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Cameron v Miliband: wrong format, wrong presenters, wrong time

March 27, 2015

I’ve been mulling over last night’s very unsatisfactory Cameron v Miliband election programme. At first,  I couldn’t quite put my finger on why it left me feeling that it fell so far short of what might have been. Then the more I thought about it the more I realised that feeling had less to do with how either David Cameron or Ed Miliband performed than with the programme itself.

Quite simply, it was the wrong format, with the wrong presenters at the wrong time.

The format

Cameron: handled auidence better

Cameron: handled audience better

Miliband: handled Paxman better

Miliband: handled Paxman better

I didn’t understand the mirror image format and I don’t think it worked. I felt that the audience first, interview second option was slightly the better except that there was very little join between the two. The awful selection of questions – too much about personality and not enough about policy – and the failure to consistently allow questioners a supplementary question certainly didn’t help. There is little doubt that Cameron was much more relaxed and confident in the audience section than Miliband and that he got a more coherent message across as a result. I was very disappointed that every question was pre-selected. It would have been much more edgy if it was opened up and a few unscripted questions were put to the leaders.

The presenters

Jeremy Paxman and Kay Burley failed to make the most of either element. Paxman was simply too Paxman. He has a very confrontational style which unnerved both interviewees at different stages but it almost gets in the way of the subject and certainly doesn’t make for a flowing conversation. His technique of constantly repeating the same question is rather tired. Make the point twice maybe and then move on. Most viewers of a programme like that are perfectly capable of making up their own minds whether a question has been answered adequately. He also seems increasingly to take pleasure in being rude, a style of interviewing that I expect turns off many people, especially women.

I’m really not sure why Kay Burley was there. She merely called the pre-arranged questioners and did virtually nothing else when it came to Cameron, although she did come alive abit more with Miliband, albeit over the rather irrelevant topic of his relationship with his brother. She should have positioned herself much more as an audience advocate, helping to ensure they got the answers they were looking for. There were hints of that but she always quickly shied away from adopting that role.

I don’t think the mirrored format helped either presenter. If they had both been the same way round then there could have been a much better pick-up from one to the other, ideally with Paxman linking in with a couple of key questions asked by the audience that he sensed they hadn’t felt were answered properly.

The timing

Quite simply, far, far too early. This whole campaign has already been ludicrously stretched out and is suffering from having no distinct phases. Having the first TV election”debate” the day after the final Prime Minister’s Question Time simply compounded that problem. We’ve moved in the blink of an eye from Parliament sitting to the hustings but with the tedious backdrop of almost 60 days solid electioneering behind us and the not very enticing prospect of 40 days of the same to come. We needed a clean break, a pause and, crucially, the publication of the manifestos before embarking on TV debate and interrogation. This would have provided greater substance and factual reality to the proceedings, making it unnecessary to indulge in so many personality questions.

With the manifestos out and the election campaign proper underway – by contrast with this extended phoney war – a Cameron v Miliband programme would have made much more sense. It would have made even more sense as the last programme, not the first but I suspect we have Cameron to blame for that.

Who won?

Both leaders will be relieved that neither suffered any significant damage, a negative way of assessing the outcome that befits the cautious, focus group driven nature of both campaigns. Personally, I thought Miliband came out slightly the better if only for the way he stood up to Paxman which clearly won the sympathy of the studio audience. Otherwise neither leader did anything – good or bad – that surprised me.

From → Politics

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