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June 27, 2024updated 04 Jul 2024 1:20pm

Less on polls, more policy please says 5 News political editor Andy Bell

Bell says opinion polls are driving the news agenda too much.

By Dominic Ponsford

The UK’s longest-serving broadcast political editor says we need more coverage of policy and less of opinion polls.

Andy Bell has been covering politics for Channel 5 News (produced by ITN) since 1999 and lamented the lack of policy substance so far in coverage of the latest UK general election.

He said: “This campaign started with a bit more scrutiny in terms of what parties are saying in their policies. There was some discussion about some of the more substantial stuff, like Rishi Sunak’s claim Labour would raise tax by £2,000.

“But the last few weeks have been a mixture of gaffs and opinion polls.

“This enormous amount of opinion polls have been allowed to drive the news agenda too much. This should be a period when people learn what the parties stand for.

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“The agenda has been about polls saying the Tories are going to lose by a large margin. I’m not sure that’s the best focus for an election, our job should be to get as close as we can to what the parties stand for.”

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5 News is conducting in-depth interviews with all the main party leaders and reporter Bradley Harris has been travelling around the country in an ice-cream van canvassing opinion from voters.

Bell said in some ways elections have changed little since the first one he covered in 2001. Leaders still have battle buses and with greater diversity of news outlets there are probably more journalists now than ever clamouring to get on board.

Televised leader debates are a relatively new innovation in the UK (dating back to the 2010 general election).

But in other ways, politicians have become more remote and less accessible to ordinary voters. Such encounters can lead to unscripted disasters, as in 2010 when Gillian Duffy challenged Gordon Brown over the economy and migration in Rochdale.

Brown did not realise he still had his broadcast lapel mic on when he drove away and said: “That was a disaster. They should never have put me with that woman… bigoted woman.”

Bell said: “The days when people were brave enough to put their soap box down in the middle of the market square and say ‘come one, come all’ [as John Major did in 1992] are probably over. The environment has changed a bit for really recognisable politicians to be able to do that.”

Bell said his most newsworthy election moments were after the 2010 election, during five days of limbo when it was not clear who would form a government, and in 2001, when deputy prime minister John Prescott punched a voter in Rhyl and Tony Blair was harangued about the state of the health service by voter Sharron Storer over the course of a few hours.

Asked who he thinks the best communicator is out of the current crop of party leaders, Bell praised Nigel Farage’s ability to “land a message and make a connection… whatever you may think about what he is connecting with”.

The current UK general election result is seen as a foregone conclusion, removing some of the excitement and uncertainty from the campaign for some.

But Bell said: “We think we know what’s going to happen, but actually we don’t. I remember opinion polls in 2017 telling us one thing, then Theresa May lost her majority. In 2010 David Cameron was going to win a majority and he didn’t.”

And he said this sense of the “unknown” was what kept his job exciting: “It’s a bit like when the jury comes back in a trial and you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Linear TV news bulletins, like the flagship 5 News show at 5pm, are like newspapers in the sense they are losing audience to social media. Does this worry Bell?

“We do more multimedia ourselves, but the focus for us remains the appointment to view bulletin at 5pm.

“Our job is giving the news to people who aren’t necessarily across Tiktok. We are regulated in a different way with a duty to provide balance and right of reply and that is the service we are providing.

“Hopefully we can provide that service in an interesting and entertaining enough way so that people still tuning in for many years to come.”

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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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