Giselle Green ran Siobhan Benita’s media campaign in the recent London Mayoral election. She is an ex-BBC News producer.
The media's obsession with the low turnout for the PCC elections was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Right from the start the overwhelming message appeared to be: these elections are unnecessary, uncalled for and downright dull so we won't bother reporting them except to say they are unnecessary, uncalled for and downright dull. I'm certainly not defending David Cameron’s apparent belief that it is the media's job to step in when the government has so monumentally failed to publicise them (perversely preferring to spend £25 million delaying the elections from May until November rather than on funding mail shots). But if the media sets such a downbeat tone, it's not surprising that it rubs off on voters.
I must declare a personal interest here. Following my role as Siobhan Benita's Head of Media in her London mayoral campaign, I became loosely involved in the campaign of the ultimately successful independent candidate in Kent, Ann Barnes. I wrote to many national journalists and broadcasters, telling them about her excellent prospects, hoping this might prompt them to use her as part of their national coverage and spark debate on, for example, which independent candidates might have a chance of getting elected or on why so few women were standing. Nothing doing, other than a couple of lines in the Guardian's Media Monkey.
I offer this personal tale purely as one small example of press disinterest, which you may well think is justified. It would be helpful to hear from other candidates about the level of coverage they received, both locally and nationally to get a more accurate picture. Interestingly, Ann’s campaign team felt she did receive decent (and fair) news coverage from the local media. And thanks to a more reasonable approach by broadcasters than in the London mayoral election, they say Ann’s appearance in all the regional TV debates was an absolutely vital factor in her success.
It’s quite possible of course that the perception of poor media coverage is another example of the London-centric bias of our media and Downing Street: if it’s not in the London-based national press, it’s not happening. Or maybe we shouldn’t confuse reporting an election with convincing the public to vote. Hopefully the Electoral Reform Society’s enquiry into “the comedy of errors” of these PCC elections will also look at the media’s role.
What is clear though is that the national media totally failed to predict the big story of the PCC elections: TWELVE independent candidates being elected, compared to Labour’s 13 and the Tories’ 16. Paradoxically, the success of independents is related to both the low turnout and the lack of information. Yes, voter apathy and ignorance (whether due to government incompetence, patchy media coverage or November gloom) are valid explanations for the embarrassingly low turnout. But I think another major reason is that for a public which is so used to voting tribally, this election posed a real problem. Most people instinctively felt it was wrong to have a party political police commissioner. So where could they turn? With no information and little interest, they just didn't bother to vote at all. Or spoiled their ballot paper, scrawling as one Sheffield voter did: “no independent therefore none of the above”. The minority who did vote had done their homework and actively sought out information, leading huge numbers to plump for serious, credible independents, the majority of whom have relevant policing experience as ex-police officers or ex-police authority chairs. People who had been won over by independent candidates were also more committed and motivated to get out and vote for them, compared with lethargic party political voters.
So what was billed as a bad day for democracy, with turnout at an all time low, may ironically have turned out to be a great day for democracy, with the most appropriate people being elected and voters learning how to put a cross next to the word “independent”.