Nicholas Jones

How the internet reduces journalists' chances to hold politicians to account

The 2015 general election presented an unexpected challenge for former BBC political correspondent and author Nicholas Jones. For his fifth general election book he had been commissioned to write The election A-Z, and although no longer reporting directly from the frontline, he was able to use his knowledge of the political beat to examine and assess the campaign on a thematic basis. Having to select a subject for each letter of the alphabet allowed him to explore topical election issues and techniques while at the same time reflecting on the changes he had witnessed during forty years on the campaign trail following party leaders and MPs. Jones was anxious to address the exceptional circumstances surrounding the 2015 election: the novelty of a peacetime coalition government; the introduction of fixed term parliaments; the unprecedented reliance on opinion polls; and the growing impact of social media. Online campaigning opened up new ways to influence voters, but Jones concluded that electioneering via the internet also led to a reduction in the opportunities for journalists to hold politicians to account

Keywords: politics, media, elections, online campaigning

The daunting task of trying to work out how best to exploit the inexorable advance in the scope and reach of social media was one of the dominant challenges facing political strategists during the 2015 general election campaign. As had been the case five years earlier, each of the parties was determined to be a step ahead of its opponents in exploiting every possible online opportunity to influence, and then mobilise potential voters. In their post-election analyses, political propagandists, journalists and academics continued to disagree as to whether online campaigning was influential in securing votes, or whether, as in so many previous elections, it was the heavy, pro-Conservative bias of the popular press that had the greatest clout in helping to deliver the outright victory that had eluded David Cameron in 2010.

My conclusion was that while the ability of pro-Tory newspapers to manipulate and often dictate the news agenda far outweighed the political impact of a burgeoning online discourse, there was no doubt that the power and reach of social media did have a profound effect on the conduct of the 2015 campaign. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and a host of other inter-active services became the top destination for instant news and comment. Rolling news services on television and radio struggled to compete with the immediacy of the internet, but the furore that was sometimes provoked by fast and furious online debates rarely seemed to carry the equivalent weight, or have the same staying power, as the issues being reported and pursued by broadcasters and print media. The verdict of many seasoned observers was that political campaigning via the internet was often akin to an angry echo chamber: committed political activists argued it out with their often abusive respondents, but their dialogue did not necessarily shift votes in the electorate at large. If an issue went viral, and in their favour, campaigners believed they were winning the argument, but the mainstream news agenda was rarely blown off course by online excitement.

Nonetheless, the sheer dominance of social media as the leading platform for instant news lines and reaction did change the nature and conduct of the 2015 campaign. Political parties found that Twitter, Facebook and other online messaging platforms were so effective in reaching political correspondents that they were able to exercise greater control than in previous elections over the flow of information to news organisations. From a party perspective, a discourse via social media was far more preferable than the sometimes brutal interrogation that had previously taken place at daily election news conferences. By limiting the opportunities for the news media to capture the election agenda, political propagandists hoped to ensure there was less likelihood of their campaign messages getting derailed.

Becoming slaves to social media has left a democratic deficit

Political journalists complained that they had been deprived of the chance to question politicians with the thoroughness of previous elections, but in many ways they had been complicit in allowing the internet to become a pivotal channel of channel of communication. All too often correspondents and presenters had themselves become slaves to social media, jostling with each other in cyberspace in their clamour for attention. Gone are the days of newspaper reporters having to wait until the next edition to see the publication of their work, or of broadcasters being limited to a fixed schedule of radio and television news bulletins. As soon as journalists are sure of a story, they are expected to spread the word via the internet. Ownership of an exclusive has to be established immediately on a personal blog, and also promoted via social networking. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, BuzzFeed and a variety of other online platforms must be harnessed to drive the audience, to encourage readers to buy the latest edition of a newspaper or magazine, or to persuade viewers to tune into the next programme.

Where the online world of instant reporting so differed from my day was that the journalists had themselves become players on the enlarged political stage that the internet had created. Instead of simply reporting and analysing what the parties and politicians were saying, political correspondents were also having to compete with each other online. They offered their own comment and reaction, as well as providing hard news and factual information; competing story lines were being bounced around between them, and often changed quite dramatically in the light of online reaction. Some journalists complained that the time-consuming burden of continuous blogging and tweeting hampered their inquiries and subsequent analysis for press reports or news broadcasts, but they realised only too well that their online output was also being monitored constantly by their newsrooms. Woe betide correspondents who ignored the edict of their editors: social media was their friend, an all-important vehicle through which they could build their reputation and authority in print, on air, or on screen.

Staff at the main party headquarters made constant use of their Twitter feeds – sending out dozens of positive messages during the course of a day, as well as responding to news coverage and rebutting negative stories. Party leaders took advantage of Twitter to make policy announcements, react to events, and comment on the day’s campaigning. All news outlets could be supplied instantaneously with the same information leaving no room for doubt, thus limiting inaccurate or damaging speculation. Any subsequent online conversation was usually far safer from a party perspective than having a leader run the risk of being grilled by journalists at a news conference that could so easily go awry.

Demise of daily election news conferences robbed electorate of vital safeguard

As the campaign progressed the routine became well entrenched. Each evening next day’s policy initiative would be trailed in advance to print journalists ready for next morning’s newspapers, and an outline of the announcement would be supplied to broadcasters in time for the late evening news bulletins. Photo-opportunities would be arranged for the day ahead to promote the policy in question; party leaders and leading politicians would use the occasion to deliver pre-prepared soundbites, and perhaps take a few questions. The three main parties adopted the same formula, and in so doing finally pulled down the curtain on the great tradition of election news conferences.

A daily round of early morning jousts between the press pack and the leading contenders had always been one of the great attractions of reporting general elections. Their eventual demise was a consequence of the fallout from the dramatic impact of the three televised leaders’ debates of the 2010 campaign. Each confrontation between Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg dominated the news coverage for an entire week, an experience that was so unsettling for election strategists that they had no hesitation in arguing there was no need to subject the leaders to the added hazard of a daily grilling by journalists. In truth, campaign planners had argued for some time that the press conferences worked to their disadvantage. Political correspondents were well attuned to each party’s weak spots, and despite the rivalries of their competing news outlets, reporters could on occasion work as a highly-effective pack, driving a story in a direction that did the politicians no favours.

Fleet-footed political journalists could get to all three morning briefings, and within a couple of hours or less, correspondents and commentators were abreast of what each party was offering. Every news conference was televised, available for instant use on the news channels or the main bulletins and programmes. For radio and television producers they provided an invaluable resource, a stock of on-the-record answers, like statements at the parliamentary despatch box that could be used to illustrate reports on controversial issues as the election progressed. Journalists had most to gain from the willingness of party leaders and their front-bench teams to subject themselves to the challenge of taking on all-comers at a crowded daily news conference where they could be forced to respond to a surprise initiative that might have been announced minutes earlier by one of their opponents, or perhaps find themselves on the back foot trying to explain an unexpected embarrassment or gaffe.

Almost without realising the full consequence of the shift that has taken place in campaign strategy, the news media, as well as the wider electorate, have lost one of the great safeguards of a UK general election. There is no longer a daily arena where political journalists can test almost to the point of destruction the policies that the rival parties are promoting. The impact of a Twitter storm pales into insignificance when compared with the sight of politicians hurriedly curtailing a televised news conference after their latest initiative has collapsed in front of them after being taken apart under relentless questioning from well-informed correspondents and commentators.

Carefully-controlled photo-shoots offered no chance to hold politicians to account

Competitive forces unleashed by the speed of online communication have rewritten the rule book for election reporting. Journalists were forced during the 2015 campaign to contend with another reality of the internet age: politicians had in effect found a way to bypass reporters and seize the agenda. A posting on Twitter could easily become ‘breaking news’, beating the news agencies and upstaging the story lines that had previously been determined by the mainstream media. Countless platforms provided what was, in effect, a vast digital market place for a continuous conversation between media outlets, political parties, pressure groups and the like. Rather like the trading floors in the City of London, this online political arena was the point where election news was traded, influencing not the price of stock and shares, but the headlines for that evening’s news bulletins and next morning’s newspapers.

Policy announcements followed the same pattern: overnight briefings for next day’s newspapers; a taster of what was afoot for the late evening news bulletins; and these initiatives were then explained in greater detail during interviews on television and radio programmes the following morning, backed up by postings on Twitter and Facebook. The aim was to prepare the ground for a party leader who would make a campaign stop to expand further on the policy being proposed. All too often these launches would be in front of invited audiences of party workers and supporters at pre-arranged photo-opportunities. A few selected journalists usually had the chance to ask a handful of questions, but access was restricted, and these tightly-controlled events lacked anything like the rigour of a daily news conference. The party machines had succeeded in their twin aim of imposing message discipline and reducing the risk of hostilities with the media.

By the midpoint of the 2015 campaign the routine had become so predictable that some of the correspondents assigned to follow the party leaders began to expose the ploys that were being used; they criticised the exclusion of journalists without the correct accreditation and the absence of contact with un-vetted members of the public. A wide shot of David Cameron hosting a rally in a large warehouse in Cornwall revealed that the building was empty except for the band of supporters grouped together in one corner. Conversations during an unannounced town centre walk-about were not spontaneous. When the Prime Minister stopped to talk he was not engaging with casual by-standers but party members who produced Conservative placards once television crews and photographers were on the scene.

Each election tends to throw up new concepts and ideas, perhaps a fresh interpretation of well-worn photo-shoots or a chance to exploit a new fad or fashion. The overall aim is always to offer the media imagery that builds on the campaign themes. Cameron’s perpetual refrain throughout the 2015 campaign was that the Conservatives were ‘on the side of working people’, and that if re-elected he would lead a government that would again be ‘helping hard-working families’. These slogans were reinforced by repeated photo-opportunities in workplaces and schools across the country. Nurseries and play groups were a favourite: Cameron would often be joined by a high-profile colleague such as Boris Johnson and they would sit on small chairs at a table while the children engaged in hand painting or similar activities. Photographers, television crews and reporters would be corralled at some distance, but perhaps near enough to throw the odd question, although unable, given the close presence of small children, to get further than a few pleasantries. When visiting factories and building sites, Cameron and the chancellor, George Osborne, were rarely seen unless wearing high-visibility jackets or vests. At each location, chatting to production line staff or construction workers, they stood out in their orange or yellow attire, usually wearing hard hats as well. On the occasions when the Prime Minister was joined by his wife Samantha, she was kitted out in similar fashion, happy to smile for photographers once she had donned her safety helmet.

The monstering of Miliband: A grudge match with newspaper proprietors

While the press pack soon became bored by such repetitive photo-opportunities, the Conservatives’ election strategists knew that their message was being reinforced every time the pictures were shown in television news bulletins, or appeared in next day’s newspapers. Presenting a positive emphasis on the world of work strengthened the hard sell of the party’s campaign, a pitch that the Tories constantly returned to. Labour and the Liberal Democrats offered a competing range of photo-opportunities, but their imagery lacked the consistency of the ‘high-vis’ approach of their opponents. Rather than try to match Cameron’s formula of a walk-about and chat inside a workplace environment, the Labour leader Ed Miliband steered clear of situations that might have given photographers the chance to picture him in awkward poses that played to the weirdo image that he had been burdened with by the tabloid press. The pounding that he would be subjected to, from his election as leader in September 2010 to the general election campaign and its dramatic aftermath, was as vicious as the treatment previously meted out to Gordon Brown, Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot.

In many ways the pre-election monstering of Miliband went further than simply the trashing of his personality and the ridiculing of his political credibility. He found himself embroiled in what came to resemble a grudge match with a handful of proprietors who were determined to use the political reporting of their newspapers to bolster their attempt to prevent the election of a Labour government that they feared would impose an authoritarian press standards regime, and interfere with the conduct of their media interests. Unlike his immediate predecessors, Miliband did not hold back from combat at a personal level, repeatedly singling out Rupert Murdoch by name when reminding voters that as leader of the opposition he had stood up for the public against the scandal of phone hacking and the abuses of the big energy companies and bankers.

Murdoch fought back through the pages of the Sun, his largest-selling newspaper, which did not limit itself to the predictable mix of wounding personal attack and Labour scare stories. Reportage to the effect that Miliband was a weirdo, ill-suited to high office, had long been a regular feature of the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, but the Sun went one step further in the lead-up to polling day, presenting news reports about Miliband as if they were appearing in the pages of a comic rather than a newspaper. Instead of using news photographs to illustrate its political stories, he appeared in the guise of various cartoon characters, complete with fictional speech bubbles. Battle lines for the monstering that ensued were apparent from late 2013 when the press proprietors, who had rejected a press standards authority backed by a royal charter, started to prepare for the launch the following year of their own independent regulator. In the view of the Daily Mail, Labour had backed state-sponsored regulation that would ‘end 300 years of press freedom’. From then on Miliband could expect no mercy; he and his family would have to endure the kind of onslaught that Fleet Street had inflicted on Labour and trade union leaders of the past, and the wounding ‘weirdo’ agenda would be exploited with the tacit support of the Conservatives.

Peter Brookes, The Times’s cartoonist, had already taken to presenting the Labour leader and his shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, as Wallace and Gromit, the toothy, absent-minded inventor accompanied by his faithful dog. Miliband’s teeth were a gift for cartoonists. The depiction of him as a somewhat goofy geek had not gone unnoticed by the Sunday Telegraph, which had evidently read the mind of Conservative spin doctors. Alongside a cartoon of Miliband with tombstone teeth, its columnist Iain Martin could not resist posing the questions: ‘Is this the Tories’ secret weapon?’

Britain’s cartoonists are often credited with being the first to associate a politician with a particular facial characteristic, quirky gesture, prop or perhaps item of attire, and for the press photographers Miliband’s protruding teeth were about to become an example of life imitating art. Shortly before a photo-call in May 2014, Miliband was happy for the press pack to join him as he popped into a café at the New Covent Garden flower market for an early-morning bacon sandwich, not realising that his troublesome teeth would also be on the menu. As the Labour leader started struggling to eat his bacon butty, London Evening Standard photographer Jeremy Selwyn captured a moment that politicians dread, an image that would come to be associated with any mention of their name. The Sun’s savaging of Miliband intensified in the countdown to polling day and its eve-of-poll edition reprised the bacon sandwich photograph under the headline ‘Save our bacon’. The story line harked back to Kelvin MacKenzie’s infamous 1992 polling day front page of Neil Kinnock’s head superimposed on a light bulb alongside the headline: ‘If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave please turn out the lights.’ The text was as partisan as MacKenzie’s, but perhaps did not have quite the same bite: ‘This is the pig’s ear Ed made of a helpless sarnie. In 48 hours, he could be doing the same to Britain ... don’t swallow his porkies and keep him out.’

Try as they might, the Sun and its Tory stablemates could not ignore the relentless tide of opinion poll predictions that the result would be so close that another hung parliament was almost a certainty. The bold headline on the Sun’s election-day front page said: ‘Well hung’ in capital letters over YouGov’s ‘knife-edge’ forecast of a 34-34 per cent dead heat between Labour and the Conservatives. Speculation about the prospects for another coalition government had dominated the news agenda for weeks, prompting endless theorising about how the rival parties might line up, and their likely terms for a deal. Opinion polls became the prism through which the election was being reported; the pollsters’ forecasts were so consistent they dictated the course of the campaign, influencing tactics to a far greater extent than had ever previously been the case. Eleven were published on the eve of poll, ten of which suggested there was only one point between Cameron and Miliband, but there had been literally hundreds of surveys commissioned during the 100-day countdown to polling day.

New players on the election stage: opinion pollsters join the political commentariat

A guessing game bolstered by the uncertainties being generated by the opinion pollsters suited the news media because the 2010 coalition government had deprived the lobby of what had hitherto been one of the mainstays of a journalist’s life at Westminster. Generations of political correspondents had spent countless hours writing and broadcasting about the likely choice of polling day. By opting for the stability of a fixed parliament, and by deciding that Thursday 7 May would be the date of the 2015 general election, David Cameron and Nick Clegg had, at a stroke, deprived reporters of the great unknown, the one overriding uncertainty that could be relied upon to sustain months of pre-election reportage. Our previous pre-occupation with election timing had not been misplaced: until the 2010 coalition agreement, Prime Ministers had jealously guarded their right to choose the moment to go to the country and seek a new mandate. British political history has often turned on the timing of elections, and several post-war premiers have rued their choice of polling day. But journalists and pundits can never be accused of lacking inventiveness, and what better way to inject a sense of excitement into their coverage than to manufacture a timetable that would create interest and generate headlines for both newspapers and broadcasters alike. Almost without having been prompted, the news media made a collective decision in mid-January to start a 100-day countdown to the election, and journalists were soon busily engaged in exploiting another imponderable, the unpredictability of multi-party politics.

As a continuous flow of opinion surveys heightened the drama of the media’s guessing game, raising in the process the profile of the polling companies, the pollsters were increasingly being called upon to interpret their own statistics. They found themselves elevated to the political commentariat, and were commissioned to write newspaper columns and supply regular punditry for radio and television programmes. Not content with simply conducting surveys and analysing the information they had obtained, the pollsters morphed into players on the political stage exploiting their predictions to help float competing scenarios around the possible make-up of a future coalition government. Their denouement was spectacular: a massive exit poll commissioned by BBC, ITV and Sky News was greeted with amazement when released on election night programmes at 10 pm. Against all the predictions of pollsters who had been calling the shots for so many weeks, a survey of 22,000 voters questioned as they left polling stations showed that Cameron was in a commanding lead. The Conservatives were predicted to be the largest party with 316 seats, well ahead of Labour on 238. When all the votes were counted their tally had increased to 331, an outright majority of 12, a result that Cameron declared was the ‘sweetest victory of all’.

Election strategists said subsequently that if they had only known that the opinion polls were so misleading, they would have changed their approach and adjusted their daily programme of campaign events. Almost immediately the British Polling Council, supported by the Market Research Society, announced an inquiry to discover why ‘all the pollsters underestimated the Conservative lead over Labour’. Two of the theories that attracted much attention were that the polling companies failed to reflect the significance of ‘shy Tories’, and that online polls used by companies such as YouGov tended to favour Labour. Miliband had been buoyed throughout the campaign by the predictions of a close result, and party activists claimed the weight of comment on social media was running heavily in Labour’s favour. But the uncertainty of the outcome did work to the Conservatives’ advantage because it assisted Cameron’s election supremo Lynton Crosby as he pursued strategies aimed at peeling off wavering supporters from both Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and of also attracting floating voters.

Although Crosby considered opinion surveys commissioned by the newspapers had distorted news coverage, and created ‘a wall of noise’ that he feared might have destabilised the Conservatives’ campaign, he acknowledged in post-election interviews that the polls made the public realise that their votes mattered: ‘People looking for certainty and stability thought we must be careful with our vote.’ Nonetheless the polls had been a distraction for Cameron’s strategist because, to his annoyance, they sustained story lines that the Prime Minister could not win outright because of mistakes in the Conservatives’ campaign. Newspaper pollsters, commentators and correspondents had, in Crosby’s opinion, ‘abdicated their responsibility’ to find out what was going on because they had used the ‘prism of the polls’ to predict what would happen. ‘A pollster relying on an online survey is like a doctor just taking a patient’s temperature, but not telling the patient why the temperature is high or low. ... We build polls on a basis of knowledge and research, so we understand what truly drives voters, and how you can influence them.’ Crosby’s confidence from the start of the campaign that the Conservatives would gain an outright majority was based on a database built on the results of private party polls that contained details of ‘tens of thousands of potential Tory voters who had been quietly monitored, and who helped Cameron return to Downing Street’.

Did ‘the most dangerous woman in Britain’ become Cameron’s most effective recruiting sergeant?

Research data amassed by his campaign team at party headquarters prompted Crosby to devote considerable resources towards targeting Liberal Democrat constituencies, especially those in the south and south-west of England, where the Conservatives were convinced the sitting MPs were overstating their support, and were unlikely to benefit as much as they expected from being the incumbent. Pro-Conservative newspapers were on hand to assist, only too willing to promote a fear-factor agenda that worked to the party’s advantage, helping to peel off Liberal Democrat waverers. Ed Miliband found himself locked in what for Labour became a deadly embrace with Nicola Sturgeon. The possibility of a coalition government in which the Scottish Nationalists finished up dictating policy at Westminster was a scenario that was presented in ever starker terms, and in the event, was said to have encouraged many undecided English voters to opt decisively for Cameron. Ms Sturgeon had no hesitation in pushing Miliband into a corner, urging Labour to work together with the SNP to ‘lock David Cameron out of Downing Street’, an appeal that provoked an all-too predictable response from newspapers such as the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph: she had become ‘the most dangerous woman in Britain’.

Crosby and his allies in the Conservative press went to great lengths to stoke fears that a Miliband-led coalition would have to be propped up by the Nationalists. According to Crosby: ‘The SNP had two powerful leaders; Alex Salmond was seen as very cunning, and Nicola Sturgeon strong in terms of ability. They were such a contrast to the lack of clarity and weakness of Ed Miliband. Our data confirmed that voters sensed the political cunning of these two would outsmart Miliband, and that the electorate would pay the price.’ The SNP were not averse to goading their tormentors: they understood the potency of being able to traduce unelected newspaper editors in what was once Fleet Street for fostering divisive and uncalled for interference in the affairs of Scotland. Tabloid abuse was, in effect, an ally in a campaign to reinforce the Scots’ sense of identity.

When historians reflect on the momentous advance of Scottish nationalism they can hardly ignore the impact of unrelenting press hostility before both the 2014 referendum on independence, and then the general election seven months later. Divisions in the Conservative party under both Margaret Thatcher and John Major were similarly exacerbated by the undeviating negativity of the popular press towards the European Union. An anti-EU agenda had powered Nigel Farage’s early success in building support for the United Kingdom Independence Party. Voters’ anger and disillusionment had been sustained by an endless diet of stories about unelected bureaucrats in Brussels inflicting change after change on the British way of life. Tory-supporting tabloids presented Farage, pint and cigarette in hand, as the ‘friendly bloke next door’, the one man prepared to speak up for the British public. After gaining most seats in the 2014 elections for the European Parliament, and winning by-elections after the defection of two Tory MPs, he seemed poised to lead a UKIP breakthrough in the general election. Farage’s folksy image took a battering as polling day approached and the previously favourable tide of publicity turned against him. Nonetheless UKIP did secure 3.8 million votes, but to his great disappointment returned only one MP to Westminster. UKIP’s achievement in gaining the third largest share of the UK vote, yet ending up with a lone voice in the House of Commons, was in sharp contrast to the SNP’s electoral bonanza, a haul of 56 seats on a total tally of just 1.4 million votes.

Farage joined a chorus of criticism of the vagaries of first-past-the-post voting. A study by the Electoral Reform Society showed that the 2015 result was the most disproportionate in the history of UK elections. A winner-takes-all electoral system had piled up 7.4 million votes for UKIP, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens yet the three parties finished up with only 10 MPs between then. Nick Clegg’s resignation within hours of the result, like that of Ed Miliband, was inevitable after the near annihilation of his parliamentary party, reduced from 67 MPs to a mere eight.

Cameron’s rent-a-quote deputy needed an effective communications strategy

Clegg’s five years as deputy prime minister had been a public relations disaster from the moment his party broke its 2010 election pledge to vote against any increase in student tuition fees. He finally apologised two years later, but had to suffer the humiliation of finding his words had gone viral at the hands of internet satirists. His party political broadcast explaining his U-turn in sombre tones was put to music, repeating ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry’ over and over again.

In so many ways the 2010 coalition agreement had sown the seeds for the Liberal Democrats’ virtual wipe-out. In dividing up the spoils, Clegg became Cameron’s deputy and his party accepted five cabinet posts and fifteen other ministerial jobs. No thought seemed to have been given to the need for a long-term communications strategy: what would be the Liberal Democrats’ pitch to the electorate five years later? I had expected Clegg to demand one of the top offices of state for himself, perhaps the role of home secretary, or perhaps education or health, a department and area of government that the Liberal Democrats would be able to declare their own, where he would be able to make a distinct contribution and have an impact that would be identifiable to the electorate. Instead, after the first flush of Conservative-Liberal Democrat co-operation, he came to be viewed by the public as no more than a glorified trouble shooter. Clegg relished the chance to present himself as an authoritative voice across government departments, second only to the Prime Minister, seemingly oblivious to the danger that he might come to be viewed as nothing more than a rent-a-quote deputy, whose eagerness to talk the talk would only encourage the news media to treat him as Cameron’s aunt sally.

Clegg was unable to repeat his breakthrough of the 2010 campaign when a beleaguered Gordon Brown agreed to join Cameron in the first-ever series of leaders’ televised debates. An even greater surprise was that Labour and the Conservatives accepted without hesitation that there should be a three-way split with the Liberal Democrats. Equal billing with the prime minister and Conservative leader in front of millions of television viewers offered Clegg the national recognition that his predecessors, David Steel, Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy had spent a lifetime establishing. ‘I agree with Nick’ became the catchphrase of the 2010 campaign, a stroke of good fortune that would not be repeated. From the outset, Cameron refused to participate in another round of head-to-head confrontations, and it was only after weeks of bad-tempered exchanges, and threats that his podium might be left empty, that he finally agreed to take part in one single head-to-head encounter, but only on condition that the line-up was extended to include other party leaders.

The resulting seven-way debate was another first for a UK election. While the inclusion of the leaders of UKIP, SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens had achieved Cameron’s purpose of diluting the potential impact of Miliband or Clegg, he had inadvertently given electors a glimpse of what multi-party politics could offer, an illustration of how the custom and practice of British politics might be reshaped through electoral reform and a fairer system of voting. ‘Dawn of rainbow politics’ was the front-page headline of the i newspaper above a picture of seven leaders standing behind their podiums.

Far from being able to reinforce his authority as Prime Minister as his advisers thought might be the outcome of a diffuse seven-way debate of Cameron v. the rest, he found himself facing a sustained assault from a trio of party leaders who had an agreed and co-ordinated approach. Nicola Sturgeon (SNP), Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru) and Natalie Bennett (Greens) turned their fire from the Prime Minister to Miliband in a second five-way Challengers’ debate that excluded Cameron and Clegg. Immediately it finished the three women were photographed smiling together in a group hug on the platform, an image that drew immediate comparison to Antonio Canova’s celebrated statue The Three Graces.

Craze for selfies symbolised superficiality of election coverage

Safe in the knowledge that the debates were unlikely to allow either Miliband or Clegg the airtime that they might have hoped for, Cameron put greater effort into his set-piece television interviews, exploiting his well-practised ease in front of camera. From the start of the Conservative leadership election in 2005, he had relaxed the boundaries on media access to his private life, happy to be photographed and filmed at home with his wife Samantha and their children. He understood full well the political value of images of the Camerons en famille, and as the years went by he extended his in-vision repertoire of domestic duties, and was often filmed or photographed preparing breakfast for the children. He seemed to know instinctively that a must-see location of the 2015 campaign would be today’s live-in kitchen, regarded by many as the hub of a modern family home. Under the influence of his culinary prowess, kitchens in Downing Street and his constituency home morphed into sets that could just as easily have accommodated the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. Never before had a kitchen been the location for an epic political pronouncement, so there was amazement in Westminster and Whitehall when he startled the BBC’s deputy political editor, James Landale, by declaring he intended to be a two-term Prime Minister: ‘I am standing for a full second term. ... The third term is not something I’m contemplating.’ Not to be outdone Miliband, Clegg and Sturgeon were interviewed in their kitchens, but it was Miliband’s misfortune to be filmed in his ‘functional kitchenette’ upstairs, rather than the family’s ‘lovely’ kitchen downstairs, prompting a mini tabloid frenzy about ‘two kitchens’ Miliband.

‘Kitchengate’ apart, the novelty act that had the greatest impact was the craze for selfie photographs. Initially Cameron blamed the ‘curse of the selfie’ for hindering his campaign, but the party leaders realised that stopping for photographs was a sure-fire way to enhance their street credibility. Instead of being harangued by un-vetted passers-by, or having to square up to a heckler, there was the soft option of trading on the celebrity status that leading politicians can acquire. Potentially difficult encounters could be defused in an instant by calling over by-standers waving smart phones. Ms Sturgeon, greeted like a rock star by her supporters, was judged the ‘queen of the selfies’: she knew instantly how to operate every camera phone on the market and precisely where to place her head for the best possible photo.

The craze for selfies symbolised the superficiality of much of the election coverage. A chance to capture on their mobile phone or tablet a picture of themselves with a politician they had seen on the ‘telly’ seemed to be a priority for many of those who turned up at political events, or who were swept along in the slipstream of a party leader’s walk-about. Instead of the rigour of daily news conferences, or the chance to view sustained head-to-head debates between the Prime Minister and leader of the opposition, the electorate was short-changed, and voters could hardly be blamed for dismissing the campaign as boring and repetitive. Perhaps the next academic inquiry should be to discover the impact of selfies on voting patterns: do those who have photographed themselves with a leading politician end up giving that party their vote. On second thoughts, No. Political propagandists need no further tips on how to dumb down elections and avoid the scrutiny that the electorate deserves.

Note on the contributor

Nicholas Jones was a BBC industrial and political correspondent for 30 years. He has written extensively on the relationship between politicians and the media, He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Wolverhampton in 2005, and appointed an honorary visiting professor at the Cardiff School of Journalism in 2011. His latest book, The election A-Z, published in July 2015, is his fifth about a general election. Previous books include Election 92, Campaign 1997, Campaign 2001, and Campaign 2010: The making of the Prime Minister.