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Gary Younge
Anchormen look for clues in late-night thriller

In the end David Dimbleby, James Naughtie, Jeremy Paxman and John Simpson were not to be disappointed. The Queen Mother was in relatively good health; the US elections were back on the top of the agenda. They were in the right place; the trouble is it was the wrong time. With America between five and nine hours behind, a race that would go down to the wire would leave them high on hypothesis and low on facts. So they spent the American afternoon talking to viewers in the late British evening about a result that most people on both sides of the Atlantic might not know until the early hours of the next morning.

So long as most Brits were awake they had nothing to say. But that did not stop them talking. They explained the workings of the electoral college; lectured on the fate of both Houses of Congress and evoked the ghosts of Nixon and Kennedy.

And then the guess work started. While most of California, the state with the largest number of electoral college votes, was still at lunch, John Simpson talked of early exit polls giving Gore an encouraging lead. Philippa Thomas in Austin started talking about the weather and ended up handing Florida and Michigan to Gore. Stephen Sackur said everything he knew had come with a health warning. Then went on to give Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania to Gore and Tennessee and Arkansas to Bush.

It was the enduring formula for the evening. First they informed us that "it was too close to call". Then they called it. And then they reminded us to ignore everything they'd said.

Peter Snow, complete with an unfeasibly large graphics budget, was not to be outdone. He stood proudly in front of the equivalent of an electoral GameBoy as states flashed in red and blue behind him.

It had all the trappings of a thriller. The only problem was that neither the authors, the American public, nor the narrators in the news media had any idea whodunnit, why they had done it or what they had done. To help us understand we were introduced to several commentators not sufficiently important to be snapped up by American networks.

"We'll make of that what we can but it doesn't look like very much," said a characteristically pessimistic Paxman.

Then two states, Kentucky and Indiana - both safely in the Bush camp - declared that Bush had indeed won. The news added next to nothing to human knowledge but brought crucial colour to Snow's screen.

It was going to be a long night.

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