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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 June, 2004, 05:18 GMT 06:18 UK
Clarity is everything
By Peter Snow
Presenter, Election Night

Peter Snow can't hide his enthusiasm for working on Election Night.

His key aim is always clarity - explaining the results as they come in and helping people interpret them - but he is also happy if people are entertained by his presentations.

It's enormously exciting and challenging, he says, as well as a privilege.

These are very important elections indeed. They are an important midterm test of the government, the biggest electoral event since the last general election in 2001.

Thursday 10 June
BBC ONE, 23:35 to 02:30 BST
Five Live, 22:00 to 01:00 BST
Sunday 13 June
BBC TWO, 21:00 to 22:00 BST
Radio Four, 21:00 to 23:00 BST

So it's going to be a very important indication of party support across the whole political spectrum just before the build up to the general election begins in earnest this coming winter. I doubt if the turnout will create records. It was an all time low of 24% in the last European elections back in 1999.

This time because it's on the same day as the local elections and because there is postal voting in the North and the East Midlands, I believe the vote will be higher.

Where people are voting only in a European election without local elections in their area, we will be able to see whether they are ready to turn out for an election for the European Parliament on its own. In those places the vote may again be as low as it was last time.

I think many people may want to turn out this time to give an important public message to the government, and I expect voters will treat it as a chance to express their view about British politics as much as about Europe.

New Europe

The European parliament itself shifted a little to the right in 1999 partly because the British Conservatives did so well and Labour so poorly.

It will be interesting to see whether the vote in the 10 new countries mainly in eastern Europe helps shift that balance back towards the left again.

David Dimbleby will be presenting Election Night with Peter Snow
The problem with the European Parliament of course is that a switch in political colour has limited impact. It doesn't have a huge amount of power: on a European level even a substantial change in the party groups in the parliament is not going to make much difference to most people's lives.

But if we can disentangle the cross currents of change in the vote all over the 25 countries, we may get a sense of the way political attitudes are shifting.

A lot of people will be confused by the ballot papers, but I believe they will manage if they read them carefully. It will be interesting to see whether people vote differently in the European and local elections. They may for instance vote Conservative in one election and Labour or Liberal Democrat in another.

Interpreting this election will be a major challenge. It comes on the same day as local elections over much of England and Wales, and votes for the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority.

Our presentation of this election will represent quite a breakthrough. We are going for a very radical and ambitious way of illustrating the results.

Theatre of displays

The displays I will be controlling are more technologically advanced than any I've seen before
The displays I will be controlling are more technologically advanced than any I've seen before. There will be a huge amphitheatre behind me which will show the European parliament and - when I'm talking about the local elections - the council chamber of a town hall.

And then I'll have on the floor before me the map of Europe and the UK, a vertical screen with more graphics behind me and of course our swingometer. It will be an astonishing array of displays.

You'll see the European parliament in all its detail with the members from the 25 countries.

You'll see a map of the United Kingdom with its old and new tally of MEPs, with the regions - such as Scotland or East Midlands - in the colours of the party that scores the highest vote in each.

Clarity is all

People may enjoy these pictures but the key thing about them is to ensure they explain the election results more clearly and help people to understand their implications.

So that's my main test of how successful it is, whether people really understand and get the message about what's going on.

We are now in a new world of virtual reality, where we can create the most powerful visual images inside the studio. It will be the first real test of the new technology and we have discovered a number of ways of making it offer the viewer a far livelier view of the outcome of an election. I hope all this computer wizardry is going to work: I am well aware that I am right out there in the front line!

Swingometer moments

Peter Snow
Things can go wrong. We had a swingometer once which... almost literally blew up
Things can go wrong. We had a swingometer once which simply could not cope with one by-election swing, which went massively against the Tories. It was the Dudley by-election 10 years ago. The swingometer almost literally blew up. The screen literally went black and I had to ask David Dimbleby to come back to me a little bit later. David was very amused.

The challenge of standing in front of a display which will indicate the outcome of a general election when you simply don't know what is going to happen is the most exciting and demanding thing you could possibly do.

When I say: "Right let's see what that result means for the government," and I push the cue button for the swingometer to register the shift from the last general election, that's the most exciting moment.

Breaking news

What I have to do is to be able to interpret that and explain it to people. First of all of course what happens in one seat may not happen everywhere. You cannot tell whether the swing in that seat will be reflected everywhere. But on the whole, swing is still a very useful broad measure of the change in support from one election to another.

We had a powerful example of that back in the 1992 election. Indications in the polls were that the Labour party would come out on top with a majority or a very near majority.

I remember looking at our BBC swingometer - very early in the results - a lot of safe seats were coming in which weren't really indicating anything very clear - and then in came the result in Basildon which of course was a seat that Labour really had to gain to win an overall majority.

And Labour did not win it. And there suddenly on the swingometer was that blue seat holding out against Labour's advance.

I pointed to it and said: "My goodness look at that. Basildon has stayed with the Conservatives. Is that an early sign that the Tories may hold on?"

Breaking news

It was a very defining moment and of course it was the key to the election. They did hold Basildon and the exit polls got it wrong.

The exit polls had suggested Labour would be on top. To be fair they were predicting a very close result and that's what it was - albeit with a slender overall majority for the Conservatives. The shares of the vote in the exit poll were actually not that far out.

I have to stand in the middle of this sea of colourful displays and react to graphic information I haven't seen before
What we try to do in those early moments on election night is give people an early indication of the likely result. As results build up, we sharpen up the forecast: the first one can be wrong, but I believe people understand that we're doing our best to give them a sense of the way it's going right away.

All these graphics of course have to react to the story of an election result in real time. The images are created by the results as they come in. A seat forecast comes in. That little part of the map turns the colour of the winner of the seat. And this new piece of information may tell the forecast computer: "Watch out, it's shifting the other way slightly."

All these things are happening instantly. I have to stand in the middle of this sea of colourful displays and react to graphic information I haven't seen before - I have no idea what's coming next!

Challenges ahead

It's enormously exhilarating and rewarding reporting the results of elections which are after all among the most important things in people's lives.

The outcomes of these big votes are absolutely crucial to peoples' standards of living and way of life.

Fast coming into view is the prospect of a close fought American election in the autumn - another extremely important popular verdict for us to report in detail

And of course most important of all will be the general election in 2005 or 2006 and I'll be presenting that too.

Peter Snow will be presenting on Election Night on BBC ONE on Thursday, 10 June 2004 at 23:35 BST and on European Election Night on BBC TWO on Sunday, 13 June 2004 at 21:00 BST.





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