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Planning election coverage: "trying to fit an octopus into a carrier bag"

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Chris Hunter Chris Hunter | 06:00 UK time, Friday, 6 May 2011

Polling station

By the time you read this, it will all be over. Or at least my part in it.

"It", in this case, means planning for the set of elections on May 5th and then working on the overnight results programme that went out on Radio 4 and 5 live in a shocking piece of joined-up BBC output. I'm sure you'll have been glued to it between 12.30 and 5.20am.

I love an election, me. Last year I managed to persuade The Powers That Be at 5 live to let me take charge of our own election night programme and I had a whale of a time. Who among us will ever forget the breaking news of voters locked out of their polling stations, the interviews with the Great and Good of politics and, of course, the singing mayor of Rochdale?

I was hooked. So when it became apparent that 5 live was being asked to contribute someone to the joint programme for this years polls, I gouged many eyes and gave several Chinese burns to make sure I got the gig.

In charge of the whole thing has been Jon Zilkha, the BBC's Radio Elections Editor. He's also the Deputy Editor of Radio 4's Today programme (basically a would-be rival to 5 live Breakfast, as I'm sure they consider themselves) and Acting Editor of Daytime Programmes on the World Service. He probably has a few other titles too, but space is limited here.

The other person involved in our back-of-a-fag-packet planning was the estimable Giles Edwards, who spends half his life making fascinating radio documentaries from our political headquarters in Millbank and the other half involved in elections. He knows more about politics, both here and around the world, than the rest of the population put together. If you've got Giles and you're making an election programme, you're okay.

We radio types like a story that you can sum up in a sentence. These elections have had several of those, but no over-arching theme. There have been Parliamentary elections in Scotland, Assembly ones in Wales and Northern Ireland, local ones in (most of) England and Northern Ireland and a UK-wide referendum on the AV voting system. And a by-election in Leicester South. And five direct mayoral elections too. This does not lead to a snappy top line and meant that we had to make sure that everything was going to get the right amount of coverage.

And so it's been a case of trying to fit an octopus into a carrier bag. However, as I was working on the overnight programme, things have been made simpler by the fact that I haven't needed to concern myself with Northern Ireland or the AV referendum - they don't count until today. So I deployed some of our finest journalists around the UK for Thursday night and sat down with some extremely dry statistical analysis for bedtime reading. And then I was able to get on with my other jobs.

Which, it rapidly became clear, included helping plan for coverage of the results on day two - or today as it's better known - so time to brush up on my Northern Ireland and AV after all. More deployment of excellent journalists and more statistical analysis. And then I was able to get on with my other jobs.

Which included my day job on 5 live Breakfast. Nothing too taxing there, then. Just the Middle East and North Africa trying to throw off the chains of tyranny with varying degrees of success, the wedding of our future King and Queen, the killing of the World's Most Wanted Man and the departure of our beloved Shelagh Fogarty. And then I was able to get on with my other jobs.

Which included attempting to be a loving husband and father, rather than the strangely absent figure who occasionally materialised in the kitchen saying things like, "Do you know what the really interesting thing about Dartford is?"

(The answer is that it's returned an MP from the party that went on to govern in every general election since 1964, making it Britain's longest standing bellwether constituency. Or, if you're much less of a saddo than I am, it's that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were born there. And that Anne of Cleves lived there after her divorce from Henry VIII. Anyway.)

As I said at the top, it will all be over by the time you read this, but at the moment it's far later on Wednesday evening than it should be and there's still a bewildering amount of work to do before we go on air at half-past midnight on Thursday night. I need to go and tell my family that Tewkesbury looks too close to call - I love to see the five year old's face light up.

Related links
BBC election news


  • Comment number 1.

    Livesey's show was a shambles and demeaned the election and its importance.

  • Comment number 2.

    When I was listening after midnight to the special election show sounded like Radio Scotland. Pretty poor. I note also that it was a Radio 4 & 5Live simulcast, if it could be done for the election why couldn't it have been done for the Royal Wedding? BBC1 wasn't much better, tired and boring coverage. Sky was much better, with more personality, sparky panellists.

    It's a relief that Bacon won't be on air for the AV result given his appallingly partisan "chairing" of Young People's Question Time earlier in the week.

    Thank god for Jon Pienaar, he continues to do an excellent job and rescues your coverage.

  • Comment number 3.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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