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June 14, 2024updated 04 Jul 2024 1:23pm

ITN election diary: Channel 5 News always asks ‘what would Mabel want to know?’

Programme editor reveals who 5 News writes scripts for: a fictional lady called Mabel.

By Alan Grady

This is the second entry in a new election diary in collaboration with ITN. Insights will come twice a week from across the ITV News, Channel 4 News and Channel 5 News teams.

Previously we’ve had a report from the frontline of the first Tiktok election, written by ITV News Westminster video producer Lewis Denison.

FOMO. 

A relatively new term to describe a sensation which, for journalists, is anything but. 

I am pretty sure there was a caveman/cavewoman/caveperson, who, as they were about to put charred stick to cave wall to record the day’s events, really wished they’d seen that mammoth fight. 

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On the day the election was called, I was that caveperson. It was my day off, and as usual, I was trying to avoid the news as much as Rishi Sunak probably now skips the D:Ream’s Greatest Hits playlist on Spotify. 

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I got wind of it just in time to catch the programme I work on; 5 News, at 5, on Channel 5 (an eclipse-like alignment of name, time and channel so perfect that eight years in, it still makes me smile); and there was Dan (Walker, presenter), with Andy (Bell, political editor), and Rishi (Sunak, Prime Minister, wet). And there too, surreally, was D:Ream. 

That song brings back memories; as those of us of a certain age (old) know, it was the soundtrack to Tony Blair’s election campaign and subsequent landslide win in 1997. It was my first ever general election as a journalist. I was 24 and keen as mustard. 

I’m now on my eighth election and it has every chance of being as significant as my first. The parallels are clear; a huge gap in the polls, a Labour leader who’s turned the dial from the left back to the middle, up against a party who many might feel has been in power too long, and just looks like it needs a lie down.

Election question: ‘What do we need to know today, Andy?’

I’ve worked at the BBC, Sky News and ITN/5 News in my 27-year career; all cover elections differently, but I think it’s fair to say 5 News is more different than most. 

Yes, we do the same stuff as the others. But when other newsrooms lock on to a general election, at 5 News, we lock off; the question we ask ourselves every morning is not “what’s going on with the election today?”; it is “what’s going on with the election today that our viewers would want to know?” 

Most days – and Andy Bell, the UK’s longest-serving broadcast political editor, is live somewhere in the programme most days – the question we ask him is “what do we need to know today, Andy?”

For us, the election needs to fight its way into the running order in the same way every other story does; yes, we have a duty to inform our viewers; but we also have a duty not to bore them. And let’s face it, elections are often pretty boring. Until they’re not. 

The D-Day anniversary springs to mind, and we all know why. That one decision, over an event marking something that happened 80 years ago, can influence who becomes the next resident of Downing Street. That is quite a thing. 

The outcry over that decision was huge and people of all ages, all backgrounds, and all political leanings, understood the reasons behind it. 

And understanding is big for us. It is everything. 

‘Slightly unorthodox’ techniques for talking to TV viewers

Our viewers are not people who watch rolling news channels or listen to the Today programme. They have busy lives and they know their own curious minds.

We take a great deal of care to talk with – not at – people. That’s why for us, the election needs to fight its way into the running order; we have a duty to inform our viewers but we have to do that in a way that appeals to our dedicated audience in a way that feels like Channel 5 News.

That might involve slightly unorthodox methods – especially about politics; I write this as my colleagues have just taken delivery of our latest team member; an ice cream van. A gimmick? Yep. Makes people smile? Yep. But people who are smiling (and have an ice cream) are much more likely to stop and chat. And that is what it is all about. 

Speaking of chatting, election campaigns have a language of their own, and not everyone speaks it. How would anyone know or even care what a swing seat or a manifesto commitment is if no-one had ever told you? 

In our scripts, ‘manifesto commitment’ always has a trusty sidekick called ‘election promise’ (which is also a great 80s album title, but that’s for another time). 

We generally write for a fictional lady called Mabel, who’s in her sixties and lives in the north-east. And we also write for Lydia, our most loyal viewer, who has bestowed on us Christmas cards and messages of support for as long as I can remember, and who is about to do a sponsored wheelchair push for her local foodbank (Lydia, you rock). 

But I think all of us in the team write with their own version of Mabel in their head. And for anyone who thinks this is a little patronising, let me just say this; when I write, my late mum and dad – to whom I owe everything – are in mind. And I think they’d approve. 

Still wish I’d seen that mammoth fight though. 

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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