We now seem to be in a three horse race and a hung parliament will no doubt be claimed as a triumph by the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Minor parties are likely to pick up votes as well and it is likely that some areas will be represented by individuals even more barking mad than the present incumbents. For the power crazed and self-obsessed narcissists running for office in the local and general elections, it is a win-win situation. But there will be losers, and not just the electorate. With less than two weeks still to go, the campaign has brought about the onset of the final death throes of the fourth estate.
The decision to stage live televised debates between the three main party leaders was always going to be risky, almost as risky as opening up the House of Commons to press reporting in 1787 and the televising of parliament in 1989. There were those, 223 years ago, who felt that journalists in the gallery writing stuff down was a very bad idea and a lot of their successors still feel the same way. Labour and the Conservatives resisted the idea of a threesome on camera because they felt that the Liberal Democrats were too insignificant to participate. Ironically, after pressure from Sky News proprietor Rupert Murdoch, with an eye on ratings and a desire to be considered as an equal to BBC News and ITN, the plunge was taken.
The first television debate resulted in Nick Clegg rocketing through the national zeitgeist becoming Nick Clegg, not Nick who? After the first debate, Clegg was being compared with Barak Obama. Not since the Liberal Party were called Whigs and the non-existent Labour Party were considered as serfs, have the Liberal Democrats headed the opinion polls and that was in a time before opinion polls were invented. This was all too much for certain sections of the old printed media who, remembering the time when all Liberal MPs could comfortably be transported to the commons in a single Hackney cab, reacted with characteristic hysteria..
On the morning of the second television debate, the Times, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Daily Express and the Sun ran anti-Clegg front page smear stories. One suggested that he was a Nazi, another pointed out that his father was half Russian, his mother was Dutch and his wife is Spanish. Without any verification, one paper reported alleged payments to his private bank account from donors but just about stopped short of calling him a paedophile. Clegg has certainly rattled the right wing press and the editors and proprietors of those worthy organs have reverted to type by promoting negative stories aimed at preserving the status quo. Clegg was now being compared with Hitler.
The morning after the second debate, which was generally considered to be a draw but with Clegg still ahead in the polls, the headlines screamed victory for whichever political party the newspaper proprietor favoured. “Cameron nicks it” claimed the Times. “The Cam back kid” bellowed the Sun. “Cameron wins with passion” oozed the Express. The Telegraph gave us “Cameron fights back”. On the left we had the Guardian giving us “Clegg weathers the storm” and the Mirror went for “One foot in the Dave”. The Independent said that “This time it`s personal” but it was left to the Daily Star to sum up the concerns of the nation. They ran “Jordans lust for Pete`s fab abs”. Perhaps a fourth lectern should be installed to accommodate Pete at the next and final election debate.
The old print media have got this election totally wrong. They do not seem to realise that the electorate today are much more sophisticated than their predecessors and any attempt to smear party leaders will only generate sympathy and therefore support. The ridiculous attacks on Clegg actually increased his popularity and left the credibility of newspapers, particularly the Murdoch owned News International titles, in tatters.
Nearly 10 million people watched the first debate on ITV and Sky News achieved a record 2 million viewers for the second debate with another 2 million watching online coverage on the BBC news website, which kept crashing due to the high levels of traffic. The third debate on April 29 will be held in the Midlands and will focus on the economy. This time, the BBC will be the broadcaster and David Dimbleby will be the moderator. Sky TV boss James Murdoch will not be in the control room, literally calling the shots as he did in the second debate when the camera cut away to a member of the audience yawning as Gordon Brown was speaking. Dimbleby and the BBC are likely to be more impartial but the former newspaper proprietor may be able to share anecdotes with David Cameron in the green room about their memories of trashing restaurants as former members of the notorious Bullingdon Club when they were, at different times, undergraduates at Oxford.
Before the next and final debate, we can expect more rubbish from the expiring printed media and the mercenary hacks that produce slurs on behalf of media moguls who are intent on telling the electorate who to vote for. The panic that is sweeping editors offices is reflected in the coverage that newspapers are giving to opinions expressed on Twitter and Facebook. They realise that their influence and power is on the wane and have no idea what to do about it.
There is a market for Pete`s fab abs and Jordans lust, but when it comes to factual reporting and balanced information, forget it.