The election General

The ITV presenter will invite showbiz celebrities to air their views on a special 5 May broadcast. But, he tells Ian Burrell, that doesn't mean dumbing down the content

Like an expectant father, Alastair Stewart sucks on a Marlboro Light and paces the pavement outside the ITV News headquarters in London's Gray's Inn Road.

Like an expectant father, Alastair Stewart sucks on a Marlboro Light and paces the pavement outside the ITV News headquarters in London's Gray's Inn Road.

He would have every reason for feeling under stress, given the imminence of general election night, during which he anticipates getting two hours sleep during a 36-hour period. Not only must he engage with a British public that is reputed to be more apathetic about the political process than ever, but he has to do so in a media marketplace more crowded than for any election before.

As Stewart puffs away, Jon Snow, who will be anchoring Channel 4's election coverage on 5 May, appears in the lobby. "I hear we've won the war of the fish," he barks at the receptionist, before explaining his campaign to get the fish-tank cleaned in the ITV foyer. Snow strides off to get his bike, towering over Stewart as he walks back through the door offering a "lovely to see you" to the Channel 4 man.

Back inside the newsroom, Stewart, when asked about the task before him, is clearly energised at the daring strategy drawn up by his ITV colleagues for covering the election.

The centrepiece of the ITV offering on 5 May will be a party boat moored in front of the London Eye observation wheel, opposite the Houses of Parliament.

On board the vessel will be the likes of Richard Branson, Kevin Spacey and Germaine Greer, holding forth on topics that they hold dear. The environmental commentator, George Monbiot, and the former Sun editor, David Yelland, will also be present. "They will be reacting to the results as they come through. They will be adding that additional dimension of people who are very well-informed, very engaged, very partisan in many respects," he says.

"They wanted to come if they believed they were going to be given the opportunity to express a view. Take Richard Branson, he wants to know what the parties are going to do about the development of the airline industry, taxes on passengers and additional runways ..."

Stewart says that the guests were promised they will be "actively engaged and we will be seeking out your views". He adds, somewhat disarmingly, that the celebrity response was: "Oh cool, game on!"

Stewart, who admits that "there will be a few showbizzy celebs", accepts that the experiment is likely to draw criticism from those who despair that not even general election coverage can escape being given the celebrity makeover. But he says it is important to broaden political debate beyond the Westminster village.

Edwina Currie and Alastair Campbell have also been invited to get aboard the Silver Sturgeon, a luxury cruiser which ITV has hired for the night.

Stewart, who will be working with Jonathan Dimbleby, says he feels the responsibility on him on such an historic occasion is "utterly gargantuan". He is brave enough to acknowledge that broadcasters have not done enough in recent elections to scrutinise the claims of the politicians. "We realise that one of the issues we collectively have been guilty of in the past was allowing just too much spin to take place and go unchallenged," he says.

In election campaign coverage on his programme on the ITV News Channel, Stewart has adopted a feature called "Unspun", where he stops the debate and insists his guests provide evidence to justify their claims. He cites, as an example, his challenge that morning to John Reid, the Health Secretary, who had attacked Tory public spending plans. Stewart says: "It's not good enough for us simply to leave it to Oliver Letwin ... we believe we have a proactive responsibility to get in there even more forcefully than we have done in the past."

A former Washington correspondent, he believes it is a tragedy that Britain has not adopted the US-style live television election debates. "The likelihood is that we will go to the ballot box on 5 May hardly having seen any direct interaction between Messrs Blair, Howard and Kennedy since the final Prime Minister's Questions," he says. "These are three people competing to run our country for four or five years and we are not allowed to witness them arguing amongst themselves ... I think that's a tragedy and I think it's an insult to the electorate as well."

He is unhappy that Labour and the Conservatives have chosen to keep their battle buses in the garage. "You got to know a lot more of what they were thinking, how things were shifting, how they were developing." Stewart, who is still pushing for Tony Blair and Michael Howard to appear on his own show, has had to look on as the political leaders have chosen to give interviews to the likes of Richard & Judy and magazines such as Glamour.

"They have to make sure they match it with appearances on the more hard-hitting programmes," he says. "It's got to be balanced with the proper, almost clinical analysis of what they're offering, otherwise they just end up looking soft."

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