The ITV Leaders’ Debate: Julie Etchingham prepares to take charge

The newsreader has been in training ahead of the only televised clash of the seven party leaders

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In her day job as co-presenter of ITV’s News at Ten, Julie Etchingham is used to things changing at the last minute. But she’s having to be particularly nimble about her next presenting gig. On Thursday, Etchingham will moderate the only debate featuring all the main party leaders of the election campaign. And it’s only recently that David Cameron has finally, after months of to-ing and fro-ing with the broadcasters, confirmed that he will take part.

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“Of course, I’m pleased. I’m pleased to be hosting a debate with seven leaders. It’s good news for viewers that they will hear a wide range of views in the debate, including from the two participants who have a chance of being Prime Minister,” says Etchingham. “Given we have a new political landscape emerging, it’ll be fascinating to see how they all interact.”

Etchingham has been off-rota at News at Ten since the middle of March, to give her time to prepare for election night – when she will co-present alongside Tom Bradby – and the leaders’ debate. If, indeed, it’s been possible to prepare for the debate at all, as the format and participants have kept changing.

First Etchingham’s debate was to be a four-header with Cameron, Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage. Then the Greens’ Natalie Bennett, the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood were added – but Cameron was likely to be a no-show. And now that Cameron has agreed to take part, Etchingham has been presented with yet another dynamic to prepare for. She says that her experience hosting other big events for ITV has taught her to stay calm.

Etchingham explains: “whether it’s previous US or UK elections I’ve worked on, the Royal Wedding, the Diamond Jubilee or News at Ten, if there’s one thing I know it’s that preparation is everything. Focus on your preparation as best you can and you’ll be in the best possible position. We’ve been rehearsing with seven people taking the parts of the party leaders. They’ve done it very realistically, but nothing can quite prepare you for what it’ll feel like on the night.”

Etchingham won’t, however, disclose who’s been playing whom – whether, for example, one of her on-screen ITN colleagues has been channelling Ed Miliband. “ITV are making sure we get proper preparations done,” she says with a giggle, “so I’ll just leave it at that.”

Etchingham, 45, was asked by ITV to be its moderator, without having to pitch for the gig. It’s a plum job – arguably, the biggest moment of her 23 years in journalism. Though, she adds, co-presenting ITV’s coverage of the Royal Wedding in 2011 with Phillip Schofield was also “quite a big one”.

Etchingham admits to feeling nervous – “I don’t think you’d be remotely human if you didn’t feel that” – but also says she has moments of “real excitement”. She is taking over from Alastair Stewart, who moderated ITV’s debate in 2010, and from whom Etchingham says she has a lot to learn. “People think that people are at each other’s throats, but Alastair could not have been more supportive,” she says.

“He’s just brilliant, and I’d be really daft not to pick his brains. His best bit of advice has been: ‘You are conducting the debate – you are in control of it, so that’s what you keep uppermost in your mind, along with communicating it well to our audience.’ ” 

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The debate could easily descend into a disjointed series of mini-speeches or a shouting match. “It’s undoubtedly more complex [than the original proposal], purely because you’re dealing with more people,” says Etchingham. “But the upside is that you allow a greater range of voices. You have to find a way of overcoming the complexities, and finding the benefits, and getting those voices heard. If I have to be quite sharp in making sure that people stick to their timings, then I will be.”