POLITICS can be a cruel business. Ask Jo Swinson. A poll this week showed her recognition rating has risen since she became leader of the Liberal Democrats in the summer. That was the good news. The bad? The more voters saw her, the more she gave them the pip.

And that was before she agreed in a nanosecond to wipe out millions in a nuclear war if necessary, and prior to the Great Squirrel Scandal.

You haven’t heard of the Great Squirrel Scandal? Why, you must not read the Milngavie Times. Understandable, since it does not exist. But that was where a story about Ms Swinson allegedly pelting Tufties with stones was said to have originated. The spoof story went viral, various bods joined in condemnation of her, and before you could say, “How could anyone be daft enough to believe this?” she was being asked about it on a radio show.

All very silly, but not that amazing, alas, in these fake news times. We sniggered at America for the amount of false information and general jiggery-pokery that featured in the US presidential election of 2016, but if we are not careful the UK General Election of 2019 could be heading the same way.

The Conservatives have already been caught doctoring video to make it look as if Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer was rendered speechless when asked to outline his party’s policy on Europe. During the ITV leaders’ debate on Tuesday the Tory Party press office launched a false flag operation, posing on Twitter as a fact checking organisation by the name of “FactcheckUK”, all to brief against Jeremy Corbyn.

Dominic Raab, the Brexit Secretary, tried to brush off the row by saying people did not “give a toss” about Twitter spats. But the social media firm itself told off the Tories, as did the Electoral Commission, which said voters were “entitled to transparency and integrity from campaigners in the lead up to an election, so they have the information they need to decide for themselves how to vote”.

The same could be said of the media, that it too has a duty to be transparent as well as honest, fair, trustworthy, and effective in informing the public in the run-up to polling day. But how well is it performing in this election? Is it clinging on to tired old ways of reporting politics when new and better methods are required?

The ITV debate was a case in point. The format was first tried in the UK nine years ago. Back then it was three white blokes standing behind podiums. On Tuesday it was two white blokes. That’s austerity for you. It was also a clear case of failing to reflect political reality in having the third largest party at Westminster, the SNP, represented, as well as the LibDems. The latter, in common with the SNP, could potentially hold the balance of power after the election. Both parties, moreover, are in the Remain camp, backed by 16.1 million voters in the referendum.

Yet the broadcasters decided it would make better telly to have a sitting PM go head to head with his potential replacement. The hour-long programme made British broadcast history, it had its moments, and almost seven million people watched, but whether it was effective in informing viewers is another matter. Did it change a single mind? I doubt it.

I blame JFK. The notion that the glamorous Kennedy trounced a sweaty Nixon in the 1960 televised debates and strolled straight into the White House from there was, like much to do with the Kennedys, the stuff of myth rather than fact. But the media loved the fairytale, viewers tuned in by the tens of millions, and televised debates became part of political life in America, then around the world.

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Though the UK was ridiculously late to the party, TV debates are now a given, and those who refuse to play the game, that’s you Mrs May, are judged accordingly.

TV debates are revealing, though not in the obvious ways. They test confidence, intelligence, resilience, the ability to think on one’s feet. All of that, certainly. But done properly they can also hint at the person behind the political facade, and what the public thinks of him or her. The almost scornful laughter that greeted both men on Tuesday showed in what low regard they are held.

If televised debates still have value, what of the other items in the media toolbox for covering elections? The sit-down, one to one interview is passing out of fashion in print because the parties think they take up too much time for relatively little payoff. Television interviews can be tricky for politicians, with the soft sofas of breakfast shows particularly dangerous. See Boris “Relatable” Johnson’s recent clash with Naga Munchetty for proof of that. Constituency profiles still work if they are in-depth enough. That means spending time in a place, though, which can take its toll on budgets.

Next come the dreaded vox pops, a staple of election coverage in broadcast media more than print. Complete waste of time. No one would seek or rely upon the opinions of random strangers before making any other decision in their life, but when it comes to politics, everyone is deemed wise.

Vox pops continue because they are an easy, cheap option for broadcasters but they mean little and reveal less. A close relation to the vox pop is the panel programme featuring questions from a cross-section of the public. This stands or falls on the quality of the audience. As several editions of Question Time from Scotland have shown, the system of selection is open to abuse.

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Question Time is now 40 years old, ancient in television terms. Many of the other ways of covering politics during an election are as old as newspapers. Social media has brought about change, but not always for the better, tending to add more heat than light to discussions. New ideas are needed.

In recent times, one of the most illuminating takes on Brexit, for example, came not during a televised debate but in a Channel 4 “comedy documentary”, How Europe Stole My Mum. A young comedian (Kieran Hodgson, from Scottish comedy Two Doors Down) tracing the long road to the EU referendum via daft impersonations of politicians and a joke-filled script. A revelation. It is still available on catch-up if you want to check it out. While hardly enough on its own to begin a revolution in political coverage, it is a place to start. Perhaps broadcasters could investigate further. But no vox pops, please.