The Slow-Mo Election 2011

Coventry University senior lecturer John Mair was covering last weeks elections and AV voting referendum from BBC Belfast as their hub producer and director for Vote 2011 – He reports:

Elections are the cup finals of live factual television. It’s Saturday night and this one in Northern Ireland is way beyond playing in extra time. Scotland has an SNP government with a thumping majority,Wales’s Labour government is back in power, the AV Referendum has lost – Yet here in Belfast they are still counting the votes nearly forty eight hours after the polls have closed. It is an election in very slow motion. BBC Northern Ireland has just come off air after a 26 hour marathon. Noel Thompson – the David Dimbleby of the Province must have had an iron bladder. To the end he was sharp as ever, taking on some of the bluff and bluster of Irish politicians surgically. The BBC NI team have performed admirably with a range of OBS covering the piste and reporters looking ever more tired and baggy-eyed. But report they did, and the programme as a whole held together and looked extremely slick and was much less claustrophic than the Dimbleby network one. However,  that had wrapped up twenty four hours ago!

Writes John Mair…

Why the slow motion? The villain of this of this piece and the man whose television appearances became to resemble Basil Fawlty is Graham Shield the Chief Electoral Office for Northern Ireland. His excuses got increasingly threadbare as the pantomime of the count developed. The process did not start until the day after the polls had closed. The votes had to be verified (as happens in Ireland) and this took until Friday afternoon in many polling stations. The forces of nature then had to be countered – due to heavy rain some votes had to be cleaned up using a hair drier, the forces of gravity-one counting table collapsed, and the forces of hunger as voting counters had to be given time for lunch. Cynics claim they had a siesta, however tiredness had struck – at least one counter was filmed getting forty winks on day two. The count veered from the adequate to farce. The voting system is complicated,  involving the single transferable vote and several rounds of elimination (eat your heart out Nick Clegg) but not nearly as complicated as this display tried to show. The science of propulsion it is not, but the hapless Mr Shield make it look and sound like finding Life on Mars.

Slow motion meant the big names had to keep returning to the counting centres – those empty leisure centre halls –to rally the troops and report what was needed for television. Kudos had to be given to UTV here who stuck with the marathon. Sometimes, the big boys made it to TV screens across the water but nowhere near enough. The London central BBC should examine the way it reflects voting and voters in the nations a bit more closely. They vote and they pay the licence fee too. While nobody is suggesting a regional quota, better coverage would have picked up the Northern Ireland election pantomime story earlier. Graham Shield might then be a star throughout the UK, not just here in Belfast.

With thanks to BBC Belfast and the BBC College of Journalism.


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