John Stapleton: "I Could Have Been The First Man In The History Of Broadcasting To Declare The Wrong President Of The United States"
Veteran broadcaster John Stapleton covered five US elections between 1980 to 2012. He tells The House about how he was spectacularly saved from announcing the wrong election result in Bush vs Gore, and how American enthusiasm for elections puts the Brits to shame
The most dramatic election was 2000, Gore vs Bush, without a doubt. The exit polls all say ‘Gore has won it by a hair’s breadth’. Minutes later the American networks are saying ‘actually we think Bush has won it’. Then Gore concedes, so we think that’s it.
So I’m about to go on air and I’m about to say to people back home on ITV, ‘it’s all over, Gore has conceded, Bush is the next President of the United States,” when our researcher, an incredible woman called Kathryn Milofsky, is standing by my side with a mobile phone and she says: ‘DON’T DO IT! Gore has just retracted his concession.’ It’s minutes until we’re on air and I say ‘for God’s sake Kathryn, how do you know?!’
She says, “because I’m talking to the man who is standing next to him”. She really was remarkable this woman, with the most remarkable contacts. She was literally on the phone to someone standing next to Al Gore in the Democratic headquarters. And she was right. The American networks came back on air and said it’s not all over, Gore’s retracted his concession and it’s all hanging in the balance.
I walked back to the hotel with my producer Malcolm Douglas and said: “Christ we dodged a f****** bullet there mate!” I could have been the first man in the history of broadcasting to declare the wrong President of the United States.
Now Bush did become President eventually, but we didn’t know that at the time. It called into question big time, the use of exit polls. But yes, nearly declaring the wrong President was potentially the worst night of my entire career. At 4 ‘o’clock in the morning we had a large bottle of wine.
It’s hard work covering the election for British breakfast TV. Latterly I was doing it for GMTV and the time difference is a nightmare. You’re on air at 1am locally in Washington. Usually on some freezing hotel roof opposite the White House. And I mean cold. Seriously cold. I would wear two thermal vests, two pairs of long johns, plus sweaters, plus an overcoat, scarves and gloves because I was standing there for three hours. I got to the point where I could hardly enunciate the words sometimes: my jaw was halfway to frozen.
My biggest scoop though was in 1980, in the run-up to the election. I had just been moved from Nationwide to Panorama and my first job was to do a profile of Teddy Kennedy. He had nominated himself for the democratic candidacy against Jimmy Carter.
After ten days we were getting absolutely nowhere. So we finished the filming and producer Jane Drabble released the crew. She said, ‘You’ve got half a day to go off and do your shopping’. We were in New York and almost ten minutes after she released them we got a call from our researcher in Washington, Margaret Jay, who is now Baroness Jay, who said ‘He’ll do the interview’. This is long before mobile phones and we hadn’t a hope in hell of finding the crew again. Jane very quickly got Margaret to hire a freelance crew and we headed off and got the shuttle down to Washington and hot footed it to Capitol Hill.
By the skin of our teeth we arrived there on time and got the interview but it was absolutely a bloody nightmare. It was a bit of a scoop. He didn’t do anyone else in Britain at all. And it was a great thing to have as Chappaquiddick was still in people’s minds, and we had a man from this great dynasty talking to the BBC.
We got him to talk about the election, his prospects. And I brought up Chappaquiddick, I think we got the usual stock response: ‘that was years ago, give me a break’ type-answer. After Chappaquiddick, he could have stood in another election but he didn’t because he obviously realised it was a negative for him. But he was charming. Not a bad tick in the box is it? He’s one of the most influential people I’ve ever interviewed.
The one thing I would say about American elections – and it struck me vividly on my trips – is the enthusiasm American people have for elections as opposed to the indifference that is often on display in this country.
If you go out in the streets in Britain… and do some vox pops and say, ‘Who do you think is going to win the election?’ half of the people are going to say ‘I don’t want to talk about that’.
Any street in New York and ask the very same question and they’re queueing up. They’ve all got an opinion. It’s a piece of cake compared to Britain.
John Martin Stapleton is an English journalist and broadcaster.