Last night was the first of the greatly anticipated election debates hosted jointly by Channel 4 and Sky News, featuring the Conservative leader David Cameron and Labour’s Ed Miliband. I say “debate” with a pinch of salt; after Cameron’s blatant refusal to face the Labour leader head to head, the set-up took the form of both leaders facing the formidable ex-Newsnight journalist Jeremy Paxman for 18 minutes of hard questioning followed by a gentler Q&A from a hand-picked audience, moderated by Sky’s Kay Burley.
Speculation over who “won” was rife, as was to be expected. An instant Guardian/ICM poll showed that 54 percent of viewers claimed victory for Cameron while 46 percent judged him to have the more appealing personality, compared to 42 percent who preferred the dulcet tones of Miliband. However, hope sprung anew for Labour among the crucial wavering voters, with 56 percent of the sub-sample choosing the Labour leader for their own, compared to just 30 percent supporting Cameron.
And after all the fuss, what did we learn? Very little, really. No new policies were announced. Cameron squirmed through difficult questions on food banks and zero hours contracts before being forced to admit his catastrophic failure to meet his own immigration targets. Miliband apologised for aspects of the 13 years we endured of New Labour yet, crucially, answered “no” when asked whether Labour borrowed too much money, before causing the entire watching public to simultaneously cringe as the “north London geek” cried “hell yes, I’m tough enough”. I am very rarely on the same page as Polly Toynbee, but agree wholeheartedly that the whole event was “dull, dull, dull”.
With a record to defend there’s no doubt that the questioning of Cameron was tough; without such experience, the interrogation of Miliband was more personal. And yet, it was not just the politicians on display and open to judgment last night but Paxman and Kay Burley as well.
For Paxman, in his element with prepared questions, no doubt painstakingly written by an underling, the night was a roaring success. Twitter and Facebook were littered with pro-Paxman sentiment; “can’t we vote Paxman for PM instead?” queried many. But for Burley, some of the reactions were depressingly, predictably negative.
It is a fact that television remains one of the last bastions of sexism; women are judged to far harsher standards than men on not just their personal appearance but their tone, their body language, their intonations. For Paxman, an aggressive, staccato manner works; it produces answers and garners respect. But if a woman were to replicate his style she would inevitably be judged as harsh, even shrill. Burley invokes a different method, which was evident and – I believe – brilliantly done last night. Whereas Paxman forces, Burley will coax.
After the death of Sir David Frost, Burley recalled the advice he once gave her, saying that the three best interview questions to ask were “Really? Aha? Go on?” And this method of prompting not probing was her masterstroke last night. Through doing so, Kay brought the audience onside, uniting them and her as one against the politician in the spotlight. This tact only adds power to when she then does dive straight for the jugular with cracking one-liners such as (to Cameron, who had just listed Miliband’s good points in answer to an audience question) “But you did call him weak and despicable, didn’t you?”.
There is no denying that Kay has taken a serious bashing over her career, from the trending hashtag #SackKayBurley to a Facebook page of that name, via a Labour MP calling her “a bit dim” and the daily torrent of abuse from Twitter trolls. But, personally, I like her. I think she’s brilliant. The woman does three hours of live television every day; the sheer energy this requires, let alone intellect and ability to master constantly rolling news without slipping is monumental and a great deal more difficult than grilling an opponent for four and a half pre-prepared minutes. And, let’s face it, television is an innately visual medium; women of a certain age have been known to struggle to gain and then hold on to the most desirable jobs. It is a testimony to her remarkable abilities, not just that she looks bloody fantastic in a frock, that Kay is still at the top of her game.
I think the reason that Ms Burley takes such abuse is that she has the temerity to be a woman and, what’s worse, a woman over 40 who Kay has been a news anchor since the year I was born; I turn 27 tomorrow: the extent of her experience is quite something, perhaps unrivalled by another British female. Best still, she can handle her critics; Kay has a seemingly unique ability among women in the spotlight these days to not choose to take offence and play the victim. She gives back as good as she gets while correcting her opponent‘s grammar in the process.
Forget the debate, both Tory and Labour; for this alone, I am firmly in #TeamKay.