Behind the scenes election coverage with Paul Royall, Executive News Editor, BBC News Channel

July 4, 2024

The WMG Brand Advisory Board met yesterday to discuss some of the issues currently affecting brand marketers. The elections around the world this year are front of mind with brand leaders, so we were delighted to be joined by Paul Royall, Executive News Editor at BBC News Channel, who gave us some fascinating insights into what’s been going on behind the scenes in the run up to today’s UK election. Here are some of the highlights from WMG CEO Jamie Credland’s conversation with Royall. 

The “great game”- guess the election date

Royall began by talking about the strategic planning process put into place during an election year before the date is announced. A working group is created to focus on forward-planning and strategic-thinking, based on key campaign milestones. At BBC News, there’s a dedicated group for the UK election and a similar group for the US election. One of the greatest challenges – what Royall refers to as “the great game” – is predicting the election date. Despite the gossip and rumours, this year it came as a surprise to everyone.

The local elections in May were seen as a critical moment on the election roadmap. It was a dangerous time for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, with the Conservatives performing poorly. However, despite the anticipated turmoil, there were no significant changes immediately afterwards. Comments from Downing Street, which suggested the election would be in the second half of the year, led the media to believe that it was likely to be in October or November.

The surprise announcement

When Royall received a text the night before the May 22nd election announcement, he initially dismissed it as speculation. He explained how the following day, the BBC news team started to build the true picture. BBC News’ Chief Political Correspondent, Henry Zeffman, got the cogs turning when he tweeted that an election in the second part of the year could actually be as early as July. Later that morning, the BBC’s Political Editor, Chris Mason, intimated that something may be happening that day, and the BBC News team began preparing for the “podium moment”. 

Shifting to real-time reporting 

Despite the surprise nature of the announcement, the BBC news teams were prepared to adapt quickly. Royall described how they shifted from routine coverage to their specialty – rolling reporting, which requires journalists and editors to communicate and make judgements, analysing the issues and data in real-time to keep the public informed.

One of the significant developments in recent years has been the rise of fact-checking operations, such as BBC Verify, which aims to uncover misinformation and disinformation. This has changed the dynamic between political parties and the media, making it harder for politicians to escape scrutiny. When it comes to Generative AI, however, Royall said the UK election has not been negatively impacted to the extent that he’d expected. In fact, the UK election campaign has been relatively conventional, with a focus on traditional media for the key moments, such as the televised debates. 

Election campaigns rarely change opinion

As for the rationale behind the early announcement, Royall pointed out that the Conservatives had little to gain in terms of political wins later on in the year, and the potential to be hurt by a further economic downturn. He said the six-week campaign period is unlikely to have changed people’s opinion. 

Although the election campaign has been quite “presidential” with Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer appearing much more frequently than their deputies in an attempt to sway voters, Royall didn’t expect it to make a huge difference overall. In the UK the number of seats that the Conservatives keep will be decided by just a couple of hundred thousand swing voters. Similarly, in the US, the election result will be determined by a small number of people in swing states.

The next six months for Labour

If, as predicted, Labour is victorious tomorrow, Royall says Starmer has a tough time ahead. He described their election campaign approach as “the Ming vase strategy” – to get over the line without dropping the vase. Having conducted a controlled campaign in terms of policy announcements, the Labour leader will now have to deal with a patchy economy and public services that need investment. Royall expects Starmer will have to make tough choices, balancing the growth of the economy to keep businesses happy while staying true to the party’s belief in supporting those less advantaged in society, not to mention the significant global challenges he faces.

Election night key moments

As the results start to come in this evening, Royall highlighted the key moments to look out for. The exit poll at 10pm provides a fairly scientific estimation of what the result will be, which is generally relatively accurate. As the night progresses, there’s the race for first seat declaration about 11:30pm, which is often from the North East of England. Between 2am and 4am, it starts to get exciting, when a flood of results comes in. This year, the potential of significant losses for high-profile Conservative politicians will add to the drama. 

For the first time, every count will be filmed and shown live online, so you can even watch your local constituency declare its results in real-time. If you’re anything like us, you’ll have the popcorn and pizza at the ready, and be in it for the long-haul. For anyone who doesn’t fancy staying up all night, Royall recommends watching Professor John Curtice, the BBC’s electoral and psychology guru, provide his snap analysis of the exit poll. That way, you can get a full night’s sleep, while in all likelihood, knowing the result to come.