Fleet Street and the referendum – results day papers: A night editor's nightmare

Chris Boffey is a former news editor of the Observer, Sunday Telegraph and the Mirror and onetime special adviser to the Labour government.

Big stories have always been easy for the print media. Get the facts in the right order, think of a clever headline and link them to a picture, unless of course it is a running story through the night with the outcome only coming after the final edition has gone to bed.

Elections are a night editor's nightmare, updating the paper almost hourly and deciding when to take the decision to say one side or the other has won, especially when there are no authoritative exit polls as in the vote for Scottish independence.

Quite rightly no newspaper took a leap of faith and said the no campaign had won even though the later editions were being printed as the first victories for Better Together were coming in. The Times opted to quote a limited YouGov telephone exit poll predicting that it looked like a 52-48 win for the no campaign but with heavy caveats.

Newspapers used to call the final, final edition, the one that had a circulation area of 10 miles from Fleet Street, the Chairman's Copy, the one that had ironed out all the problems, picked up all the exclusives in the rivals and had barely a literal. A newspaper fit for the boss, and cross your fingers he did not see the early editions.

Well, even the Chairman's Copy would not have picked up on the outcome in Scotland. It took the BBC until 5.14am to predict the no victory and the final winning vote was announced at 6.09am.

So the papers had either to fudge the outcome or like most of the tabloids be thankful that there were other big stories that would not look out of place on the front page.

The Independent, the Guardian, the I, Daily Telegraph and the Daily Star went for the fudge, with the Independent saying "Power to the people", the I going for "Scotland writes history", the Guardian's "Scotland's history makers" and the Daily Star talking of the "Bottle of Britain", a reference to the pubs being open all night in Glasgow. The Telegraph had a second lead colour piece from Michael Deacon.

The Daily Express, Daily Mirror, and the Daily Mail decided the big story of the day was that the prime suspect in the hunt for a missing girl was a Latvian immigrant with a previous conviction for murder in his own country. Strangely, the Sun opts for a splash about the latest British hostage facing death at the hands of Isis, as does the Telegraph.

Elections are a time when the broadcasters trounce the written press; even the online editions cannot match the speed and comprehensive coverage of the BBC, ITV and Sky.

Earlier in the week I mentioned a horror of a cartoon in the Express. Well they are at it again, linking the royal family to the independence vote. It may be well-drawn but it is deeply unfunny.

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