inside back: Lights, camera, politicians

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During the 1992 election, everybody deplored the fact that the campaign was wholly conducted on the virtual stump of the television screen. This time round, we've all accepted the centrality of the small screen's role, and are far more exercised by the politicians' new addiction to negative campaigning. In 2002, that in turn will have become part of the electoral furniture, and we'll all get a lot more hot and bothered about some other novelty of the hustings: the television debate between the prime ministerial candidates, perhaps, that will surely come to pass next time round.

It's only appropriate that there will be no debate between the party leaders, as there has been no debate between anyone else. You only wish some candidate or other would own up to a cocaine habit, so that for a change we could all deplore a different sort of party line. But the cancellation of the leaders' debate is mainly regrettable because we will never know the answer to the intriguing question of which monstrous ego would have had the satisfaction of chairing it. The channels would no doubt have had as much difficulty bartering over this one as the parties did their own differences. Our Dimbleby or yours? The patrician one or the squirty one?

They might have had to go for a compromise candidate inoffensive to all (as opposed to Jeremy Paxman, who is offensive to all). Someone like Vincent Hanna. He has been chairing some editions of Around Midnight (C4, Mon, Tues, Wed and Thurs) with a refreshing disdain for the conventional solemnities of the job. On Monday's edition he advised panellists that negative debating techniques would be met with a blast from his klaxon. The camera gleefully caught an appalled Ann Widdicombe shaking her buffalo head in disgust.

Because the programme goes out at the witching hour, the normal rules of smooth presentation have been relaxed. Hanna fluffs his lines from the teleprompt, and reprimands others for telling jokes, on which he has granted himself a monopoly, while much of the verbal swordplay is thrillingly childish. Monday brought the surreal novelty of Billy Bragg, having offered his thoughts to the panel in speech, singing in the commercial break with one of his polemics. No one clapped. But Michael Mansfield, groovy old so-and-so that he is, visibly nodded his head to the beat.

Hanna discounts himself because he's too busy showboating to be a ruthless chair. With three male candidates, political correctness deems that the referee ought to have been a woman. Which one, though? Sheena MacDonald, the only Celtic candidate who isn't called Kirsty, took over from Hanna on Wednesday and Thursday and, with more civilised women panellists, kept better order. Over on ITV 500 (ITV, Mon), in front of the big-headed constituents of Basildon, Sue Lawley ruled the three men who would be Chancellor with a rod of iron. So much so that poor little Alan Beith was granted embarrassingly few chances to say his piece. Lawley last interviewed politicians about policy on Nationwide, when Labour were previously in power. You can see why she's moved on to the more intimate business of shamelessly grilling people like Gordon Brown about their sexuality on Desert Island Discs. The iron rod was deployed with a certain shrillness. Whenever she raised her voice, it shot up an octave. If she'd got any shriller, her Black Country accent, ruthlessly buried in the cause of self-advancement like most of the Labour Party's articles of faith, might have spontaneously disinterred itself. As New Labour are going to win, maybe New Lawley should have won too.

On the extra edition of Newsnight (BBC2, Sat), Harry Enfield's spoof party political broadcasts even-handedly highlighted the absurdities of all three candidates: Blair's beatific rictus, Major's heartbreaking mundanity, Ashdown's antiquated, pre-decimal vocabulary. (One benefit of joining the ERM is that the word "penny" would once and for all end up down the toilet where it has been figuratively spent all these years.) The real thing from Labour (all channels, Tues) brought home how stupid and suggestible politicians think voters are. But one by-product of television's role as the conduit of the campaign is that the electorate is more media-literate than ever before, and will have found it much harder to fall for Blair's bulldog than they would have in 1979. It just left you thinking of a third syllable of which both "bull" and "dog" are frequently the prefix.

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