Election 2010: Top journalists' tips on covering the campaign

With the 2010 general election campaign now underway in earnest Press Gazette has some advice for journalists out on the campaign trail from the stars of the Lobby.

Before the campaign started we asked them three things: What will be the big story of the election, what are their tips on covering a general election and is a Conservative win inevitable.

Here’s what they said:

Kevin Maguire – Daily Mirror associate editor

The TV debates are the big innovation, the focus of the campaign. At the Mirror we’ve a few investigations under way and we’ll be on our toes ready for the unexpected Prezza-punch moment.

A Hung Parliament’s possible, perhaps even probable. If Cameron wins it’ll be without a majority or by a handful of seats. Labour retains an outside chance of emerging the biggest party. And Clegg’s entitled to dream of holding the balance of power.

My advice on election day is to enjoy an afternoon nap because I’m used to working through the Thursday night and on into the Friday evening. I’m giving up alcohol during the campaign. Only way to deal with early mornings and late nights, although some hacks differ and think a beer’s the only way to get through it.

Andrew Sparrow – The Guardian political correspondent

The big story will be how will the Tories respond to the pressures of an election campaign. Will they start to crack under pressure, or will discipline hold? Will they tack to the right or fi ght as a centre-ground party? And will Cameron win a workable majority?

Nothing is inevitable, but it’s very hard to imagine the Tories not winning, both terms of share of the vote and number or seats. But whether or not they win a decent majority is another question.

During the campaign: Get out of the office as often as possible and talk to some real people. On the night: Don’t believe the spin – make your own judgments.

Jon Smith – Press Association, political editor

It’s important to remember that the challenges you face reporting an election are the same you face at any other time. Don’t get caught up in reporting predictions, keep a cool head on your shoulders. There are a lot more people scrutinising what you are doing and there are a lot more people trying to infl uence what you write and what your publication or agency does.

From PA’s point of view, we have to work extremely fast and that also applies to a lot of other media now with the internet. But there are never any prizes for being first and wrong. And people will always remember what you get wrong.

Don’t rush into something if it’s a great scoop. With calling the result of the election, we’ve got to be careful not to get into fortune–telling territory – that’s where experience does give you a steer on things.

If it is a hung parliament this time round, that could be a logistical problem. We will have to deal with some exhausted people who have been working flat out for weeks and negotiations (to form a coalition government) might go on for days and weeks after the election.

You cannot be predictive. Who could have predicted John Prescott throwing a punch or that Rover would collapse? You have to be completely ready for anything. It’s exhausting as a journalist, but it is the ultimate expression of democracy and you get to play a role in the forming the next government through informing people what’s going on.

Trevor Kavanagh – The Sun, associate editor

The results are worked out automatically on election night so, frankly, you are likely to be watching it live on TV. But what you really want to do also is be talking to the people you trust the most in the parties who are at the counts and who can see the votes piling up before they are counted. I had sources on political parties who would give a good steer very quickly of what was going on, you can get early results that way. But there are people who would mislead you, so you need to know you’re speaking to someone that could give a genuine assessment.

It’s very dangerous to assume anything:1992 taught everyone a lesson when (former BBC political reporter) Vincent Hanna went on air saying Labour were heading to victory because of the exit polls. All the pollsters got their fingers badly burnt on that one. The only poll that matters is the election itself. If you went by any sort of measure of precedent, Labour should be losing this election with so many people continually disappointed with what they’ve failed to achieve – including many Labour voters. It’s the constituencies where Labour voters will either vote against the party or not vote at all, that could really harm them.

Adam Boulton – Sky News political editor

The big story will be the first ever leader’s debates on TV, for which Sky News has campaigned. The big theme will be who do you trust to run the country in these troubled times? Many candidates will repeat that famous political maxim: ‘The people have spoken, the bastards”. It’s not my job to tell you who’ll win; would you ask Martin Tyler that before a big match?

I’ve given up drinking this year until after the election. I’ll tell you later if it gives you a clearer head. Basically you need to keep your eyes and ears open – study what’s happening rather than swot up on established facts and theories

Cathy Newman – political correspondent Channel 4

Will voters blame Brown if growth goes negative again or will they credit him if the recovery continues? Or have they made up their mind about him regardless?

Policy will feature (the row over social care will rumble on, and Labour will try to put pressure on the Tories over their plans for the NHS) but in this election, policy will matter less than personality – particularly with the advent of the fi rst ever TV debates. The consensus seems to be that as the Tories are ahead in the polls, Cameron has more to lose here. But he’s consistently proved himself to be a better TV performer than Gordon Brown, despite the PM getting in some practice with Piers Morgan.

The sheer number of MPs, candidates and activists and journalists blogging and tweeting will make it harder for the high command to control the election, which will be great fun for people like me. MPs won’t be able to hide, and stories will come out of leftfield. But while that’s all grist to the reporter’s mill it will also make it hard to keep track of what’s going on.

This will certainly be the tightest election since 1992, and possibly since 1974. With the Conservatives focusing their resources ruthlessly on target seats, many political gamblers are still putting their money on a Tory victory. I’m not certain enough for a trip to the bookies though.

My tips are:

1. Get behind the story. The political parties try to control the news agenda obsessively so you’ve got to outwit them by scrutinising every claim and counter claim to try and get at the truth behind the spin.

2. Get out of town. Away from the control freakery of the party HQ, you’ll discover candidates who fi nd it hard to stay on message.

3. Keep your eyes peeled: this is the election where social media comes of age. So scour the internet for every blog and tweet that could trip the parties up.

Chris Ship – ITN senior political correspondent

The big story of election 2010 will undoubtedly be the economy. Afghanistan will compete for the time and attention of politicians and voters, as will the usual topics of education and health – particularly given the recent debate over how we can pay for elderly care. But the backdrop to all these issues is the state of the public fi nances, and that issue is sure to trump all others. It will be a campaign, unusually, in which politicians will be fi ghting over promises of what they can take away from voters and how they can spend less money. And it will be the party that best gauges the public mood for those inevitable cuts which will triumph in the campaign.

But there is one unknown in this election: the TV debates. They have the potential to change the shape of this campaign, to throw things off course, to put at risk a healthy lead in the polls.

Ultimately, the electorate has the opportunity to surprise us all on election night and deliver the unexpected. This will be my first general election as a political correspondent. have previously covered them from the sidelines, not from the heart of the battle in Westminster, but I have been given tips from those much more experienced in these matters. And amid the round of those early morning party press conferences, I am told to be expect to be confused, a lot; annoyed, often; frustrated, regularly.

But through the fog of the political war, I hope I can make some sense of it all for ITV News viewers. No promises though.

The Press Gazette journalists’ guide to election 2010 was published with the April edition of the magazine and sponsored by:

www.electionbetting.com and The Times

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