‘Well done, it only took you 35 years,’ said a colleague when the BBC announced the news. ‘You got your first election gig!’ said another. ‘This will be the biggest challenge…’ intoned a senior manager.
Yes, I joined the BBC 35 years ago. No, it’s not my first election gig. And no, it’s not likely to be the biggest challenge. That would be my very first, in 1987, for BBC Wales. The challenge was that my father was standing as a Plaid Cymru parliamentary candidate in Carmarthen. I heard myself rather coldly describing his disappointment at losing as if he were a complete stranger. This ability to flick the ‘off’ switch and set opinions or personal bonds to one side has stood me well over the years at the BBC.
Since then, there was 1992 and 1997 (both for BBC Radio 4 and 5), 2001 (a low career point when I had to stand in a dark field outside William Hague’s home in freezing Yorkshire), 2005 (can’t remember much about that one), 2010 (birth of the coalition), 2015 and 2017 (when I was meant to do the overnight but ended up anchoring the Friday).
You prepare for the programme by being a manic swot. For weeks, you digest as much information as you can: seats, polls, personalities, policies and constitutional options. You commit lots to memory because there’s no time on the night to thumb through lever-arch files. There’s a relentless flow of information through your earpiece: director’s comments, producer’s ‘requests’ (orders, usually), researchers’ messages — they all combine to make the programme happen on the night, backed by an army of staff across the UK. It is, quite simply, the most extensive live outside broadcast undertaken by the BBC. And I’m on screen, at the centre of it all, pinching myself.
We are all conscious of the rich heritage of the BBC’s election coverage: David Dimbleby presided over it for four decades and I am acutely aware of the exceptionally high standards he set. He is a very, very hard act to follow.
The job is to hold it all together and give the viewer the best possible coverage of what’s likely to be a tumultuous night. It’s not only about delivering results, it’s also about explaining what’s going on in a way that’s easily understood, and conveying the real tension of election night.
And the biggest reward of all? That’s easy. It’s to be trusted by viewers to be their main source of election news throughout the night and the following day.