Jonny McCambridge: Diary of an election count reporter

0600: I rise early to make sandwiches for what I suspect will be a long shift. I ponder the big decisions of the day, the potential consequences of them.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 11th May 2022, 6:15 am
The election count centre rapidly empties
The election count centre rapidly empties

‘Hmmm … ham and mustard, I think.’

0900: My plan to arrive at the count centre early to beat the crowd is foiled when the crowd turns up early too. I have to wait in a queue to go through a security check not dissimilar to being at an airport.

As my bag is scanned through the x-ray machine, I can see a police officer frowning. He searches the bag and produces a bundle wrapped in tinfoil.

‘Oh, that’s my sandwiches,’ I explain. ‘In case it’s a long day ... they’re ham and mustard.’

0930: I find the press area in the cavernous hall and leave my sandwiches on a chair at the back of the room.

A journalist approaches me.

‘What time do you think the first declarations will be?’

‘I have no idea.’

1000: I wonder if it is too early to eat my sandwiches.

1100: Another journalist approaches.

‘When do you expect the first results?’

‘I have no idea.’

1200: I work out that I have already walked around the hall 47 times. It has given me quite an appetite and I have to resist the urge to eat my sandwiches.

1230: Another journalist approaches.

‘Do you expect results soon?’

‘I have no idea.’

Then another.

‘What time for first count?’

I decide to try a different approach.

‘I’d say around two.’

His face falls.

‘But I was told around one?’

I think about this for a moment.

‘I have no idea.’

1400: Still no results. Sandwiches still intact.

1500: I decide I should do some work. I interview a politician and attempt to video it on my phone. But when I get back to my desk, I discover that I have forgotten to press record.

I go back to the politician.

‘Would you have time for a quick word?’

‘Didn’t I just speak to you?’

‘Um, no that must have been someone else.’

1600: First results are in. There is a flurry of activity and phone calls. I try to get some shots of a winning candidate but am almost crushed in the melee of burly photographers and cameramen.

‘If we all take a step back and take it in turn, I’m sure we’ll all get what we need,’ I protest.

Nobody seems to hear me.

1730: I’m about to eat my sandwiches. I’m opening the tinfoil bundle when an election official announces that another result is imminent. The journalists run to the stage.

‘Aw, for flip sake,’ I mumble as the sandwiches are set aside.

1900: Progress is slow. Word reaches us that another count centre is planning to stop at 10pm and restart in the morning. The gossip travels around the journalists like a plague. We start to consider the implications of a second day of this. I have not got anything left in the fridge to make more sandwiches.

2100: I have filed stories and videos. I have interviewed countless politicians. I have walked around a lot and stared without comprehension at plasma screens and sheets of paper with long lines of numbers. I have looked at boxes and bundles and tried to eavesdrop into hushed conversations.

Now, finally, I am going to eat my sandwiches.

I go to fetch the tinfoil bundle, but it is gone. I search everywhere around my desk without success.

A journalist approaches me.

‘Well, what’s the latest?’

‘The latest is that I’ve lost my bloody sandwiches!’

2300: We are told over the loudspeaker that several counts are stopping and will resume in the morning. Some more will conclude tonight. I wait for any ensuing announcement about the fate of my sandwiches, but none is forthcoming.

0030: Final results and video are filed. I leave the centre and drive home.

0600: I rise early for what I suspect will be a very long shift. I do not make any sandwiches.

0900: The count centre is quieter today as there are fewer counts taking place and fewer reporters. The hall seems even bigger.

A journalist approaches.

‘What time for the first results?’

‘I have no idea.’

1100: One of the election officials discreetly waves me over. I suspect I am about to be given a nugget of information, a leak from a well-informed source. This could be the break that my journalism career desperately needs.

‘I’ve been watching you,’ she begins. ‘And you just seem to walk about all the time without actually going anywhere. Back and forward, back and forward. Do you have trouble with your nerves?’

1300: Results begin to flood in all at once. I scribble down countless figures and conduct numerous interviews. But every time I attempt to file, another constituency result is announced. Soon, I have a long backlog of results and quotes in my notebook to work through.

I can hear a journalist on the phone beside me shouting into a phone: ‘No, it’s not stage eight! It’s stage 7B! I said 7B!’

1600: There is just one count outstanding and the operation to dismantle the election apparatus in the hall begins. Boxes, tables, metal barriers and chairs are being quickly removed.

Soon the hall has a barren, empty appearance with counting continuing in just one corner.

There is a screen there which displays the time prominently. It says that it is a quarter past two in the morning.

I stare at it for some time. I genuinely don’t know anymore.

1700: I have a phone chat with my son to sustain me through the final few hours.

He tells me that he and mummy have had a wonderful day, going to the school May fair and then to KFC.

‘Oh, did you get anything for me?’ I inquire brightly.

‘No daddy, mummy said you would probably have made sandwiches.’

We chat some more. I tell my son I can’t wait to get home.

‘Just think daddy,’ he continues. ‘When this is all over you can finally cut the grass.’

1900: The final results come in and there are cheers and tears as candidates are elected, or not. I do my last interviews.

I am still working through my backlog of copy as the team of removal men continue the rapid operation of returning this hall to its original use.

I look up from my work and am surprised to see how quickly this is happening. The podiums, platforms and tables are taken out the back door.

As I type furiously (as furiously as it is possible to type when you only use two fingers), they descend on the press area. A man tells me the power is going to be turned off in 10 minutes.

Soon, they are removing desks and folding chairs on either side of where I am sitting and rolling up long exten sion leads at my feet.

The next time I look up I see that the hall is now almost completely empty. All the politicians, the election staff, the journalists, have gone home.

There is very little left to betray that it was ever a count centre.

Nothing other than a solitary desk and chair and a grey-haired man with bad nerves sitting on his own, trying desperately to get finished.