By Catherine Wyatt
Last Thursday, David Cameron and Ed Miliband faced questions from Jeremy Paxman and a studio audience in the first of three general election programmes. With the election just five short weeks away (though with the amount of political coverage ahead it may feel more like five very long weeks), the aim was to help the electorate decide who to vote for. Unfortunately, despite post-debate attempts to find a ‘winner’, there was no clear victor…apart from maybe Paxman.
Cameron took a calm and collected approach, intending to capitalise on his presidential image and statesmanly advantage over Miliband. However, when compared to the dynamism and energy of Ed ‘hell yes I’m tough enough’ Miliband, at points Cameron looked complacent. Enjoying the benefits of incumbency, Cameron hadn’t quite switched into competitor mode.
Nonetheless, Miliband also faltered and tripped over some questions. He fumbled around addressing the public’s fears of Labour and the economy, and when attacking Paxman it was not entirely clear whether the audience were laughing at or with Miliband.
Cutting straight to the core issues and asking the difficult questions, Paxman was the people’s hero of the night. Asking Cameron about the increased use of food banks, and his habit of appointing tax avoiders and phone hackers to government positions, Paxman was no less harsh on Miliband, pounding his party for their history of over-taxing, over-borrowing and over-spending.
Paxman’s political butchery and ability to quickly and precisely address the fundamental policy clashes between the two leaders stood in stark contrast to what appeared to be the ineptitude and bias of co-presenter Burley. Kay gave the Prime Minister a wide berth, allowing him to answer the somewhat tame audience questions freely. However, she intervened more frequently in Miliband’s slot, persistently demanding he talk about the impact of his decision to run against his brother David for Labour leader on family relations.
A YouGov poll of viewers who said they had watched ‘some or all’ of the debate, conducted the weekend after the programme, had 49% of viewers saying Miliband did best, to just 34% of who gave Cameron the win. A similar ICM poll, conducted shortly after the show, had 54% backing Cameron, with 46% saying Miliband had won.
The contradictory nature of polling allowed The Sunday Times to run the headline ‘Labour races into a 4-point lead after Miliband’s TV success’, whereas The Guardian went with ‘Cameron has edge over Miliband in TV battle’. The media’s preoccupation with who ‘won’, as well as their conflicting messages over who exactly that was, obscures meaningful policy debate and analysis.
The last word of the night came from Paxman, who, when he thought the microphones were off, asked Miliband ‘Are you alright?’. In this un-staged moment, Paxman reminded us that the whole thing was a show. A show which asked its viewers to pick a winner out of Labour and the Conservatives, Miliband and Cameron. Except it couldn’t even do that.