There now follows a party political broadcast…

A party political broadcast in the United Kingdom is a small amount of time, normally five minutes, that terrestrial television channels and national radio stations are required to give over to political parties in the run up to nationwide elections. The first television party political broadcast was technically made in 1953, rather than 1951 as is often claimed, and was made by Harold Macmillan for the Conservative Party. Since then, the format has changed so much that it is almost unrecognisable, it has gone from simple radio broadcasts of party manifestos, to black and white "short programmes" on the television, to sophisticated pieces that look more like short feature films. But as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same and although the look today may be completely different, the desire to attain and cling on to power remains and the manipulation is clear: "this is the party you want to vote for – honest!"


History

Radio, the BBC and Politics (19221951)

In 1922, the British Broadcasting Company's (the BBC didn't become a Corporation until 1926) first licence was granted. Amongst other things, it stipulated that in return for public funding, the BBC was to hold itself to certain standards and was not to broadcast anything that was not to "the reasonable satisfaction of the Postmaster-General." The reason the Postmaster-General was in charge was that the BBC was a very new organisation and although it was nominally headed by the independently minded Sir (later Lord) John Reith, the government wanted to make sure it had at least some control over output and the Postmaster-General, then a minister in the cabinet, was deemed to be the most appropriate person for the job. When Reith had first dreamed up the BBC, he had envisioned a permanent, publicly funded, yet independent broadcasting corporation that would educate, inform and entertain the British public whilst remaining free from political influence.

As part of this idea, Reith realised he would need to inform the listeners (for at this time television had yet to be invented) of the stance of the major political parties; the dominant Liberals and Conservatives and the new, upstart, worker's party: Labour. Rather than have the listeners attempt to work out for themselves what the parties stood for, and instead of having an announcer explain it to them when tone of voice and turn of phrase might indicate a bias, Reith decided that the fairest way to ensure a balance was to allow each of the parties a certain amount of airtime to make their case. Unfortunately, in 1923, when he suggested this idea to the Postmaster-General, Mr Neville Chamberlain, it was decided that to give any parties other than the ruling party airtime might be subversive and the proposal was dropped. However, Reith did not give up, he pointed out that the Post Office offered the parties the opportunity to have written manifestos delivered to people's homes free of charge and that this was not any different. This argument seemed to convince Chamberlain, and in early 1924, he gave the go ahead to party political broadcasts.

In 1924, a general election was declared and campaigning started. Realising that now would be the time that political leaders would want to take advantage of the BBC's offer, Chamberlain set down some very basic guidelines and conditions. Effectively they were that the broadcast must be no more than twenty minutes in length and would be entirely unedited. The three major party leaders, Herbert Asquith of the Liberal Party, Stanley Baldwin of the Conservative Party and Ramsey MacDonald of the Labour Party each made a speech to the British public lasting the full time allowed. Interestingly MacDonald was the first to broadcast and it was he who won the election, forming the first ever Labour Government, however, it lasted less than a year and in November, Baldwin became Prime Minister.

1926 saw Baldwin's government re-organise the BBC under a Royal charter, this removed many aspects of the BBC's licence that had enabled the government to control it. One effect of this was that the allocation of airtime for political parties was left entirely up to the company and so it was decided that they would put forward suggestions to Parliament and let the parties come to a consensus on how much time they should be allocated. 1926 also saw the first Prime Ministerial broadcast outside a general election when Baldwin addressed the nations concerns regarding a general strike.

The next general elections were held in 1929 and despite the BBC's repeated requests, the main political parties had failed to come to any kind of consensus on how much time they should be allocated to make broadcasts. Knowing that if the BBC was to fulfill its purpose a decision would have to be made, Reith did so and presented it to the parties on behalf of the Corporation:

  • The government was to have the same number of broadcasts as the opposition parties combined.
  • The government was to have the first broadcast.
  • An opposition party was to have the final broadcast.
  • Minor parties were to be allowed access to the airwaves dependent on the number of candidates that stood for them.

Each of the three main political parties used all of their allotted airtime, with the Conservatives broadcasting first and the Labour party last. It is also worth noting that due to the number of candidates they fielded, both the Irish Nationalists Party and the Communist Party were allowed one broadcast each. The results of the election were that the Labour Party won with a minority and formed the government, but due to the economic crash were forced to call another election in 1931. Still, for the next decade, party political broadcasting remained much the same, although the format was rarely more than a senior party official reading out the party's manifesto.

In 1936 the BBC began broadcasting its high definition television signal, it was largely felt however, that politics' place was on the Radio. Given this, the format used for the 1929 and '31 elections had been reprised for 1935 and once again the three main parties and some smaller parties had gone on the airwaves to try and persuade voters that they should be in control of the country. In 1938, the now Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, made the first televised Prime Ministerial speech when, returning from his negotiations with the German leader, Adolph Hitler, he proudly declared “peace in our time.” This was followed up a year later when he declared, rather less proudly, and on the radio “this country is now at war with Germany.”

Believing that German bombers could use the television signal to home in on London, the home office ordered that the signal be switched off for the duration of the war. It was turned back on again on the 7th of June 1946, with the announcer welcoming back the country’s viewers with the words “as I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted…” Of course, in the previous year’s general election, since the signal had yet to be turned on, Radio was still the only means besides newspapers and posted manifestos that politicians could reach the general public, and so both Labour and the Conservative Party made ten broadcasts each. The result of the elections was a surprise victory for Clement Atlee’s Labour Party, despite the Conservative Prime Minister, Winston Churchill being widely thought to have been entirely responsible for the Allied victory.

1947 saw the first structuring of the party political broadcasting system with the creation of a Committee on Party Political Broadcasting to regulate the number of broadcasting slots each party would be given. Although this body had no legal status, all three main political parties sent representatives and the BBC represented all broadcasters. The Committee established the following conventions:

  • The government would be allowed impartial "factual ministerial broadcasts."
  • There would normally be no opposition right of reply.
  • Right of reply would be granted on controversial issues.
  • The opposition parties would be allocated broadcasts each year according to their share of the vote at the previous General election. (decided in 1953)
One early proposal set before the committee was that television, which had progressed quickly since the signal was turned on again, should be used by the parties in conjunction with radio, however, due to the Representation of the People Act 1948 which, when very legalistically interpreted allowed no room for any bias, it was determined that the BBC could not risk allowing any political programming. This meant that despite the offers to screen party broadcasts, the 1950 general election was, for the final time solely campaigned on the Radio and by leafleting. The result, once again, was a win for Labour and Atlee. 1950 did, however, see the first ever election night programme, complete with graphs to illustrate who was winning as results were called. In keeping with the act of 1948 though, the presenters were not allowed to speculate about who might win, in case they gave away some personal feeling.


Television, Dodgy Statistics and a Pig that was 900 times too big (1951-1959)

In 1951, the Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, called a general election. Both Atlee and his chief opponent, the Conservative Winston Churchill, disliked television as a medium. The former because he felt that it was too personal and invading, the latter because he believed the BBC to be full of communists. Despite this, however, all three major political parties took up the Corporation’s offer of televised electoral broadcasts, to be billed in the Radio times as “short programmes.”

The first party to go on air was the Liberal Party, and the performance that their representative, Lord Samuel, gave was something of a fiasco; The Noble Lord clearly had no idea what he was supposed to do and once sat in front of the camera, proceeded to read his speech as if he was on the Radio; in a flat monotone, without ever looking up. The speechwriters too, had overestimated Lord Samuel’s rate of speech and he overran, ultimately being cut off in mid sentence having inadvertently given a prearranged signal that he had finished.

The Conservatives were much more professional; their front man for the broadcast was Anthony Eden, and he decided to copy the successful American idea of making the broadcast an interview. He and his interviewer, the fellow Tory and pre-war television veteran Leslie Mitchell, practiced an interview to tape over and over again until Eden felt it was perfect and had the recording transcribed. By the time he came on air, Eden had learnt every word of his answers and delivered a flawless performance. This broadcast also introduced what would become a staple of party political broadcasting: a graph using some dodgy statistics that showed how the under the Labour government the price of food had risen hugely.

Labour attempted to copy the Conservative format and screened their own interview. Believing (correctly) that only the traditionally Tory supporting middle classes would own televisions, they began their broadcast by having Sir Christopher Mayhew asking Sir Hartley Shawcross why a man so well educated, well off and well dressed as he should support the Labour Party. Sir Hartley gave an altogether too enthusiastic response straight to the camera: “Why shouldn’t I?” he exclaimed, “the Labour Party? I love it!” They did however finish by questioning the Tory statistics and presenting their own, showing that prices of food had according to their research dropped overall.

1953 saw the first ever real party political broadcasts, in the past; the only time all major parties were allowed to broadcast was in the run-up to a general election. However, it was decided that it would be allowable to have the parties present their views on various situations, and to be allowed to use television to do so. The first broadcast was made by Harold Macmillan of the ruling Conservative Party on the 2 of May, it followed a variation on the 1951 election format; it contained rare footage of an address Churchill made promising housing for everyone and some staged sounding public interviews regarding the so-called housing drive. There was no “Opposition, right of reply” and so neither the Liberals or the Labour Party responded to this programme.

Exactly one month later Queen Elizabeth II was crowned live on television; this was at her own request, the cabinet being against it. 20 million people watched that one event, even though there were only 2 million television sets at this time. It is thought that the coronation was what inspired many people to buy their own set, and, by the next general election in 1955, more than one third of the country’s homes had one.

An election was called in 1955 by the leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister, Anthony Eden; Churchill having stepped down earlier in the year. It is interesting to note that Eden did ask the BBC if he could address the nation on television and announce the election, but due to legislation decided in the Churchill-Atlee era, was refused and was forced to make the announcement on the Radio. This time, the Conservatives and Labour made three fifteen minute broadcasts each. Yet, in spite of the fact that their previous efforts had been largely professional and effective, the 1955 set left a lot to be desired.

The first incident was in the Conservative's first programme, in which Harold Macmillan attempted to demonstrate how personal saving had increased 30 fold under the Tory government by comparing two children's piggy banks. It would have gone perfectly had the props designer not forgotten that the dimensions were cubed and so created a piggy bank that was in fact 27 thousand times larger than the original! Labour's first broadcast wasn't any better, Clement Atlee was interviewed live and managed to answer all the questions posed within five minutes. This lead to the desperate interviewer, Mr. Percy Cudlipp, spending the next ten minutes attempting to think up more subjects to ask about in an attempt to cover the embarrassing awkward silence! The Conservatives followed this with a speech by Howard Macmillan, everything seemed to be going well until about halfway through when Macmillan forgot his lines and had to look at his notes. It would not have been quite so bad had the line not been one that reminded the country that "things are getting better!" Labour's second broadcast went without a hitch, as did the Conservative's final one. Labour's concluding show however, was an absolute shambles, with Edith Summerskill interviewing Howard Wilson in what can only be described as a seductive voice and then, when Wilson's continual ad-libbing put them five minutes behind schedule, Summerskill said goodnight, only to have Wilson cut in with an additional two points before the transmission could be cut.

The next four years saw an astounding growth in political television. In 1955, commercial television began broadcasting for the first time and in 1956 the Independent Broadcasting Authority (later the ITC) joined the Committee on Party Political Broadcasting. Programmes such as Panorama became required viewing for the 70% of the public who owned a television set, and though what was known as the "two week rule" established in World War Two forbade televised debate of any subject that was to be debated by parliament that fortnight, programmes such as "In The News" provided heated discussion of foreign affairs. Perhaps the biggest change, however, came in October 1956 with the Suez Crisis when the Conservative Prime Minister, Anthony Eden demanded that the BBC allow him to address the nation to explain why he was taking his country not to war, but to "a state of armed conflict with Egypt." Under the regulations the BBC had set down, the Opposition Party was allowed a right to reply on "controversial issues." Eden attempted to argue that the issue was not controversial, but had no success and so the Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell made a broadcast condemning the action. The Suez Crisis saw the end of Eden's career, and under the government of his replacement, Harold Macmillan, the two week rule was lifted and the BBC and ITV were allowed to cover elections for the first time.


From Ernst Stavro Benn, to Saatchi and Saatchi and Thatcher (1959-1979)

After a series of interviews, mostly taking place in airports, Harold Macmillan found himself in rather a good light and so in 1959, he called a general election. This election would see party political broadcasting hit new heights of professionalism as all restrictions on coverage were lifted, and politicians now had to work harder than ever to convince the Great British public that they were right.

There was an increase in the number of broadcasts each party would be allowed: five each for the Conservative and Labour parties and two for the Liberals. The Conservative broadcasts consisted of a speech given by their popular leader, Macmillan, a film showing how the Conservative government had made growing up a pleasure for the country's young men, and footage of a cabinet debate that had been filmed seven weeks previously, as well as the usual interviews and pie-charts.

Labour took a new approach to the genre, their campaign was masterminded by Anthony Wedgewood Benn, a Labour MP who had introduced legislation allowing peers to renounce their titles so that he, the heir to the Viscount Stansgate, could remain in the Commons. He decided that Labour would campaign on the theme of "Britain Belongs to You." The broadcasts began with Benn rotating his chair round, Blofeld like, just as the stirring introductory music ended. It would then be explained to the viewer that he was in "The Labour Television and Radio Operations Room," a BBC studio set that had been designed for the purpose. He would then introduce them to "Christopher Mayhew who looks at the facts and figures, and Woodrow Wyatt who does the interviews." This would be followed by a series of the usual string of reports, interviews and statistics, including an almost bizarre section in which Shirley Williams would demonstrate how prices had risen using two baskets of shopping. Broadcasts ended with what must be said to be the least professional element, Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour leader, asking the viewing public if they knew what the most important thing happening in the world is "just at the moment…"

Ultimately, the 1959 election was won by the Conservatives, and Macmillan retained his position as Prime Minister. Macmillan was willing to use television as a tool, but in 1961 he revealed in a speech that the power the medium had over the populace scared him:

"Television has introduced a new dimension into politics and some of us don't know quite what to make of it…Why, then do we do it? Partly because television is so vivid, personal and instantaneous a means of communication ... Television will never, I hope, become a propaganda instrument of the government"

Due to new legislation, introduced by the Liberal party in 1962, which meant that when calculating the share of the vote, by-election results could be taken into account, the 1960s saw televised party political broadcasts made by more minor parties than ever. In the general election of 1966, the Communist party made a predictably grim plea for the ordinary working people in the country to vote to overthrow the ruling bourgeoisie and establish a dictatorship of the proletariat. Both the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Nationalists also went on the air, becoming the first parties ever to make a party political broadcast without first having MPs in parliament.

The first general election of the decade was held in October 1964, called by Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the Conservative Prime Minister, when he sensed he was losing his popularity. The Liberals, by this point only held six seats and were only even fielding 150 candidates, meaning for this election were only allowed three broadcasts, whereas the Conservatives and Labour were allotted five each.

The Conservatives opened with a theme of the importance of nuclear arms, declaring that if Labour’s plans to get rid of Britain’s atomic arsenal were brought to fruition, they would remove the last vestiges of leverage that the United Kingdom had on world politics. Words to this effect were delivered in a long and sombre monologue by Sir Alec Douglas-Home. This was followed by shorter speech, again delivered by Douglas-Home in which he described how the Conservatives had brought full-employment and prosperity to the country. To illustrate this, a series of films was played, showing Scotland’s newly completed Forth Bridge and interviews with members of the public, all in all professionally conducted, with each person either praising the government’s successes or bemoaning the policies of the Labour party. Later broadcasts followed much the same theme, interestingly, the programme of the 6th October praised the "fine modern buildings" that today are generally seen as ugly concrete blocks. The final broadcast on the 13th October was simply one long speech by Douglass Home, delivered directly to the camera, in which he made a passionate plea to the country to allow his party another term in office, ending with the words: "I believe that when you think seriously about it, you will decide that the right thing is to vote Conservative."

The Labour Party, for their part, spent a great deal of time debunking the Conservative claims. Using statistics published in "non-Labour newspapers" such as the Guardian and the Daily Mail, they showed that whilst Britons were indeed more well off, they were not as well off as they should have been when compared to the rest of the world. Adopting a friendly, informal style, the party leader, Harold Wilson, Anthony Wedgewood Benn and Christopher Mayhew narrated a series of films explaining Labour's grievances with Conservative rule as well as clearing up some of what they saw as misconceptions about Labour's defence policy. This series of party political broadcasts also saw the return of Shirley Williams and her shopping baskets, and ended with a lengthy speech from Harold Wilson in which he quoted Lloyd George and John F. Kennedy saying that "a tired nation is a Tory nation" and finished with a plea for the people of Britain to say "enough is enough" and to end the near twelve years of Conservative rule.

The election resulted in a slim victory for Labour; they gained five seats more than the Conservatives giving them an overall majority of three. However, since this was a very slim majority, the parliament of 1965 was near useless. There was, however, seen to be growing public frustrations with the Conservatives, illustrated by a Labour win in the Kingston-upon-Hull by-election. This meant that the government was confidant it could increase is majority and so set another general election was set for 1966.

Spurred on by its successful 1964 campaign, which won it more than one hundred formerly Conservative seats, Labour launched a new and vigorous campaign. By now, party political broadcasts had become almost standardised at a length of about ten to fifteen minutes and were included regularly in television schedules. For the 1966 election, the slogan “you know Labour government works” was coined, and used to introduce the set of five party political broadcasts that the Labour party made. Once again there were long monologues delivered by the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson and his ministers, intended to highlight the gains that Labour had made over the year it had been in power, most specifically, cutting the government deficit from eight hundred million, to under four hundred million. However, the most interesting broadcast was a question and answers session that the Minister for Labour, Ray Gunter and journalists from the Daily Express, the Spectator and the Financial Times. This was, perhaps, the biggest success of the campaign, with Gunter deftly heading off the questions of the three men, and putting forward his party’s record and policy in a very appealing manner.

The Conservatives responded to Labour's broadcasts with their own set of interviews and discussions. However, whereas Labour had been on the whole up-beat and cheerful, focussing much more on the gains they had made whilst in power, the Tories were forced into negative campaigning. This involved several long and desperately technical discussions on the problems of socialism, interspersed with fleeting attempts of connecting to the people by complaining that mortgages had gone up. Several times the spokespeople were forced to concede ground to Labour, at one point admitting that unemployment was at a ten-year low and at a another that investing in oil-rigs was not really a deficit. Ultimately, the campaign looked desperate and poorly run. Predictably, the election went to Labour with a large majority.

The seventies saw four general elections, one in 1970, two in 1974 and one more in 1979. In 1970, the Conservatives pioneered a new format of party political broadcasting. They modelled a studio on the look of ITN's News at Ten and behaved as if they were making a topical discussion show called "A Better Tomorrow" which merely discussed the issues of the election. Of course, the effect was much like an infomercial that gives the impression it is a documentary, but was never the less quite compelling. This dynamic performance contrasted with Labour's traditional approach that simply consisted of speeches made by their prominent politicians. According to the polls, the election should have gone to Labour, however, when the votes were counted, the result was a surprise Conservative win. It is widely speculated that this was primarily due to a very well run campaign on the part of the Tories.

In 1974, the Conservative Party's party political broadcasts dropped the pretence of being bipartisan and adopted what is now known as the "talking heads" format. Effectively this consisted of reasonably short bursts of either members of the public or senior Tory politicians talking about the policies of the party or complaining about Labour policies. Although this format had been used before in the 1966 campaigns, there was a vigour and professionalism this time that had not been felt before. Not wanting to come up short for a second time running, Labour's campaign broadcasts were also of the talking head format, although it seems they could not resist ending four of their five programs with a speech from one of the Shadow Cabinet. Their great innovation, however, was to target specific groups of voters with each broadcast, young people and female voters each had a programme that addressed their needs specifically. The Liberal Party by now had been sidelined in parliament, but had hopes of making a comeback. Their broadcasts in 1974 consisted not of politics as much as celebrity endorsement with the likes of Alec Guinness and Honor Blackman coming out in their support. These methods of presentation were much the same in the second election of 1974, held in October, and it is generally thought that the Labour Party were more professional. Therefore it is perhaps unsurprising that it was the Labour leader Harold Wilson who became Prime Minister.

1974 also saw the introduction by the Committee of much stricter procedures regarding the assignment of television time for party political broadcasts. Under the new agreement, parties would be allowed ten minutes of broadcasting time per two million votes cast for them in the previous general election. In Wales Plaid Cymru had to get one hundred thousand votes to qualify and in Scotland the SNP had to get two hundred thousand.

The 1979 election results were historic, for, after five years of Labour, the House of Commons voted to dismiss the government. After an epic campaign, the Conservative Party was returned to power under the leadership of an iron lady – Margaret Thatcher. Labour's campaign was low on gimmicks, high on statistics. James Callaghan and Dennis Healey, along with the usual faces of Tony Benn and Shirley Williams attempted to present the last five years as a triumph for a country in unavoidably difficult circumstances. They focussed on how much better off the country was than it would have been had the Tories been in power and how things were going to get better. Though they were no less professional than they had been five years previously, the Labour Party's efforts paled in comparison to the Conservative's campaign. On Maggie's team was Tim Bell, the chairman of the advertising firm Saatchi and Saatchi. Now Tory broadcasts were shot on 35mm film and, building on the slogan of "Labour isn't working," the Conservative Party beat Labour into the ground.

One particularly powerful moment of the campaign came when the Conservatives attacked James Callaghan's denial that Britain was in a crisis. The broadcast began with the sound of a nuclear winter, a low roar of exploding bombs, followed by an eerie rushing wind. This was dubbed over scenes from Britain's Winter of Discontent in which the situation was so bad that rubbish had piled up in the streets. There followed a series of testimonies from members of the public, building up to the mocking headline in the Sun newspaper that summed up the Prime Minister's response: "Crisis, What Crisis?" The Conservatives won a majority of 70 seats.


Kinnock: the Movie, Jennifer's Ear and New Labour (19822001)

In 1982, the newly created Channel 4 joined the Committee on Party Political Broadcasting and agreed a set of rules in which it would allow parties airtime in its political slot, rather than through a formalised party political broadcast system.

The only major change to the broadcast format in 1983 was that the Conservatives finally did away with the old fifteen-minute slots and instead broadcast quick-fire five-minute pieces that extolled the virtues of Conservative government and highlighted the achievements of the previous four years. Although Saatchi and Saatchi were again involved, the production looked less polished than in 1979 and included one programme that was made entirely of a montage of Margaret Thatcher visiting other countries. 1983 was also the year that the Conservatives began working with Andrew Lloyd Webber for their music. The slogan for their campaign was "Britain's on the right track, don't turn back," which was marginally less cheesy than Labour's "Think positive, act positive, vote Labour." As it turned out, although Labour's campaign was far more coherent than their 1979 effort, the Conservatives won the election with a landslide and Mrs Thatcher found the had the respect, if not adoration of the nation.

One controversy of the 1983 election was the formation of the Labour spin-off party, the Social Democrats and their alliance with the ailing Liberal Party. Since they had no previous electoral record as such, the SDP would have been given far fewer slots than Labour, something they regarded as unfair. Eventually the matter was resolved with the Alliance being allotted four slots against the Conservative party and Labour's five.

By the time of the next election in 1987, the Labour Party had chosen a new leader, a man who had featured in their 1974 broadcasts as "a young MP from Wales: Neil Kinnock." Though generally held to be a well-meaning politician and devoted socialist, Kinnock did not command the respect of the nation as Thatcher did. This lead to what is perhaps the most famous British party political broadcast, that which the press dubbed "Kinnock: The Movie."

More properly known as the "Kinnock Biopic," Kinnock: The Movie was a ten minute party political broadcast supposed to showcase the Labour Leader's personality and contrast it to that of Margaret Thatcher. The programme was professionally put together, with dramatic sequences in which a fighter plane roars across the skies of Wales, only to be replaced with a seagull, majestically gliding above the sea. This was followed by a selection of interviews and speeches that were designed to put Neil in touch with the common person. Unfortunately, the film was somewhat unbalanced, concentrating rather too much on Kinnock's family background and not enough on his political views. Despite some genuinely rousing speeches (in one of which, a young Tony Blair can be seen shouting encouragement to Kinnock), the overall effect was that he came across as much softer than Thatcher and through slightly unfortunate comments such as " I think he's very like Gorbachev in the Soviet Union…" from Dennis Healy and "They say that he's young and inexperienced…" from James Callaghan, the biopic probably did more harm than good. Nevertheless, Labour ran it twice in the campaign the second time replacing the caption "Kinnock" at the end with "Labour."

The Conservatives won their third victory in a row, and in 1990, the government under their new leader John Major enshrined party political broadcasting and the unofficial conventions established by the committee in UK statute for the first time. Interestingly, the act required that holders of Channels three, four (and later, five) had to provide a slot for party political broadcasting, but does not affect the BBC. This means that under the act, the BBC is not bound to provide party political broadcasting at all.

Down in the polls, the Conservatives called another general election in 1992. This election saw the continuation of the "talking heads" format that had dominated the eighties, with the Conservatives presenting their answer to Kinnock the Movie – a biopic of John Major entitled "the journey". Admittedly lower in production values than Labour's attempt, the Conservative production nevertheless had very similar aims. It attempted to show Major to be ordinary, working class and in touch with the people of Britain. He walks around his native Brixton, extolling the virtues of living in that area, and noting how nothing has really changed. It's all very homely and pleasant. In fact, this broadcast whilst lower key, was probably more successful than Kinnock's effort because it simply appeared more genuine.

Labour's broadcasts were very much of the talking head genre, although this election saw the first appearances of some familiar faces; Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Robin Cook all make short speeches, as do some celebrities such as Stephen Hawking, Ben Elton and Stephen Fry. The most famous and innovative production though was one which addressed the problems of private health care in conjunction with a welfare state. Known as "Jennifer's Ear" this broadcast told the short story of two girls, both of whom had glue ear. One, who's parents could afford private health care got well very soon, the other, who's parents couldn't, had to wait on the NHS. Labour made the claim that Jennifer had had to wait eleven months for her operation and had hoped to spark a debate on the Tory's handling of health care. However, the Jennifer's grandfather, a staunch Conservative, put the Tory Party in contact with the girl's surgeon, who claimed her having to wait was an administrative blunder, and a one-off case. This was then leaked to the Daily Express, and allowed the Sun to gleefully ask "If Kinnock will tell lies about a sick little girl, will he ever tell the truth about anything?" Ultimately, due to the combined effects of this scandal, a triumphalist, emotional rally and the Sun newspaper being very hostile towards Kinnock, Labour lost yet another election.

The next five years were a disaster for the Conservatives, after refusing to take the blame for the recessive economy, they were not credited for Britain's recovery. This, combined with the fact that Labour's new leader, the young and dynamic politician, Tony Blair, had radically restructured his party, meant that when John Major called the election in March 1997, the Tories were woefully behind in the polls.

The Conservative's broadcasts in 1997 consisted almost entirely of John major delivering long speeches. This was supposed to highlight the Tory's campaign slogan of "back to basics." However, their first broadcast was different. It consisted of a series of talking heads, linked with the captions "after one year of Labour government…" "after two years of Labour government…" etc. The people talking were supposedly Labour voters who felt they had been let down. It predicted an awful future in which inflation was so high prices changed between shopping trips, in which unemployment was higher than it had ever been under the Tories and when mortgages were costing even the poorest person another forty pounds a week! Though powerful, it is a well known psychological fact that so called "fear appeals" do not work well and only breed resentment, and so this particular broadcast almost certainly harmed their campaign.

Labour, scared of losing another election that they should have been certain to win, ran an extremely innovative campaign. This was reflected well in the party political broadcasts in which in addition to the predictable Blair biopics in which he explained why, despite his background, he was not a Tory, two new ideas were tried. The first consisted of a broadcast with no dialogue, only captions such as "Last time, the Tories promised to cut taxes. In fact, they've introduced 22 new taxes since 1992..." placed over unflattering shots of the Conservative Party Conference as the tune of "Land of Hope and Glory" was played. The second, intended as a rebuttal to the Tory's bleak future prediction, consisted of a man, Tom, not having been able to vote because he had to wait for six hours in casualty with his daughter who had a broken arm. On the way home, the taxi driver and Tom discussed how bad Britain was under the Tories and how important it was to vote them out. At the end of the piece, Tom and his daughter notice that the clocks have been turned back and glimpse a pair of angelic wings on the taxi driver, who, having told them they didn't have to pay, disappeared with the message " That's why you have to vote." This cheerful end contrasted sharply with the scary vision the Conservatives presented and is a good example of how expertly run Labour's campaign was. They won the election with the largest parliamentary majority any party had had since 1906!

There were, however, other controversies. The British National Party, a group widely believed to be neo-fascist, was refused a broadcast by Channel 4, despite having fielded the necessary number of candidates. Under huge pressure from pro-democracy groups, the channel eventually gave in and put forward a compromise: if the BNP made certain changes to the piece in order to make it less inflammatory, they would get the slot. Unfortunately, this small saga generated a lot of publicity for the BNP, and despite the fact they didn't manage to make the changes in time, it is widely believed to have contributed somewhat to their relative success in the election. The other controversy of the election came when the BBC refused to broadcast the Pro-Life Alliance's piece because the graphic images of aborted foetuses breached the Corporation's rules on good taste and decency. The Alliance brought the case to the High Court and in 2002 it was ruled that the corporation had acted unlawfully.

In June 1997, acting on legal advice sought in May 1996 the BBC and ITV wrote to the Secretary of the Committee on Party Political Broadcasting to explain that since the affairs of the Committee were conducted by the Secretary to the Chief Whip, they felt that it was inappropriate that the organisation should deal with matters where it was imperative that there be no bias. They suggested as an alternative that the broadcasters should deal directly with the political parties. This lead to the formation the same month of the Broadcaster's Liaison Group which consisted of representatives from the BBC, S4C (Channel 4's Welsh unit) the ITC and the Radio Authority. In January 1998, the Group published a "Consultation Paper on the Reform of Party Political Broadcasting" the major points of which were as follows:

  • Due to the growing number of elected bodies, regulations will focus on election broadcasts primarily.
  • A higher threshold will be introduced for the number of seats required to qualify for a broadcast.
  • Modifications will be introduced to reflect the proportional representational elections.
  • The Northern Irish system of informal broadcasts will be replaced by a series of Party Election Broadcasts.
  • The length of slots offered would be shortened to between two minutes forty seconds and four minutes forty seconds, rather than five or ten minutes.
  • The main parties would be offered more slots to comment on key events such as the Queen's Speech, party conferences and the budgets.

The 2001 general election saw few innovations in party political broadcasting. Both Labour and the Conservatives adopted a format in which music was played over short scenes showing the what had changed in the four years of Labour government whilst still captions flashed up telling the audience what had or had not been accomplished. The only real difference between the two was that Labour's broadcasts were bright and cheerful, whereas the Conservative's were very dark and grim. Overall this was one of the least controversial elections ever fought, Labour retained its large majority and went into a landmark second term.


The Future of the Party Political Broadcast (2001 -)

With another election looming, all three major parties are gearing up for what promises to be a rather boring show. Labour are almost certain to win, the only question is, by how much? Nevertheless, we can be sure that the phrase "there now follows a party election broadcast" will once again grace our ears.

There have been few changes in the format since 2001, one notable exception however was a surreal broadcast made by the new leader of the Conservative Party, Michael Howard in which he walked between a very large number of black and white cardboard cut-outs of faceless men wearing bowler hats. The idea was that it should symbolise the gargantuan civil service and drive home the Tory's pledge of cutting down the numbers. The only other actions of note were on the part of the UK Independence Party and its new front-man (but not leader), the ex-Labour MP and disgraced broadcaster Robert Kilroy-Silk. But even they were only notable because of his involvement and were not very interesting.

Overall this form of political propaganda has come a long way in the last eighty years, but its objective has never changed: to help the British public vote for the right party – the right party of course being the one who is making the broadcast.


The legislation as it stands can be found here: http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/PartyElectionBroadcasts.pdf.

Sources

http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/ld200203/ldjudgmt/jd030515/bbc-1.htm
http://www.election.demon.co.uk/pt1.html
http://www.offthetelly.co.uk/factual/election/peb.htm
http://www.rcpbml.org.uk/wdie-02/d02-35.htm
http://www.terramedia.co.uk/Chronomedia/years/1924.htm
http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/
http://www.psr.keele.ac.uk/area/uk/peb.htm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/vote2001/in_depth/election_battles/
http://www.bbc.co.uk/election97/background/pastelec/92keyiss.htm
http://www.thirdway.org/files/election/owothdid.html

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