Huw Edwards has said “the stakes are very high” for the BBC and its general election coverage on Thursday, admitting he feels “a combination of excitement and nerves” as he prepares to succeed David Dimbleby as its main anchor.
Amid Conservative threats to examine the BBC licence fee and Channel 4’s broadcasting remit after the election, and BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg having to apologise after being misled over an altercation outside Leeds General Infirmary, public service broadcasters are under immense scrutiny.
Edwards said the BBC was “keenly aware” of how accurate and impartial it has to be and that Dimbleby, who has anchored every previous election night since 1979, would be a “tough act to follow”.
“Because we’re in a place where there’s a huge amount of distrust around – who’s telling us the truth, who’s not, who’s having us on or not, who’s putting out fake news and all the rest of it – I think we’re all keenly aware of the fact that … there’s an even higher premium on producing a results programme which is seen to be accurate, fair and measured in its approach and not drawing any mad conclusions. We’re really aware of it and that’s what’s driving us,” Edwards said.
However, having covered elections for the BBC since 1987, he remembered “being under pressure from Norman Tebbit, from Alastair Campbell, so I’m not being complacent but I’m kind of used to it” and actually thinks more scrutiny comes from the public via social media.
“I feel that much more than political scrutiny or pressure because the audience is able to tell us much more directly what they think. I feel that much more acutely than some unnamed source in No 10 or some unnamed Labour source saying that.”
Speaking on set during rehearsals for Thursday night’s coverage, Edwards said he felt a “huge responsibility” as it is such an important election.
Dimbleby, he said, told him, “Make it your own, you’ve got to do it your own way”, saying that was something his predecessor did superbly.
“He’s a very tough act to follow so I think that’s good advice. I think the minute you try to be something else it’s not good. For me the big line to cross is to be confident enough to be yourself and do it in your own way and not in a way that other people expect.”
The BBC has made other changes: airing its programme from a new location, its London headquarters Broadcasting House, rather than Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, and installing a new high-tech set.
Instead of the presenters all being in one big studio together, they are in separate places around the HQ, but virtual reality “portal” screens should make them look as though they are in the same room as Edwards. The BBC’s media cafe is also being used as a results room and is where Reeta Chakrabarti will present and analyse results on a giant touch screen.
She said she was proud to be joining the election coverage, and her appointment along with that of Tina Daheley would make this year’s lineup the most diverse yet.
“Isn’t that good? It’s 2019 and that should be absolutely natural … we’ve got to reflect our society back to our audiences.”
Edwards will oversee the proceedings from a studio with a virtual backdrop that looks like the centre of Broadcasting House whilst a new “eagle-cam” will swoop across the vast BBC newsroom on a wire.
Opposite Edwards will be Andrew Neil who will be quizzing guests and may also finally get to interview Johnson, who has come under fire for being the only major party leader not to be interrogated by him before the election.
“If Boris Johnson comes through a camera maybe we’d finally all get to see it,” election night editor Sam Woodhouse said. “We’d welcome it with open arms,” added Edwards, “if he pops up in Uxbridge or somewhere, of course.”
Woodhouse, who has overseen the last two BBC election nights, has had to juggle creating the new show in the same studios around existing programmes such as Victoria Derbyshire’s show in just six weeks .
He said: “The journalism is actually relatively straightforward on the night. It’s the all the kit and the tech [that can be an issue]. Last week all the results servers blew up, yesterday all the outside broadcast blew up.”
The wrinkles have now been ironed out and using Broadcasting House should save money for the BBC in the long-term as the new technology installed will be used by other programmes such as Newsnight.
Woodhouse said there would be “lots of additional security” around the building and different servers around the country to use should a cybersecurity breach be detected.
Channel 4 is taking a different tack to the political scrutiny with its Alternative Election Night hosted by Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Katherine Ryan and Rylan Clark-Neal.
Channel 4 commissioning editor for news and current affairs, Louisa Compton, said it “has an amazing lineup of comedians and politicians with a host of different views. It will offer all the results and impartial analysis you could want as well as asking the questions that no one else would have the balls to ask.”
Meanwhile ITV’s coverage will be hosted by Tom Bradby, who will again be joined by Ed Balls and George Osborne.