Broadcasters find discretion is the better part

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The Independent Online

"You might have to wait up quite a bit tonight to see which way it's going to go," a senior Republican adviser told Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight - one of the few predictions confidently offered on a night that was at first distinguished by pure psephological funk.

"You might have to wait up quite a bit tonight to see which way it's going to go," a senior Republican adviser told Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight - one of the few predictions confidently offered on a night that was at first distinguished by pure psephological funk.

There were, David Dimbleby told us on the BBC's Election Night Special, more than 17,000 lawyers poised to dispute the line-calls in the battleground states - and at times it seemed as if every one of them was matched by an on-air pundit politely declining to get off the fence. CNN even boasted about it, their veteran reporter Wolf Blitzer sonorously declaring shortly after midnight that: "If we don't know something, we'll tell our viewers that we don't know." They did - and never has the state of unknowing been quite as comprehensively dissected.

On Newsnight, earlier in the evening, the current of the hypotheticals had all been flowing against Bush - every "if" attached to the wary suggestions of a possible upset for the incumbent. Maureen Dowd, of The New York Times, was acting as if it were all over bar the last-ditch legal appeals - but that brief foray into prediction turned out to be a blip. It came with a "a thousand and one health warnings" said Paxman - and on every other channel even those weren't necessary. Gallup confessed that it couldn't get a ballot paper between the two candidates and CNN's resident entrail gazer cautiously restricted himself to redundancies: there was evidence, he told us solemnly, of "a big division between Bush voters and Kerry voters".

Naturally, they couldn't entirely suppress their instincts to jump the informational gun. At Bush's campaign headquarters a gallery of reporters did their best to read the mood.

"Wherever their tails are, they're not up," said Tom Carver.

Outside polling stations, others pointed microphones at bedraggled voters and mused over the possibility that their random selection might offer a clue to the national verdict.

The very first calls came in just three minutes past midnight - all following expectations - but, even with the scent of hard information in their nostrils, the pundits didn't feel able to break free and bark. Virginia was too close to call and Florida trembled between announcements of a four-point lead for Kerry and the prediction that it had been held by Bush. Ohio, groaning under the weight of BBC reporters, was also poised, with no one willing to say how it might fall. Last time they'd got a whipping and they weren't going to risk it again.

Curiously, the result was both genuinely tense and genuinely dull. Peter Snow had promised us "an electrifying few hours" but the only real jolt in the first two was the moment at which the BBC revealed just how far they were prepared to go to win the battle of the on-screen graphics. Earlier in the evening the human swingometer had appeared on a digital version of the White House lawn, strolling around a giant map of the United States. So far, so predictable - but then, just before midnight, a digital version of the presidential helicopter clattered onto the screen and appeared to land directly on top of the veteran presenter. It's how he would have wanted to go, you thought - taken out by a genuinely meaningless bit of video-game bombast.

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