'TOTE'-style finishing post were never going to compete with the BBC's virtual ticker-tape complete with beautifully 'lit' icons, its VR fly-throughs of a Britain populated with exploding skyscrapers, and its wonderful slag-heap landslide graphics with their authentic buried Welsh mining town sound-effects.

The overall outcome was effectively decided just two hours into the night when Peter Snow, masterfully surfing a wave of excellent design, managed to ride out a moment of potential disaster. The BBC's programmers had clearly not anticipated such enormous Labour swings - of up to 18% in places - and as a result had undercalibrated their otherwise excellent swing-o-meter (inventively modelled on a pair of kitchen scales). But ad-libbing furiously, Snow recast the error as a triumph, claiming the failure to be able to perceive the extent of the swings was indicative of the sublime nature of this election. After that the BBC never looked back.

On the desk front too the BBC walked away with it. While over at ITV Jonathan's desk was nondescript and unmemorable, his brother's was magnificent, a monstrous circular metal edifice with sunken computer screens and a giant embossed 'e' at its centre. Indeed, the decision to drop the word 'election' - long associated with more hard line factions in the organisation - and replace it simply with the initial proved to be the correct one, helping to capture the youth vote as planned and subtly hinting at the drug of choice amongst politicians as they battled to stay awake during what for many of them would prove to be the longest night of the decade. But by now none of it mattered, it was all in the bag, and the BBC could afford to play its trump card - the giant video wall - as a piece of pure theatre.

Which is why one has to ask whether if, once the overall result was clear, it was really necessary for David Dimbleby to launch that quite uncalled for attack on his brother, describing him as "a Johnny come lately" and telling him to "fuck off back to Mexico where he belongs, the spic bastard." Is this the kind of family feeling we should expect from now on from a BBC government? It clearly goes against the precepts of their manifesto. Will the scale of their victory prove to be their undoing, tempting them into arrogance and authoritarianism and leading perhaps to revoke their oft repeated promise not to increase the license fee? Watch this space to find out.

Cooper James