If I had a pound, to paraphrase, for every time a broadcaster told me I had to be in a studio to be on their show, I’d be a rich man. Even when the prospect of a three-hour round trip to speak twice on a three-minute panel with three other people doesn’t feel like the right way to spend a Tuesday night, commentators like I often face the dilemma of wanting to participate but not wanting to be in the studio.
Not so now. This is current affairs, brought to you by coronavirus. Video conferencing is Britain’s growth industry. People who hitherto thought Zoom was a synonym for speed are busily sending meeting ID codes to colleagues and friends.
And just when Skype seemed rather passé, it is on every political panel show in the country, as the presenters we are so used to seeing surrounded by people are suddenly surrounded by screens. (Sadly for the humble political commentator, this is a time for experts and politicians, so we have been turned into viewers rather than contributors!)
Yesterday’s Ridge on Sunday, Sophie Ridge’s Sky News show, which is proving to be a more-than-competitive rival to Andrew Marr on the Beeb, was a tour de force of remote contributions. With the clocks having moved forward, as we blearily pressed 501 on the Sky remote we were faced with Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who had also stood in for our coronavirus-positive Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Friday’s daily Government press conference.
My first reflection was to wonder what the odds would have been, four years ago when Mr Gove torpedoed Mr Johnson’s Tory leadership campaign, of the former being the latter’s right-hand-man at a time of national crisis. As usual, though, Mr Gove was in complete charge of his brief as he delivered the incredibly serious and difficult message that there is no fixed end date to the lockdown.
Big hitter though Gove is, he was followed on Ridge by the biggest hitter of my adult life – former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Customarily, Mr Blair did what the country still seldom gives him credit for; he answered the questions he was asked fairly and reasonably, giving his experience of how governments around the world handle crises.
The public mood of co-operation – the ‘all in this together’ spirit which has characterised the last fortnight in particular – was brought to a halt by Labour leadership contender Rebecca Long-Bailey who, following the lead of her mentor Jeremy Corbyn, has struggled to join in the national group hug. The sky-high approval ratings for both Mr Johnson and the Tory party, which sailed over 50 per cent in a poll on Friday, will not persuade them to shift their strategy.
Over on BBC1, Mr Marr broadcast his show from the BBC newsroom rather than his usual studio which, in addition to the absence of guests, was another visual display of the difference coronavirus is making to broadcasting. After Mr Gove made his second appearance of the morning to close the show, attention turned to Gordon Brewer’s Politics Scotland, which opened with Scotland’s new national hero, Jason Leitch.
Dr Leitch, Scotland’s favourite dentist, already has a CBE but it is as likely that he’ll have a knighthood by this time next year as it was unlikely four years ago that Michael Gove would now be Boris’s number two. I cannot name a Scottish news and current affairs show which Dr Leitch has not been on in the last week, and his easy manner together with his straight and simple answers will become an example of good practice for companies like mine which perform a media training service.
Mr Brewer’s shows, of which I have often been a part in the studio, are usually characterised by meticulous positioning of guests and himself in order to keep everyone out of shot during the remote interviews on screen. Yesterday’s was simpler, with Mr Brewer fixed in position as all three guests appeared from their living rooms.
Dr Leitch has been a busy boy. He has appeared regularly on BBC Scotland’s The Nine, a show whose well-documented problems stem, in my opinion, from scheduling rather than quality.
He has also hardly been off STV’s Scotland Tonight, undoubtedly the most successful Scottish-only politics show of the devolution era, which has proven itself able to reinvent and retain a very respectable audience. It is a great shame for Scottish broadcasting that coronavirus has forced STV to temporarily limit the show to a Thursday-only from next week.
That news was offset, somewhat, by the excellent show last Thursday where Rona Dougall took viewers’ questions directly to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, coming (you guessed it) live from Bute House.
ITV’s Wednesday night Peston show is surviving, although only without the studio presence of its eponymous host Robert. Hearing Anushka Asthana open the show by saying “Robert Peston is in quarantine” was a rather eerie opening to a show whose magazine-style format (which for the record I am very fond of) makes it particularly dependent on having guests in the studio.
Political TV addicts and contributors like me, and I believe the producers of the shows, should use this as a time for reflection. Those producers who insist on guests being in the studio are right to a large degree. Last week’s shows are far the poorer for the presenters being in solitary confinement.
That is not to say there is no place for so-called “down the line” appearances. Depending on the segment, being out of the studio can work better. It is a balance, which some understand more than others.
However there is much more we could think about during this time of reflection to improve our political output. We suffer from a basic problem that our studios are in the wrong place; producing political television while marooned 50 miles from the Scottish Parliament.
So, for starters, I’d like to see BBC Scotland and STV make more use of their Edinburgh studios, perhaps on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when politicians are always in Edinburgh. This, at a stroke, would ensure that, in a post-coronavirus environment, presenters and contributors really can be all in it together.
Andy Maciver is Director of Message Matters