So, what did you do during the war?
It’s a question often asked decades after a conflict. What type of service did you put in? Where were you stationed? See any key battles? Any high profile scalps?
Elections are often similar, if not frequently shorter.
It might be rather trite, but there’s huge similarities. A clear end-goal, seldom a clean-cut result, the day-to-day attrition, the big attacks, the counter-blows, the casualties, and the domination of the news cycle.
In the pause a month afterwards, where everything and nothing has happened, it’s worth reflecting on those questions.
As mentioned previously, I and a course-mate started up a website for the purpose of covering the General Election, South Yorkshire Briefing.
Simply, it was one of the most enjoyable bits of work I’ve done in my entire life, sheer hectic madness but unadulterated excitement. When you start with nothing, anything is an achievement. If nothing has been inherited, it means anything good is down to you and your team’s hard work. Seldom is there anything so rewarding.
It’s not the first election I’ve covered, but the first where I wasn’t working for an overtly student outlet (although all contributors, were indeed students). The last election I covered included a line from a communications member of staff, that we would be sat with the “proper journalists.” Charming.
This time, I was loath to reveal we were students, especially in our first approach. Some of the most incisive journalists can be students, but to many that prefix devalues your worth.
We were among the first outlet to get interviews with key candidates, we went out to key swing constituencies and we were at the results night. To be able to pick up the phone, speak to somebody, and be treated seriously can be the first hurdle. Time and time again we vaulted this fence, and it was the key to our coverage being as successful.
Despite being in amongst exams and deadlines we did have more time than others to report. It meant long hours in the Journalism Department’s newsrooms, but it was worth it. What that work did mean was we got scoops on stories that others didn’t.
A cursory Google led to finding out that the Social Democratic Party (SDP) were standing in Sheffield. This was a surprise, as the party had largely ceased to exist in the late 1980s. Even more interesting, was that their candidates are former UKIP members.
In discussions on election night with established organisations we were told two things early on. Nick Clegg was going to retain his Sheffield Hallam seat, and Penistone and Stocksbridge was going to go Conservative.
Having spent time in both areas, that wasn’t the impression I’d got. I’d spent time in Hallam a week before and found that a lot of older, postal-voters were saying they’d voted Labour. An interesting snapshot. Meanwhile days before the election, a merry-band of us had descended upon Penistone. Again, the mood there wasn’t as strongly Conservative as you would have expected.
It turned out, we were right. Reinforcing a key journalistic truth, you cannot do good quality journalism without going out and speaking to the people at the heart of a story.
Election night itself was something I’ll never forget. Not being able to get access to a TV with an aerial at the count, and iPlayer running with a minute’s delay, we were at risk of getting the exit poll later than the rest of the country. The website’s co-editor Dan plugged himself into Radio 4, using his earphones as an aerial. As it came in, he was sat facing the track of the English Institute of Sport, from the back row of seats. He read it out as the results came in.
“Tories largest party”
“Tories short of a majority”
Collective jaws hit the floor
A result that nobody had seen coming.
Later came the biggest moment of the night. Nick Clegg defending his Hallam seat. We’d devised a plan between the three of us. When it was announced, I’d get the first photos, then with Dan live-streaming the result I’d disappear into the bowels of the EIS to the exit where we were expecting Nick Clegg to leave from. Therefore, getting one of the first post-result shots of Clegg. Sam would press publish on the article so we would be among the first with the result.
It was all going so well. I’d disappeared into the corridor where Clegg was due to walk through on his way out. I could see out of the exit into the hall where he was on stage giving his concession speech. He left the stage, and looked like he was going to head out of a different exit. Naturally, I reacted and jogged down the corridor, through a set of double-doors to await him. People started filing out, but no sign of the former Deputy Prime Minister.
Turned out he’d done a u-turn and used the original exit. No surprise for Mr Tuition fees.
We went outside, to see if he was there. A car disappeared up the road. That’s our chance missed, we thought.
So to our surprise 30 seconds later, a yellow-rosetted man appeared from the leisure centre about 150 yards up the car park. Someone shouted it was Clegg, and off I and other photographers chased after him. With it, I managed to get some photos of the man himself in the car before he left. And that’s how I came to be chasing a former Liberal Democrat leader up a car park at 3.30 in the morning.
An unforgettable experience. Somehow not getting home until 7am, via a Facebook Live outside Sheffield Town Hall was very much worth it.
So, until next time. Six months then?