BBC, ITV, Krishnan Guru-Murthy Talk Plans For July 4

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When UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak took to the sodden steps of Downing Street just over a month ago, the world of British TV news was blindsided that a general election would take place in just six weeks time, an election that – scarcely believably – will be the first on these isles for five years.

In fact, barely anyone in the deeply connected world of British politics and the media seemed to think the election would come so soon, according to those Deadline has spoken with in the past couple of weeks, with all planning having been directed towards a fall poll, at which point Sunak would have had that little bit longer to oversee a predicted economic recovery.

“I don’t know anyone who was fully expecting July 4,” says Jonathan Munro, the Deputy Director of BBC News and one of the key orchestrators of the corporation’s coverage on the night, which is now just a week away.

Big players like Munro and Rachel Corp, who runs ITV and Channel 4 news producer ITN, were relieved, however, as Sunak’s call meant that the election wouldn’t clash with the U.S. presidential race in November — an overlap that hasn’t taken place for six decades.

“I’m pleased it’s now rather than the autumn because the U.S. election is something we would really need to cover,” adds Corp. “Logistics would have been a problem but as important was airtime and content. In terms of public service journalism, we can now do a proper job with both of them.”

It’s going to be a busy year. But rather than worrying about happenings on the other side of the pond, newsrooms throughout the UK kickstarted around-the-clock preparations for a general election night that some of the biggest names in British broadcasting believe could define the nation for a generation to come.

Several weeks on, the campaign has offered plenty for news networks to get their teeth into, the Labour Party is around 20 points ahead in the polls, and Donald Trump’s pal Nigel Farage is wreaking havoc.

“This election has been set up as a ‘change election,’ with a widespread expectation that Labour will win,” says Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Channel 4’s lead anchor, who is overseeing his ninth nationwide ballot. “So we are already thinking about what could come afterwards. Every single election [and its aftermath] is completely different.”

Ian Rumsey, who helms ITN Productions (ITNP), which is producing Channel 4’s July 4 election night program, says his team was “virtually starting from scratch” when Sunak unveiled the date, and his first move was to hastily reach out to a West London studio that had been “penciled in for October.”

“This now becomes a test of endurance,” adds Rumsey. “As a program editor or producer, this is your World Cup final. Every time I’ve ever done an election I have always felt I won’t do another one and then it comes closer to the time and you get that urgent temptation to say, ‘Well, they don’t come around that often’.”

Concurrent with the July 4 prep has been an election campaign period that several of our interviewees describe as the “newsiest” for decades. Reform UK leader and former I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here! contestant Farage’s re-entrance into the British political sphere – he had initially said he was devoted to helping the Trump campaign – has given the trail a shot in the arm. Sunak’s D-Day blunder – the ailing PM left 80th-anniversary commemorations early, leaving the traditional, aging Conservative voter base aghast – dominated front pages for days. As Deadline goes to press, a fresh scandal involving senior Conservative and Labour politicians betting on the general election has emerged as another theme that could potentially impact voting.

“Every time you think it’s getting boring, something else happens,” says Guru-Murthy. “It’s been quite bonkers.”

These ‘you couldn’t make them up’-style news headlines have kept Guru-Murthy and his fellow presenters on their toes, while at the same time, he says on-screen talent have been central to the July 4 planning and have been working “in a small team” on it for a number of weeks now.

Alternative but not ‘alternative’

The Channel 4 general election night coverage.

Channel 4

Keen observers wouldn’t have initially believed that Channel 4 was blindsided by Sunak’s early call. The network raised eyebrows when it unveiled a starry election night presenting line-up well before the PM’s announcement featuring Guru-Murthy alongside major coups in Emily Maitlis, Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart, the presenters of two of Britain’s biggest podcasts, The News Agents and The Rest is Politics.

When the line-up was announced, ITN execs still assumed the election would take place in several months and simply wanted to get ahead of the curve. Now, Guru-Murthy and Rumsey tell us that landing one of the BBC’s most prominent former faces in Maitlis – globally recognized for her notorious Prince Andrew interview and recently played by Gillian Anderson in Netflix’s Scoop – reflects a change in tone from the nation’s irreverent, youth-skewing broadcaster.

“In the past, Channel 4 election nights have been for people who don’t want normal political coverage,” adds Guru-Murthy. “That’s not the case this time. We want the mainstream audience who are interested in sharp analysis and the best reaction. Myself and Emily are bringing the best of our TV journalistic traditions to the night and that is the emphasis.”

Channel 4 has landed itself in hot water with the ruling Conservative Party in recent years for a series of incidents including its former news boss branding Boris Johnson a “known liar” and a “coward” during an Edinburgh keynote, and the subsequent decision to replace the former PM with a block of ice during an environmental debate.

In private, some insiders put at least a modicum of the Conservatives’ reasoning behind trying to privatize Channel 4 down to these incidents, but Rumsey denies that they have had any bearing on Channel 4’s less jocular approach to this year’s coverage. To help with his case, the network in the past few days signed up ex-Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, the architect behind the botched privatization bid. Rumsey describes the tone his team is aiming for as “alternative but not ‘alternative’.”

The BBC’s Munro is keeping an “excited eye” on happenings in West London, especially given the Maitlis coup, but shrugs off concerns that her pull will drag viewers from the nation’s oldest public broadcaster.

The corporation is looking to a Huw Edwards-less future with Laura Kuenssberg and Clive Myrie taking the reins, while a big team will be stationed around the country including, for the first time, Jeremy Vine in Cardiff providing his famed ‘swingometer’-style readings of the results in an all-new election graphics center. The BBC has laid down its own marker this year, stating that it will for the first time have reporters at every single election count in the country, which numbers around 500.

As ever, BBC impartiality will be in the spotlight. When the general election campaign got underway, Munro’s boss Deborah Turness acknowledged “we will make mistakes” during the election period. A few days later, a BBC News presenter was forced to apologize live on air to Farage after accusing him of using “customary inflammatory language” during a news report on a Reform UK press conference, words that could have represented an impartiality breach had the presenter’s mea culpa not come so swiftly.

On July 4, and with results flooding in, Munro says he has confidence in his hacks to analyze the broader story with confidence while sticking to the impartiality mantra.

“Colleagues like [political editor] Chris Mason have a job to do in judging the right pitch,” adds Munro. “Their job is to call the story out in a way that is impartial but doesn’t shy away from stating with a degree of confidence what is actually going on. This comes from years of experience in calling political stories as they see them, and that’s where we will be regardless of who wins or loses.”

Plans for BBC coverage stretch well into the following day and weekend, although Munro is conscious that this could clash with an England Euros quarter-final. Sophie Raworth, who was due to host the BBC’s debate between Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer last night before breaking her ankle, is down to helm 12 hours through the day on Friday July 5 from 8.30 a.m. She says she will need to “keep on top of things editorially and be able to see the bigger picture” throughout the lengthy stint, which will be a mammoth undertaking.

“Things will move and move very quickly,” Raworth tells Deadline. “There’s so much planning going on. I am fixed on the day, it’s the one I’ve got to get right.”

Guiding the narrative

Journalists listen to Leader of Reform UK Nigel Farage inside the BBC Media Room. Image: BENJAMIN CREMEL / AFP via Getty.

While forecasting a detailed on-the-night narrative is foolish before the iconic 10 p.m. exit poll drops – one only need recall media commentary prior to 2016’s Brexit referendum – Guru-Murthy says “who’s left of the [Conservative] big beasts” could form a key part of the coverage this year. The likes of Liz Truss, whose disastrous 42-day reign in charge has been a big contributor to the Conservative’s current woes, along with chancellor Jeremy Hunt, face the potential prospect of losing their seats. Were this to come true, Guru-Murthy believes it could become the dominant image of the 2024 election.

For Matt Brindley, the man tasked with leading ITV’s coverage, “this is the first election for quite some time that has not had Brexit hanging over it.”

Coverage in the run-up has instead focused on areas such as housing, hospitals and education, Brindley adds. This will form a cornerstone of how ITV’s presenters tackle the results on the night, while the commercial broadcaster will as ever be looking to cement its reputation as the network that is the first to call the major results. “We can make it our mission to explain the policy choices facing viewers,” says Brindley.

The 2024 general election will be the first since the right-leaning GB News noisily gatecrashed British TV news, with Farage as one of its faces. While the network has repeatedly breached Ofcom’s code over the thorny issue of politicians presenting news programs, the channel has won a loyal audience and proved it can shape the agenda. Corp says ITN “sees no need to shift” its coverage to take on its newest competitor, while Guru-Murthy posits: “They haven’t changed the way we approach things at all.” GB News did not respond to requests for an interview.

“A real technology story”

Peter Snow and his swingometer in the BBC Election 2005 studio. ImageL Jeff Overs/BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty.

One development that could make a difference to next Thursday’s coverage is new technological techniques that have sprung up in the past few years, explains Jon Roberts, ITN’s long-serving  Director of Technology, Production, and Innovation.

Roberts, who describes elections as “an exciting opportunity to push [tech] systems to the limit,” says ITN’s newsrooms have moved away from the ‘swingometer’-style approach and can instead identify wider trends with haste.

“There is a real technology story here,” he says. “It’s no longer as simple as 10% or 15% swings. Rather than using over-produced cartoon-y graphics, we are building a system that can react to the story as it develops and empowers the cast of characters in the studio to know what’s happening.”

Roberts’ tech team is taking advantage of developments in the AI space in areas such as transcription and logging, which he says “empowers [news] teams to do less drudgery and more eye-witness reporting.”

But AI has also been in the spotlight for the wrong reasons during this election campaign, and it has taken up a fair bit of ITN boss Corp’s time. She has spent recent months talking to the government and raising awareness about the dangers of AI and election interference.

Corp used a Media & Telecoms conference panel appearance a few weeks back to alert people to deepfakes and misinformation on the day of the general election — a period when broadcasters are prohibited under UK law from reporting stories that could influence voting. She imagined a scenario in which images of “Rishi Sunak high-fiving Vladimir Putin” went viral online but were not adequately debunked. This, she says, keeps her up at night.

“If we get such a flood of misinformation and synthetic content then will people stop trusting everything?,” she worries. “How do you get that trust back once it’s gone? The conversation is being had but I don’t think solutions are being found and I’m not seeing enough engagement from big tech.”

Corp’s focus on the dangers of AI is reflective of how the upcoming election could precede tectonic shifts in the landscape – some good, some not so good – with the on-screen and off-screen faces behind the July 4 coverage very much at the vanguard.

For those on the front line, this responsibility is not worn lightly. Guru-Murthy says “what happens on the Friday morning sets the scene not just for the next few months but the next few years.”

“It must be exasperating for people trying to get their head around politics, but I think this is one where you immediately start thinking ahead,” he adds. “How will this play out for realignments in British politics? There’s loads in play.”

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