Behind the scenes at the ITV Leaders’ Debate

Jonathan Holmes was in the Spin Room at the election free-for-all. This is what he saw.

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“How about lots of fingers in pies?”

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“I’m not saying that, it sounds rude.”

“Something to do with the upper crust?”

“Hmm.”

Forget the debate itself. The Spin Room is where politicians and journalists come together to decide what actually happened. For last night’s seven-way free for all, it was based in ‘The Pie Factory’, a building next to the debating hall at ITV’s studios in Salford. Hence the pithy sign offs.

On TV, the Spin Room looks cavernous and impressive, with row upon row of desks facing a massive screen, like God’s bingo hall. In reality, it’s freezing cold, with two-bar heaters and ficus plants dotted around the place, like Nan’s bingo hall. 

Periodically, the TV cameras at the back of the room will pan across the assembled journalists (square your shoulders, type with purpose) while Adam Boulton, Kay Burley or another recognisable face talks about ‘excitement in the air’ or ‘spinners and losers’ or whatever. Print journalists aren’t immune to the hype, as everyone has Twitter feeds, live blogs, WhatsApp groups and Tinder profiles to keep topped up with impressions.

“They want us to cover the election on Minecraft,” one journalist sighs.

But the truth is, yes, excitement really is in the air. Over some excellent free chilli, bets are placed on who wins and who comes a cropper. The politicians – it takes two to spin – amble about, talking up their man/woman’s chances. People keep using boxing metaphors: hands up, strong right, bob and weave. One staffer talks about Ultimate Fighting Championship. He’s really into Ultimate Fighting Championship, apparently.

And then it starts and… well, it’s a bit dull. The opening statements go out to complete silence, heads down, as hundreds of journalists scrabble to take notes. A few groans, a few tuts, but nothing vaudevillian. Even the politicos keep to the back of the room, talking quietly and sending the occasional text.

Then Nigel Farage makes a face and there’s a big laugh and the real race starts. Suddenly, spin doctors slip along rows to shake hands, or hammer desks shouting ‘how’, or laugh ostentatiously. Have you ever heard one man give a round of applause? It’s the strangest sound on Earth, like a zen koan come to life. Former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown walks to the front of the room to laugh and shake his head. There is the feeling of a performance happening in and around the audience, divorced from the debate on screen.

Yet, even with Farage playing to the gallery and the occasional dust up, there’s a sense of disappointment. Not much has actually happened yet. The verdict at halftime is that everyone is playing it safe. Some mutter that they wish Julie Etchingham, the moderator, were less effective at her job. 

Nothing continues to happen until, finally, an event! Shouting from the audience! A young woman shouting things! Things! Fracking maybe? It’s hard to hear.

Instantly broadcasters spring for their cameras, and several other journos bolt for the door, Clark Kent looking for a phone box. It’s a ten minute walk/five minute run from The Pie Factory to the Debate Hall. A quick calculation suggests the as-yet-unnamed heckler will emerge in about seven minutes, bundled out of a side door. The debate still has fifteen minutes to go. It is about to rain.

The debate ends as an afterthought, and the spinning begins in earnest. We all run into the centre aisle, where the experts have grouped together. Five different people say the phrase “what tonight has shown” to me in less than ten minutes. Rival camera crews try to avoid looking at each other in an inverted Mexican stand-off. The first polling results causes an expert to go on an angry-librarian tirade about decimal points. A source in the know tells me that the extraction of Victoria Prosser, the heckler, was “gentle and friendly” and she was “as good as gold.” Well, it is the Spin Room after all.

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This goes on for about an hour, then half an hour of typing. Then everyone retires to the pub next-door, happy and sated, to get pie-eyed.

Read more: the debate as it happened