Television and the February 1974 General Election
An informal study of the role of television in this Election, undertaken while I was a British Film Institute research Fellow in Television Studies at the Polytechnic of Central London
One man's General Election
It is well established that the relations between General Elections and mass media coverage of them and between that coverage and the receiving audience should be the subject of both journalistic comment and scholarly study. Examples of the latter are listed in the Bibliography attached to the end of this report, which itself includes elements of both the journalistic and the scholarly. It is intended to raise questions of a very general nature about politics and the mass media (and specifically television).
This essay is not authoritative and is not intended to be; it is very much a personal report based on the personal experience of extensive television viewing during the first 1974 General Election, intensive reviewing of certain programmes, and collation of a certain amount of published and unpublished background material.
This report is not written in the hope of influencing politicians or people working in the media, and has been produced independently of any discussion or collaboration with either group. This could be a great weakness, but at least it makes my position (the information available to me, the influences pressing upon me) similar to that of the great majority of viewers ? who have also made their assessments of Television and the Election.
There are two things I should state at the outset about my own experience of watching the Election on television. First, that I did not find the three weeks of extensive viewing generally entertaining or educative, and that had the information I undoubtedly received been more relevant to my own, not particularly idiosyncratic, political concerns, it would have been more easily assimilable. Second, that I knew how I would vote before the Election was called: I would vote Labour, without illusions, in order to get the Tories out.
Why television does not cover the General Election
The first television party political broadcasts took place in 1951. In that year there were three broadcasts, each fifteen minutes in length. But until the 1959 General Election (studied in relation to television by Trenaman and McQuail 1961) "elections were completely ignored in news bulletins, and programmes that might have the faintest bearing on the party balance were cancelled." (Seymour-Ure 1974, p 209). Only since 1959, then, has the pattern and quantity of treatment emerged with which readers of this report will be familiar.
As it has done so, the use of such phrases as `Television coverage of the Election' has become more and more misleading. Television can only cover an election when the campaign has an existenceindependent of the presence of television. Today, it does not possess such independence. My first thesis is that we do not have television coverage of an election; we have a television election. (Compare Seymour-Ure 1974 chapter 8). What arguments might be adduced in favour of such a thesis?
First, the General Election campaign as the creation of organised political parties is made to exist by them in ways dictated by the presence of the mass media in general and television in particular. The morning Party Press Conference is as much designed for television as for the newspapers ? television will, for example, report it before the next morning's newspapers are able to do so. The afternoon canvassing expedition or `walkabout' by leading party figures provides visual material for the early evening news bulletin, even if it does not secure votes. The evening set speech by a party leader is given with the consideration in mind that an extract will appear in the main evening news bulletin, perhaps even live, as in the case of Harold Wilson's speeches in the 1964 General Election. This consideration dictates that at least one eminently extractable passage should occur in the speech.
Second, the Election campaign which most voters experience is increasingly and overwhelmingly that of television ? with one?third more air?time devoted to it on BBC in 1974 than 1970 (Harrison 1974). This is plainly more important, at least quantitatively, than face to face contact with professional politicians or party canvassers. And whereas newspapers are perceived mainly asreporting the campaign (rather than their reports being perceived as part of it), television is perceived as being mainly a vehicle for the campaign, whether in the form of the party political broadcast or studio interviews with politicians. Both of these latter are clearly phenomena both of the Election and of television where `coverage' is an inapplicable concept. (Newsfilm would seem to represent the paradigm of television `coverage'. But it seems to me that viewers do not generally perceive newsfilm as being a mediated report in the way that they do a newspaper report. That is to say, that whereas they are conscious of the mediating role of the reporter writing a story (if not of the editor subbing it) which gives to it a particular inflection or bias, they are not so conscious of the mediating role of the camera?cameraman, let alone of the film editor. Film is perceived as free from inflection, as being no more than a window on the world ? excluding only that which is outside the frame, and in a way which implies only an absence of composition.) In terms of effects, television may not be so important as the above two arguments seem to indicate, but in terms of experience the fusion between television and the Election seems sufficiently clear for me to henceforth write about `the Television Election campaign' rather than about `Television coverage of the Election campaign'.
Immediacy versus mediation
It might seem to be pure gain for television producers that audiences think of themselves as in immediate relation to the Television Election. For in such a relation it is possible to set about creating novel events on or in television and this can only add to the drawing power of the Television Election. And indeed it is possible to point to examples of something new in the Election happening on television, and itself becoming a newsworthy item of political controversy. For example, Robin Day was making good television and proving his excellence as an interviewer when in questioning Hugh Scanlon on BBC 1 (Nine O'Clock News, 18 February) he extracted from the Union leader the novel statement that as far as he, Scanlon, was concerned, no Social Contract existed between the Trades Unions and the Labour Party. This statement was taken up by the then Prime Minister as a stick to beat the Labour Party, and both the statement and the use made of it became news items.
On the other hand, it seems clear from the Television Election programmes themselves that there is a great deal of ambivalence about the desirability of accepting and exploiting the real or perceived immediacy of the Television Election. It seems to me that there is a tendency at least as powerful to stress the mediated aspects of the Television Election, to stress re? porting and re- presentation rather than the creation or presentation of new events within the television context. For example, interviewers typically frame questions in such a way as to suggest that they wish the politician who is being interviewed to represent arguments which have already been raised elsewhere, in response to other arguments, re?presented by the interviewer, also already raised elsewhere (and where that `elsewhere' is implicity, or explicitly, off?screen). This also suggests that interviewers do not speak with their own `live' voice, but habitually speak with the voices of others who have already spoken, and elsewhere. Again, much of the Television Election is presented as reflective: certainly in the case of newsfilm, which is presented as a mirror of real events in the real world (and not a construct using real events in the real world to a greater or lesser degree). But also in the case of reflective comment on the Election, itself categorised as being of a different order from the first?order comments of the campaign itself, and in particular as being neutral between competing sides.
This last remark seems to point to an explanation of the ambivalence between presenting the Television Election as pure immediacy and presenting it as pure mediation. The obligation ? legal, professional and ideological ? to present the Election in a neutral way (fair, balanced, objective, impartial) requires that the personnel of the television organisations who appear on screen (I shall call them middlemen ? they include newsreaders, interviewers, chairmen, etc.) be seen as above or outside the party struggle, and this is more easily achieved (perhaps can only be achieved) if they are seen as mediators, as re?presenting the struggle. If the distinction between the event and its representation is lost, then the middleman tends to, or even must, appear as a participant rather than an observer. And to the degree that he appears as a participant, then both he and the organisation he represents lose the privileged (ideological) position they hold in the audience's eyes. They are reduced to the level of politicians.
Consider this in relation to the Robin Day interview. So long as Robin Day is re?enacting arguments which have already occurred, he is on safe ground. He only has to be faithful to his sources (in fact, he often signals in a flamboyant way that his sources are in front of him, in his hand: `But you say here . . . (jabs finger at sheaf of papers)' etc. However, when he breaks new ground, asks novel questions, provokes novel answers he isobviouslv making choices and thus immediately subject to/ suspect of partisanship. Though not a candidate, he immediately becomes a political animal rather than the neutral journalist doing his best for the average viewer who just wants to know. And because this makes for more exciting television it will sometimes be allowed to happen. Nonetheless, when it does happen other values which are more highly valued, or at least; assiduously propagated, become jeopardised. (For, as I hope will become clear below, the degree of real independence of television organisations from the political parties is much less than we are usually told, and this lack of independence is a further reason for us to regard the Television Election as part of the political system, even of the party system, rather than a window on it.)
Robert Kee, superstar
Mass culture is psychoanalysis in reverse
Seen from a different perspective, the Television Election is not an element of the political system but a product of the culture or entertainment industry, possessing features which link it both to shows and spectaculars (especially sports spectaculars) and to advertising. The Television Election is an advertisement for our democratic system; you buy it when you vote.
As a cultural product, the Television Election, like other programmes, has its stars (without which a show is not a show). Some of these stars are already established in other shows ? in news and current affairs programmes. Others are new or featured specifically, or more prominently, at Election times: people such as Dr David Butler (Nuffield College, Oxford, and the BBC), Professor Robert McKenzie (London School of Economics and the BBC) and Professor Richard Rose (University of Strathclyde and ITV), who are not full?time employees of the television organisations. They aretraditional figures, who suggest the continuity of Institutions through the flux of political change.
That it was, indeed, possible to perceive the Television Election as a show hosted by television stars orpersonalities is indicated by the letters of appreciation printed in the TV Times after the Election. Thus, one correspondent writes:
The most exciting piece of television for years - my verdict on The Nation Decides. It was much more exciting than most of the so-called plays imposed on us. The outstanding personality was Peter Jay . . .
The ITN team performed smoothly and confidently, but my special admiration goes to Robert Kee, who maintained an unruffled air throughout...
Such stars of the Television Election as Peter Jay and Robert Kee had already built reputations in television and been promoted to star status, if sometimes more by audience pressure than by the desire of the television organisation. The astonishing success of newsreaders' autobiographies (such as Robert Dougall's recently published and much reprinted In and Out of the. Box), and their value to commercial organisations (Dougall sells paint for Brolac in television advertisements) are indicators of this status. It seems that a large part of the audience needs to be fascinated by and have confidence in its newsreaders as much, if not more than, the television organisation needs this to happen.
Within this culture-entertainment perspective, the professional politicians are the co?stars of the Television Election, though very few professional politicians indeed are given sufficient screen time in which to make a mark for themselves. In the 1974 Television Election, Cyril Smith was allowed to establish himself by indulgent coverage, memorably on the occasion when he told Law and Order to `Get Stuffed'. (He had been told in view of the television cameras that it was forbidden to wear Party rosettes on Ministry of Defence property.)
Like a successful series, the Television Election has its inflexible formats and ritual repetitions which are awaited and recognised, and which establish a complicity between the programme and the viewer. This can be illustrated from any successful entertainment series. Thus, in Till Death us do Part Alf Garnett has certain phrases which he is expected to use and which he will use in every programme. Such expressions in turn become the tessera (distinguishing signs or tokens, watchwords, passwords) of everyday conversation amongst his audience. Similarly, we expect Robin Day to have a distinctively double?edged closing statement for his interviews such as `Thank you, Gentlemen, for your assistance in my humble search for Truth' (BBC 1Nine O' Clock News, 20 February) ? and, of course, there are the rigid, repetitive and predictable formats of each programme in the Television Election, and sometimes from Election to Election (for instance,Election Forum).
In terms then of a 'uses and gratifications' approach to Election television (see Blumler and McQuail 1968), there is ample material within the Election programmes for the entertainment?oriented viewer to fasten upon and preoccupy himself with. And for the public?spirited viewer, who feels it as much his duty to watch the Television Election as to vote, there is at least some compensation for the discharge of an unpleasant obligation to be found in the mode of presentation of the Television Election.
The Television Election and the mobilisation of the electorate to vote
More than any other medium, I am sure that television mobilised the electorate to vote. The occasions during the Television Election when it was suggested that not voting was an option, and a potentially responsible option, were isolated and special. Thus, Jeremy Thorpe did say (Election Forum, 12 February) that Liberals in constituencies which had neither Liberal candidates nor any other candidate close enough to Liberal principles should spoil their ballot papers. Nonetheless, they were to go to the polls for this purpose if not for the regular one. And in reporting poll predictions, some consideration was given to the effects of differential turnout, notably in the reporting of the late Business Decisions Poll which showed a Labour victory on the assumption of a high turn out (reported on BBC1 Nine O'Clock News and on ITN News at Ten, 23 February). But such isolated and special remarks did not affect the global implication of the Television Election that the electorate would and should vote.
It was not that the middlemen of the Television Election said Vote! (that only occurred in party political broadcasts). Rather it was just assumed that we would be voting, despite the evidence that a substantial proportion of the electorate does not vote, and that quite a number of eligible people are not even registered to vote. And no one said Don't Vote! I think this assumption of the normality or inevitability of voting coheres perfectly with a situation in which the feeling among the electorate?viewers that voting is a duty is at least as strong as the feeling that it is effective. (It may, incidentally, have helped the Liberals by getting potential non?voters to the polls.) And when activities are seen as duties as well as instrumentally effective, they lend themselves much more to ritual modes of execution. Both in its presentation and some of its content the Television Election has ritualistic aspects and lends itself to ritualistic uses.
Most importantly, there is the marking off of the Election as a Special Event, isolated and notable. Elections are occasional, special occurrences and so, therefore, are Television Elections, which involve large upheavals in programme scheduling, use of special programmes and formats etc. ? and in 1974 justified the lifting of the early television shutdown regulations (introduced as part of the three?day week measures). The Special Event involves according special treatment to all the participants, politicians and voters alike: the politicians are foregrounded, their authority reinforced; the voters are treated/ reassured of their importance to the democratic process. The television organisations are able to display their capacity to provide a public service, to help us fulfill our duties as well as help us relax.
At a less global level, there are always programme items which point to or deal with the ritual aspect of Elections. Thus, there was newsfilm of the reading of the Royal Proclamation of the Dissolution of Parliament ? an act of pure ritual. There were feature items on the not entirely functional preparations for the Election made by returning officers; and, notably, on the night of the Election results, the repetitive live outside broadcast film of the declaration of the poll, each involving the fixed turns of phrase of the Deputy Acting Returning Officer, which become ritualistic by repetition. Finally, there are the obligatory exchanging of thanks, congratulations and commiserations among candidates (See Edelman 1964; Pateman 1973).
But to what percentage extent television did actually mobilise voters I cannot tell. Historically, turnout is falling, though in 1974 the figure rose to 78.7% from 71.5% in 1970. I am grateful to David Butler for providing me with the 1974 figure, but he points out that
it would be very misleading to suggest that the apparent increase of 7% over 1970 represented the true growth of interest. Holidays and an older register in 1970 means that the real increase is less than half the apparent increase. (Letter to me, 1 July 1974)
Presumably the rise is connected with the crisis context of the poll, to the awareness of which television had contributed ? thus before the Election, News at Ten had slapped the words `The Emergency' across its graphic material, bill poster style. Despite the difficulties of assessment, it is an important question to ask if and how television contributes to the reproduction of the liberal democratic process and faith in it. My own subjective assessment is that the contribution is substantial.
There is, however, another question. Whether or not the democratic process benefits from the Television Election, does any particular party or group benefit from it more than any other? I wish to consider this question in terms of the possible contribution of television as amedium, an organisation and a vehicle.
Television as a medium
What I have to say in this section does not strictly relate to television as a technological medium, but to consequences of the typical context and timing of television viewing, the kinds of relationship which television audiences are willing to entertain with television programmes. These are features independent of particular forms of television organisation, such as the division between BBC and ITV, though not independent of a particular social and technological history which could have been different. Television could have been developed for viewing by public not domestic audiences, for instance. On the other hand, there seems to be no term apart from `medium' conveniently available to describe the features I am concerned with.
Television is habitually viewed in the domestic living room by a family group. The Television Election was principally a phenomenon of the evening. This context of viewing and of timing is likely to have considerable consequences for audience perception, tolerance and understanding of the Television Election (equally of most if not all other programming) along at least the following relevant dimensions. The viewer's attention span; his/her willingness to be disturbed emotionally or cognitively; the likelihood of programmes being discussed with other people; the possibility of his/her seeking clarification of items not understood. I assume that scores along all these dimensions will typically be low, either by comparison with the scoring of a typical cinemagoer or, relevantly, by comparison with some political standard of adequate scoring.
One sort of evidence for these claims is to be found in those programming practices of television organisations which indicate that they at least assume low scoring on all four dimensions. In relation to attention span, for example, television uses an array of attention?holding devices (rapid change in camera shots, more than one newsreader, supplementary graphic material) to a much greater degree than does film and sometimes in ways which seem to foreground the attention?holding device at the expense of that to which attention is supposedly being drawn. Thus, during the Television Election I felt that the BBC Nine O'Clock News increasingly became a parody of itself in terms of constant change from anchorman to commentator to interviewer and back and round again. As another example, there is evidence from studies of news programming (Epstein 1973) that television executives routinely edit out newsfilm thought sufficiently gruesome to disturb the consumption of the evening meal. It is partly for this reason that the wars we see on Television News seem to be largely mechanical wars ? conflicts between tanks and planes, rather than between people.
In the case of the Television Election, it seems to me that the domestic, evening context of viewing is going to make the viewing audience unwilling to be disturbed, aroused, disoriented above a certain low threshold - low, that is, in relation to such things as the gravity of an economic crisis. In other words, it seems that it would not be worth while for politicians to attempt via television either to arouse the audience beyond a certain low point or to attempt to achieve a fundamental shift in attitudes and beliefs - for example, to an acceptance of fundamental policy changes. Hence, it seems worth discussing whether the dominance of the television medium in the 1974 Election contributed to the failure of the Conservative campaign, which emphasised such themes as the need to `stand up and be counted'. I am suggesting that this is exactly the sort of exhortation which people do not want to receive while watching television at home in the evening. The context of viewing, the time of viewing, coheres much more with approaches which relax and reassure the viewer. In 1966 the Irish Prime Minister `let slip that Mr Wilson had confided in him that a political leader should try to look like a family doctor on television'' (Seymour-Ure 1974, p 209fn). This seems even more plausible if we consider that the typical viewer is giving up entertainment programmes to watch the Television Election.
The context of domestic viewing also makes it more likely that programmes will not be fully discussed and that misunderstandings and incomprehensions cannot be cleared up. An individual programme is typically viewed as part of a flow of programming, and after viewing one programme the viewer will go straight into viewing another (Williams 1974). Hence, any discussion of a programme will have to take place during the programme itself, by way of an aside or a running commentary. Again, at home the average viewer is unlikely to have immediate access to any `expert', apart from the most expert member of the family group, for clarification of items which have been imperfectly understood. These considerations also affect television programming and the screen behaviour of politicians. Thus, in general news coverage everything possible is done to reduce ambiguity in presentation and the possibilities of misunderstanding, for example, by the presentation of as much information as possible in both verbal and visual form, with speakers and film material all clearly labelled. Specifically in the Television Election, politicians try to avoid the sin of `talking over people's heads' and this involves the pitching of discourse at what is taken to be the lowest common denominator of understanding among those likely to watch and vote. If the viewing context was different, it would be possible for politicians to include more difficult material in their discourse, confident that a teacher or political activist would be available to discuss this with the audience immediately after viewing. Of course, it may well be that politicians would not wish to introduce their audiences to more difficult material. This would increase the viewer-voter's capacity to think independently, to argue back, to not need to be led.
I am not saying that television is an unsuitable medium for politics. Rather that given the context and timing of viewing - within a political context where political concern is only seen to be an intermittent obligation and where great inequalities of power and understanding are accepted as part of the democratic system - it is implausible to expect very much either of television or of the audience. No doubt television producers do the best that they can. But beyond a point they cannot do better without a change in both the political context and the use of television.
Television as an organisation
Within a narrower perspective what effect do the different forms of television organisation have on the Television Election?
The relationship between the television organisations - BBC and ITV, a General Election campaign and the political parties - is generally discussed in terms of bias or objectivity, balance and fairness, neutrality or partisanship. (See Cawston 1972)
In the February 1974 General Election to my knowledge there were no formal complaints of bias made to the BBC or IBA by any of the three major parties. On screen, both Harold Wilson and Edward Short clashed with Robin Day, the latter accusing Day of party political partiality in his interviewing technique (B B C 1 Nine O'Clock News, 19 February. The Day-Short interview followed immediately on a much more relaxed interview between Day and Lord Hailsham). Mr Wilson also suggested on screen that Trade Union leaders should be featured more prominently in television programmes and asked, for example, about their attitudes to Communism (ITN First Report, 21 February) but this was a suggestion rather than a complaint (For further examples see Harrison 1974, pp 152-53). In the past there have been bigger disagreements (see Blumler 1970), but this does not entail that the complaining politicians, usually Labour, have been in the right.
In February 1974 at least the three parties were satisfied with the forms and contents of the Television Election. I suggest that their satisfaction must be explained, at least in part, by the fact that they themselves are able to ensure that they are featured in television in ways which they regard as fair and favourable. Much more than is commonly believed, the parties influence and sometimes control the presentation of the Television Election.
First of all, the parties have written into the (private)Prescribing Memoranda the stipulation that the BBC shall not editorialise (broadcast its own opinion) on matters of current affairs or public policy . The Television Act 1954 imposes similar requirements on commercial television. These requirements are adhered to as far as is humanly possible and in terms which the political parties would accept - there may from some points of view be editorialising, but not any which would becounted as a breach of the Act or Memoranda by the parties. In areas where there is no disagreement between the parties (for example, attitudes to the IRA or the Royal Family) the television organisations can and do editorialise, but this is not counted. Thus whilst from my point of view BBC2's News Review for the Deaf is a heavily editorialised programme (and incidentally totally paranoid in style and absurdly Royalist in preoccupation) it does not breach any of the rules which the parties require the television organisations to adhere to.
Secondly, there are written requirements for balance in the Prescribing Memoranda of the BBC and forimpartiality under the Television Act 1954. Certainly these requirements are also fulfilled in practice to the general satisfaction of the three major parties, but sometimes at least in a tediously mechanical way which sacrifices other values for which television organisations supposedly stand. Thus, during the Television Election every News bulletin was totally predictable in having something to say and show about each party's press conferences/speeches/walkabouts/interviews/, whether conventionally newsworthy or not. This meant, for example, that though Conservatives and Liberals do not campaign on Sundays, the application of the rule of balance or impartiality required that in addition to a report on Labour's Sunday campaign activities, Sunday news bulletins contain reports on the non-Election activity of Conservatives and Liberals. Thus we were treated to Heath Donning Sweater for Walk to Pub Where He Downs a Pint and to Thorpe Takes Son to See Donkey. In other words, balance tended to be achieved in purely quantitative terms and in the extreme case illustrated above any journalistic responsibility to evaluate material for newsworthiness was abdicated, for fear of, or respect for, the power of the three parties.
The other side of the coin of balance was the treatment accorded to the various small parties. They did not get balanced treatment, even according to the proportional amount of support gained by them in the previous Election, or to the number of candidates fielded. This is true not only of party political broadcasts, discussed principally in the next section, but of news and current affairs programmes.
The National Front typically compares the treatment it is given with that given to the Communist Party. Thus, writing to the BBC's Director General, Sir Charles Curran, the Chairman of the National Front, John Tyndall, complained that whilst the National Front was fielding 55 candidates against the Communist Party's 43,
"On your news programme yesterday, considerable time was given to reporting and commenting on the Communist Party manifesto . . . This was followed by a several-minute interview with John Gollan... No mention has been made of the existence of a National Front manifesto, let alone any of its contents. I maintain that your Corporation is under an obligation to give at least equal coverage in this election to the activities and statements of the National Front as to those of the Communist Party."
Perhaps it was in response to this protest that John Tyndall was interviewed by David Dimbleby in Midweek(BBC2, 22 February). On the other hand, the BBC has asserted in the past that it does not feel obliged to give balanced or impartial coverage to at least some points of view. Thus, Hugh Carleton Greene, Director General of the BBC, wrote in the 1960 BBC Handbook that
I do not mean to imply that such a broadcasting system should be neutral in clear issues of right and wrong - even though it should be between Right and Left. It can, for instance, encourage the right attitude on the colour bar. In my job in the BBC, I should not for a moment admit that a man who wanted to speak in favour of racial intolerance had the same rights as a man who wanted to condemn it. There are some questions on which one should not be impartial. (Quoted in Day 1961, p 227)
The Communist Party for its part, deprived in February 1974 of a television party political broadcast (unlike the National Front which got five minutes for the first time on 25 February), unsuccessfully asked the BBC and IBA for a right of reply to the Conservative Party political broadcast on 19 February on the grounds that this was `a direct attack on the Communist Party, and a complete distortion of the policies for which we stand'. (Letter from John Gollan, General Secretary, to Sir Charles Curran, 20 February.) In the USA the right of reply is quite well established, though not for Communists. (See Epstein 1973)
Plaid Cymru (whose battle to secure its allocated party political broadcast in the February 1974 Election will be discussed in the next section) has also advanced criticisms of the balance of news and current affairs programmes, applicable both during and outside General Election periods.
In a January 1974 Memorandum to the Broadcasting Council of Wales Plaid Cymru accepted `that as far as programmes originating in Wales are in question, we are treated on a par with the other political parties'. However, such programmes form only a `small fraction' of the programmes received by the people of Wales. It continued `Programmes originating in London such as the UK news bulletins, Panorama, Nationwide, andMidweek are all watched by viewers in Wales, and we would submit that in politics they probably carry more weight than Welsh-originating programmes'. Hence, when all programmes are considered, the coverage given to Plaid Cymru is unbalanced.
They then make out an interesting and compelling case that Welsh and Scottish news should be featured much more prominently in the London-based and -biased UK news bulletins and propose that during General Election periods `the BBC should accept that contributions by Plaid Cymru should be treated in the same way as those of other parties, and have regular coverage in UK news bulletins. We would not regard it as unfair if alternate coverage were given to Plaid Cymru and SNP[Scottish National Party] news items . . .' Furthermore, `In the field of current affairs programmes we would submit that UK network items should treat Plaid Cymru and the SNP to coverage comparable to the other parties'.
To conclude this section consider those cases which arose in the February 1974 election where specific pressures were brought to bear. successfully or unsuccessfully, for the scrapping, postponement or modification of individual programmes. To my knowledge there were three such instances. (Compare Harrison 1974)
First, the Communist Party applied for an episode in the comedy series Perils of Pendragon (BBC 2) to be scrapped, but secured only its withdrawal from the then current series. It has since been screened. In their letter to the BBC on 14 February the Communist Party argued that the programme was a slander, since Communist Party members had never been accused of any of the illegal activities in which the Perils of Pendragon series showed them to be engaged. Further, the CP pointed to precedents when the BBC had withdrawn during an Election period programmes which might influence voters for or against any one party. In a letter of 15 February Sir Charles Curran agreed to the postponement of the programme.
Second, according to a report in The Guardian (27 February) the IBA ordered Granada Television to cancel the screening on Monday 25 February of a report on the Rossendale Valley in Lancashire because `it had been judged "not impartial" during an election run-up and breached the Television Act'. The Guardian report continues `Granada said on television last night that it did not agree with the decision, but had decided to comply, and would seek to show the programme later. But it may be that IBA permission will not be forthcoming even after Thursday [Polling Day] because the programme is still felt to be "partial" under the Act'. The programme was the second of two, and complainants after the screening of the first one included the local Conservative candidate, Mr Ronald Bray. The second programme, to be screened like the first in the series of nightly Granada Reports, was intended to allow the expression of more optimistic views on the future of the Rossendale Valley than had been expressed in the first programme, when international economist, James Bellini, had said that it was an `industrial museum'. The second programme has not subsequently been screened.
Third and finally, there was the question of Mr Enoch Powell's television appearances. From Mr Powell's letter to the present author and reports in The Times on 26 February and The Sun on 27 February it seems quite possible that (1) the BBC was not persuaded to abandon the final election Panorama programme on the Common Market, but did abandon the inclusion of any substantial excerpt from Mr Powell's Shipley speech, delivered that day; (2) that intervention was a factor which led the BBC to cancel a projected fifteen-minute interview between Robin Day and Mr Powell on 26 February. The BBC admit that pressure was exerted over the Panoramaprogramme, whilst denying that they succumbed to it, but deny that there was any outside pressure to cancel the 26 February interview; (3) that intervention was a factor in persuading ITN to abandon a projected interview with Mr Powell in News at Ten on 26 February, though this was denied by ITN. (In all three cases, I am inclined to believe the press and Mr Powell. Both the BBC and the IBA had already amply and publicly demonstrated their pusillanimity in the face of party political pressure in the matter of Plaid Cymru's party political broadcast. I do not see why they should have behaved any differently in the case of Mr Powell.)
Television as a vehicle
After the second World War, the so-called All Party Committee on Broadcasting, comprising two representatives each from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Parties, the BB, and later of the IBA, was established. It is this secret committee which not only lays down the rules for the conduct of Election programmes, but allocates party political broadcasts both at Election periods and in between. Television becomes a straightforward vehicle for the political parties in the case of these party political broadcasts, and it is these which I wish to discuss in this section.
Not surprisingly, the All Party Committee allocates time generously to the three parties represented on it and does its best to minimise time available to other parties not so represented. This situation seems to be generally accepted by the representatives of the BBC and the IBA. When their allocation proposals differ from those of the parties, they allow themselves to be overridden, though the Committee's decisions have no legal status, and its power only exists because it is conceded by the BBC and IBA.
The existing rules specify that a party must put up fifty candidates nationally to secure a five minute television broadcast during the General Election campaign. This qualified the Communist Party for five minutes in 1970 and the National Front for five minutes in February 1974. The other three parties allocated themselves national time as follows:
Conservative Party 50 minutes
Labour Party 50 minutes
Liberal Party 30 minutes
(On radio, the figures were Conservative 55 minutes; Labour 55 minutes; Liberal 30 minutes; National Front 5 minutes.) These figures are identical with those for 1970, except that the National Front displaced the Communist Party. In Wales and Scotland, Plaid Cymru and the SNP were allocated ten minutes each (as against five minutes in 1970) to broadcast exclusively in those regions, and the other three Parties allowed themselves the option of varying one of their party political broadcasts in the Welsh and Scottish regions - an option they exercised..
In non-election periods Plaid Cymru is currently allocated five minutes per year (against sixty minutes for Labour and Conservative and twenty minutes for the Liberals) though in 1973 the Broadcasting authorities apparently favoured raising this to ten minutes per year (in February 1974 they were apparently opposed to giving the SNP further time).
In the 1970 General Election, Plaid Cymru was allocated a five minute broadcast and secured 11.5% of the Welsh vote. The Liberals were allocated thirty minutes and secured 6.8% of the Welsh vote. In February 1974, Plaid Cymru's allocation was increased to ten minutes, but with the Liberals retaining thirty minutes. Quite clearly, the party political broadcasts available to Welsh audiences do not even satisfy the minimal criterion of reflecting the existing distribution of party support. And in February 1974, Plaid Cymru nearly did not get their broadcast at all. The dispute in which they were involved deserves treatment in some detail.
Following the calling of a General Election the All Party Committee on Broadcasting met and allocated ten minutes to Plaid Cymru for a party political broadcast. Plaid Cymru agreed on 11 February with a representative of the BBC and the IBA that this broadcast should be transmitted on Tuesday 26 February from 8.50 to 9.00 pm. Parts of the programme were prerecorded after 11 February and a studio booking was made with the BBC for 12 noon on 25 February to record the final part of the programme featuring the Chairman of Plaid Cymru, Gwynfor Evans. The broadcast was advertised in the Radio Times for 23 February - 1 March and in the TV Times for the same period.
Then, on the morning of Friday 22 February, to follow the text of Plaid Cymru's affidavit sworn by Dafydd Williams, its General Secretary:
I was orally informed on the telephone by one John Crawley (Assistant to the Director-General of the BBC) acting for and on behalf of the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Independent Broadcasting Authority that, as a result of representations by the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Parties to the `All Party Committee on Broadcasting' (on which Plaid Cymru is not represented) to one Sir Charles Curran, Director-General of the British Broadcasting Corporation and one Brian Young, DirectorGeneral of the Independent Broadcasting Authority, it had been decided by the Defendants that the said television broadcast on the said day was to be cancelled. The reason given by the three parties, apparently, was that the broadcast would be contrary to existing convention [that only the governing party should broadcast on the penultimate day of the campaign - TP ]. Mr John Crawley then offered me an alternative time for the Plaintiff's broadcast, namely ten minutes on Saturday the 23 February, 1974 at 5.05 pm.
Plaid Cymru rejected this offer because they could not arrange to film Gwynfor Evans in time for such a broadcast, and because the alternative time (late afternoon) was held to be less favourable in terms of prospective audience than that already agreed (a peak viewing time). Their offer to transfer their broadcast to Monday at 8.50 pm was rejected; that evening was reserved for the main Opposition Party (though the National Front was also able to broadcast unhindered on that evening). On Saturday 23 February Plaid Cymru were told that having rejected the offer of 5.05 pm that day, no broadcasting time would be made available.
Plaid Cymru's reaction was to take the BBC and IBA before the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court for breach of contract. Their case was found proved by Mr Justice Bridge on the morning of 25 February and sustained against an appeal from the BBC and IBA in the afternoon of the same day, all three appeal judges concurring and making Mr Justice Bridge's order mandatory (see Times Law Report, 27 February ).
In other words, the representatives of the three major political parties had been able to induce the BBCand IBA into a breach of contract (had they been left-wing extremists they might well have been found guilty of conspiracy!). The BBC and IBA only proceeded to transmit the Plaid Cymru broadcast at all after a mandatory order had been issued in the Appeal Court. There could be no plainer illustration of the power of the `All Party Committee' and the weakness of the BBC and IBA: their dependence on the parties is much more in evidence than their autonomy, the existence of which appears increasingly to be solely ideological.
The BBC did defend its actions in a speech by Sir Charles Curran at Cardiff on 28 March . He specifically defends the appeal against the verdict of Mr Justice Bridge on the grounds that `nobody had ever before told the BBC to put on any broadcast at a particular time. And so, on the Advice of Counsel that we had ground for an appeal, we did so appeal in order to show that we valued our independence even when it had been put in question by the Court'. Now if the BBC had or valued independence, it would not capitulate to a demand, patently motivated by the narrowest electoral considerations (there were no objections to the National Front broadcast on 25 February, which is not seen to pose a threat to the three parties) and which had been made by a body with no legal status, a demand not to put on a broadcast at a particular time, and where that meant not putting it on at all. And it is a strange idea that a Court threatens your `independence' by ordering you to fulfil a contract into which you have freely entered.
The Scottish National Party had made a similar arrangement with the BBC and IBA to broadcast at 8.50 pm on 26 February, and they acceded under protest to a change of time and date identical to that rejected by Plaid Cymru. It may be that they acceded only on the basis of misinformation or misunderstanding: according to The Scotsman for 25 February, the SNP's Assistant Campaign Director, Mr Gordon Murray, claimed at a press conference on Saturday 23 February that the BBC had misled SNP Chairman, William Wolfe, `by telling him that after the representations of the other parties the broadcasting authorities had no alternative but to make the change', when they had at the same time made public statements asserting their independence in the matter. Thus The Scotsman 23 February carried a statement from Mr John Crawley, who we have previously encountered, saying that the BBC has `the right to say no to the parties on a matter like this. We would not have agreed to the switch if, after considering the whole thing, we had not decided that the complaints put before us did not have some validity'. It seems to me, however, that the sorts of `right' which the BBC possesses are more often like the `rights' the Queen possesses than those which parties and Governments have.
The SNP called for an inquiry and after the Saturday transmission of its programme demanded that it be retransmitted at 8.50 pm on the Tuesday, followed immediately by a discussion of the broadcast between representatives of the Labour, Liberal and Conservative Parties. Unsurprisingly, this demand was not met and, clearly, the SNP failed to mount the effective opposition that Plaid Cymru did. Since the Election the SNP has apparently joined the All Party Committee.
Internal terms on which the parties appear
I wish now to turn to a consideration of the terms internal to a television programme on which the representatives of political parties appear. In the previous section I was concerned mainly with external criteria for time allocation etc. - what can be called terms of access.
In party political broadcasts, the parties appear on their own terms entirely; they control the entire content and style of the programme and only the external terms (length, time and date) are fixed in conjunction with other organisations. Party political broadcasts are at one end of a continuum of conditions of self-presentation.
Presentation in a party political broadcast, though controlled by the individual party concerned, is constrained in at least three important ways. First, there is the constraint imposed by time allotted. Second, there is the general constraint imposed by what the audience will accept from television (cf. the remarks above onTelevision as a Medium). Third, there is the specific political constraint of the parties' own relative lack of credibility, a social-historical fact like the other two.
Length is an important constraint. With only five or ten minutes available there is scarcely time for the party to put over a developed, general argument which might have an educational if not persuasive value (and the evidence is that not many people are persuaded to change their political allegiances either by party political broadcasts in particular or the Television Election in general. See Blumler and McQuail 1968). Of course, it is true that for the moment none of the three major parties really wants to develop an explicit general argument - a theory or philosophy related to practice. They are content to invoke distinctly nonoperational concepts, applicable post hoc to policies developed under other pressures and motives, concepts such as firmness with fairness, policies which will unite the nation, common sense policies and all the rest of the temporary ideological baggage of election times.
Second, even if the time and will were available, the parties do not believe that the audience would accept and attempt to follow sustained television argument. It is partly for this reason that the full-frontal monologue (the lecture in another context) is shunned, and the audience is treated to plenty of changes in image and voice which reinforce whatever tendency the audience has to make its judgments by applying the most primitive physiognomic theories to the evaluation of politicians. Even if he/she does not want to, the viewer may reasonably feel forced into judging Edward Heath by his teeth. Third, the party political broadcast is regarded as the least credible of the Television Election programmes (Blumler and McQuail 1968, p 104) and audiences much prefer interviews, discussions, independent assessment etc. In the 1974 Television Election the Liberal Party seemed to attempt to bridge this credibility gap in a most interesting way. The Liberals modelled each of their three ten minute slots on a news broadcast. The programmes were titled Liberal Election News and Huw Thomas acted as `Newsreader' introducing the party spokesmen in the guise of correspondents and commentators. The background captions of the Houses of Parliament resembled those used in the graphics ofNews at Ten. The verbal style could be perceived as an imitation, if rather amateurish. of that of the news bulletins. Here, for instance, is the opening sequence from the Liberals first broadcast:
Huw Thomas: And the news tonight from the Liberal front line is that they're surging ahead in greater strength in the constituencies than at any election for twenty-five years.
The Liberals were able to make positive use of the news bulletin format because news bulletins, unlike party political broadcasts, do not suffer from a credibility gap and have a reputation for balance, impartiality and moderation which the Liberals would like to annexe to their own image. The imitation reflects interestingly both on the Liberals and on the news bulletins. (In discussion, Nicholas Garnham has raised the question whether in normal circumstances the IBA's Advertising Code would permit advertisements to imitate the format of existing programmes.)
In other types of programme format in which they appear, politicians have a lesser degree of control over their presentation. I categorise the formats as follows. In a news, current affairs or documentary programme, several of these formats are likely to be used in combination:
1. The inter-party discussion.
2. The Interview.
3. The Election Forum.
4. The Phone-In (on radio only in the 1974 Election).
5. Filmed sequences, other than those used for 1-4.
I shall discuss each of these formats in turn.
1. The inter-party discussion
This is led and chaired by the television middleman and gives a politician who appears just as much freedom to present his/her case as his/her opponents in the programme will allow, subject to the rules of debate upheld by the chairman. An interesting tendency is for politicians to negotiate areas of agreement or disagreement and to defend these territories against the efforts of the middleman, who acts as interviewer as well as chairman, to divide them where they insist they are united or unite them where they assert they are divided.
On the whole, the format is not beloved by politicians, and producers have often encountered great difficulty in staging the discussions/debates/confrontations they and, they assume, the viewer want. (See Blumler 1970). The Great Debate between the two or three party leaders has yet to take place. The outcome would be too unpredictable to make any but the most confident set of leaders take the risk, despite the fact that elsewhere they debate face to face with each other, with some regularity, in the House of Commons.
In the February 1974 Television Election I found the most interesting encounter between politicians from opposing sides to be that on Granada's World in Action. The form was distinctly deviant: two retiring MP's, Sir John Foster (Conservative) and Richard Crossman (Labour), were cast in the role of travelling commentators on the Election in a three-part filmed `Political Journey', taking in political meetings, party press conferences, encounters with voters and leaders alike. Foster and Crossman jousted over evaluations of politicians and issues but within a tacitly understood set of common criteria and a common adherence to the Rules of the Game. These second-order qualities seemed to me to be foregrounded in the three programmes, producing an alienation between the politician-as-commentator personalities and the voter-viewers. The conflation of two usually distinct roles (politician and commentator) must also have contributed to this, for it removed the mediating link between viewer and politicians provided by the neutral middleman. At least one journalist suspected World in Action of a Marxist plot:
World in Action's rather endearing notion to send two retiring veterans, Sir John Foster and Richard Crossman on a tour of well-chosen hot spots. The first programme, with the two old adversaries munching their way through a `Blow-Out' dinner couldn't be entirely freed from suspicions that Granada's Marxists were not averse to hinting that politics was all a cosy conspiracy . . .(Philip Purser, Sunday Telegraph, 24 February 1974)
On the other hand, there was a sense in which the three Foster-Crossman programmes got closer to the non-Television Election than any other programme, even if they did so in a way which led Andrew Pearce, who watched the first programme with me, to remark that `it's just like Candid Camera'.
2. The interview
The interview brings the television middleman into the foreground to a greater extent than in any other programme format, even including the News. For the interviewer is face to face with the subject and object of the programme, and as we saw previously - is in a position to make news and not simply report news already made.
I suggest that the most interesting questions about the interview programme concern the voice with which the interviewer questions and responds. By this I mean that such questions as the following are worth examining: Does the interviewer ask questions in his own right? Or in terms of the questions he thinks the audience wants answered? Or in terms of the questions he thinks permissible without being accused of personal bias? And likewise, with what voice does the interviewer respond to the interviewee's replies? (The voices of the politician are less interesting; in a Television Election they are, by definition, vote-winning voices.
Having posed these questions three points come to mind. First, the absence of any personal voice behind the questions of the average interviewer conducting the standard political interview. Second, the absence of any questions (that is, of any voice) from outside the framework of consensus politics - even where the interviewee is attacking `extremists' or `militants' the interviewer makes no attempt to represent their views. Third, the generally uncritical response to politicians' replies, suggesting either that the interviewer is a mere prompter or that he defers to the politician, or both. (There is also a technical aspect: the inexperienced interviewer will stick too closely to his list of pre-prepared questions leaving no space for a `spontaneous' response.)
Let me consider these three points in more detail, and first of all the question of the interviewer's response.
When Edward Heath says in answer to a question from Julian Haviland on News at Ten (22 February) that `our young and able people' will emigrate unless they can earn £55,000 per year this surely merits some considerable expression of incredulity - a loud laugh for instance. But whilst a mature elector would probably respond in this way, an interviewer will not and cannot. Whilst politicians may be `pressed' - that is, asked the same question twice or even three times - any `final' answers, however false or absurd have to be taken and treated respectfully. As a producer quoted by John Dearlove (Index on Censorship, number 1, 1974) remarks:
they [politicians] may well try to tell you what to do in the interview, but whatever you decide at the outset you have to stick to; you don't spring anything on them or try to catch them out - even if you catch them lying through their teeth you don't say so. If this is so, then the pursuit of Truth is not the overriding determinant of what the interviewer does in an interview .(Compare Epstein 1973) Thus Robin Day's claim to be engaged in the `humble search for truth' would be ingenuous.
One of the consequences of the limitations on the freedom of the interviewer is that debate is flattened out, sometimes to a point where intelligent comment, truth, lies, falsehood and absurdity, are allowed to co-exist peacefully side by side. If the worst comes to the worst, the politician can simply brazen it out, for the interviewer has available to him none of the options which the man in the street can use against the brazen. He cannot, for instance, walk off the set. That is the rather dubious prerogative of the guest.
In present circumstance, it seems to me that this flattening out can particularly serve to disguise the real differences existing between the different sorts of moderation and extremism. For example, when David Dimbleby does a kid-glove interview with John Tyndall of the National Front (Midweek 22 February) he contributes to the building of an image for this man as one among a number of responsible political leaders, which he is not. Similarly, the deferential treatment accorded the Prime Minister meant that at no points were Edward Heath's euphemisms (about standing up and being counted and telling the militants he had had enough of them) pierced. It seems to me that there is a real danger that the methods of television would allow an unnoticed slide into fascism, behind a smokescreen of moderation .(For a similar example of flattening out in a different context, see Stuart Hood's criticism of aPanorama programme on Chile in "The Unacceptable face of Fascism" The Listener 20 December 1973)
The present ground rules for interviewing produce consequences which are ultimately absurd, as when an interviewer asks a politician in the same tone of voice as for other questions, whether that politician is telling the truth. Here is an example from Llew Gardner's interview with Mr Heath on This Week, 21 February, together with Heath's reply:
Llew Gardner: Is the situation in this country really far worse than either you or Mr Wilson have really been prepared to tell us and are we trying to face a much grimmer future than either of you have been prepared to tell us?
Mr Heath: I've been telling the complete truth to the country and giving the country the whole picture.
Even if Gardner has access to any evidence which might show that Heath is lying he is not allowed to produce it and use it as evidence for Heath's being a liar. Nor is he allowed to ask the question in a tone of voice which suggests he has serious doubts about Heath's integrity. The answer Heath gives is the only one possible for someone who wishes to retain credibility as a professional politician.
The most common source of a question in a Television Election interview is a statement by a politician of one of the two main opposing parties. A second source of questions is the statements issued by respectable non-party political pressure groups such as Shelter. A third and final source is the Ideal Type of Ordinary Person or Average Voter as constructed by the television organisation `who wants to ask you . . .'(See Cardiff and Cram 1973)
The consequence of using the above three sources of questions (or of invoking them as justification for the posing of questions) is that no questions fall outside the prevailing consensus conception of reasonable and practical discourse. Robin Day is never heard to say `But, Prime Minister, Socialist Worker says . . .' or `Mr Wilson, Private Eye alleges . . .' And this is because it isirrelevant that what Socialist Worker is saying or Private Eye alleging might be true, interesting, important or reasonable, even that it is their answer to attacks being made on them by the politicians in the interview. What coherent political minorities or minority papers say or allege or ask is pre-defined as irrelevant. In consequence, the television middleman can only make debate as broad and questioning and probing as the consensus allows it to be. In turn, this consensus is not the creation of the public, but of the politicians and various media organisations. (See Hall 1973)
So the interviewer cannot shift the ground of debate established by his three sources. One possible remaining source of new ideas and questions is ruled out, for the interviewer is rarely, if ever, allowed to speak and question with his own, first person, voice. He does not have views of his own, questions he wants to ask. The viewer has no encouragement to think the thought: How is he going to vote? In this context `he' does not embrace `she': there were even fewer women involved in the Television Election as middlepeople than there were involved as politicians. In national network programmes, there were none.
Rather more speculatively, it seems to me that in interviews and other formats, an attempt is made both by politicians and the television middlemen to objectify the political debate and to reduce or eliminate the subjective element. By this I mean that `the issues' are objectified and the relation between men and events which affects and organises the perception of events within a theoretical or ideological framework is denied. `The issues', `the job' is reified into a technical problem, and substantive ideological disagreements structuring perception and proposals for action are muted or annihilated. (Habermas 1971)
The issue-a-day style of the Television Election was, in any case, not a suitable vehicle for substantive ideological argument. The issues appeared (and disappeared every few days or less: for the chronology see Harrison 1974) as objects to be manipulated to produce results in accord with common criteria. But these criteria themselves are generally too vague or ambiguous to be operational. They are no more than phrases. They are not sufficiently specified for a proper technical debate to get off then ground. And so when the Labour Party says that there is an argument for the nationalisation of slagheaps or whatever `on the merits of the case', it is not clear with respect to what nationalisation is `merited' or whether it is indeed 'merited'. .The phrase `on the merits' is merely part of the family doctor's efforts to reassure (certain types of) voter. (None of this precludes there being a case `on the merits'. But there is little or no chance that the viewer-voter will learn what it is or how to assess it.)
The graphic collage which opened First Report'selection programmes was a sort of monad of the entire campaign and all associated with it: a set of pictures of a polling station; a ballot box; Parliament; a crowd; Number 10; Heath; Wilson; Thorpe; pit-head winding gear; a power station. A fine summary of the dimensions of British politics. (The absence of any signifier with global or international connotations is no aberration. Only World in Action seems to have some understanding of internationalism as something qualitatively distinct from reporting the doings of foreigners. And during `The Emergency' even the doings of foreigners were increasingly squeezed out of the television news programmes.)
3 and 4. Forums and phone-ins
In national network programmes, politicians and ordinary voters encountered each other directly in the Television Election only in newsfilm of the leaders' walkabouts, which produced The Butcher in Perry Bar (whose customers noticed only price rises, not price cuts) and the Pensioner who said She'd Never had it so Good. In some of the regions, politicians and voters did encounter each other face to face, but the parties are still reluctant to take part in this sort of programme and have been ever since certain `incidents' in 1959 (See Harrison 1974). On radio, there was direct contact between politicians and telephone subscribing voters on the Radio 4 daily phone-in Election Call, compered by Robin Day, though in the light of the following report in a London evening paper I wonder what precautions were taken by the BBc against such consequences as those feared for commercial radio:
FAIR AIR CARE
The Independent Broadcasting Authority is to take precautions to ensure that the commercial radio stations act impartially during the general election campaign. Anxiety has been expressed that the night phone-ins may be used by people to make political points.
In the end, the IBA did intervene and halted Capital's phone-in on the night before the election.
On television direct phone-in contact did not take place at national level, and the link between voter and politician was mediated by a television middleman, notably in the three BBC Election Forum programmes (one each for Heath, Wilson and Thorpe with an extra programme in Wales and Scotland for their respective Nationalists). These Election Forums have apparently been very popular since their inception in 1964. The three leaders took it in turn to face two interviewers putting to them questions sent in by viewers on postcards.
What sort of questions were chosen from the postbag? As in the standard interview, the questions fell within the range defined by the parties as the issues of the Election or as the issues which concerned the electorate - there were no questions from self-confessed extremist or militant voters, and this was one aspect of the almost complete invisibility in the Television Election of these figures so central to its arguments, or at least, its mythology. (On the significance of this invisibility, see further below.) Nor were there any questions from those not going to vote or from those declaring their allegiance to minority parties. On television, the Ordinary Voter does not step outside the area of dispute defined by Heath-Wilson-Thorpe.
In the Election Forum programme few of the processes or criteria for the selection of questions are made visible to the viewer, though criteria of sexual and geographical representativeness as well as relevance to `The Issues' of the Election are among those recognisably operating. In the discussion and interview situations there is perhaps somewhat greater visibility of the processes and criteria: a pre-announced topic of discussion serves as a criterion for the selection of questions; in an interview, the less the list of questions has been drawn up in advance, the more visible the process of selection.
In newsbroadcasts, the process and criteria of the selection of news items is perhaps least clear. Viewers learn (perhaps in the way that they learn natural language - generating rules from incomplete and imperfect data) that the criterion of balance results in, or is realised in, all three main parties being given space in each bulletin, with a presumption that if it is the press conference of one party which is reported then the press conferences of the others will be reported too, if such took place. They also learn, that what the party leader does is automatically news, even if not particularly newsworthy.
I emphasise the visibility of processes and criteria of selection because I think that the greater the invisibility, the less the Television Election appears as a cultural activity or product, involving fallible, partisan, ideologically structured choice at every point, and the more it appears as something which could not be other than it is, and, consequently, as something completely credible and authoritative - the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. There was an incident during the Television Election which breached an important rule and clearly annoyed the television middleman. A Labour politician said in answer to a question from his interviewer that the Conservative politician appearing with him was not the one originally requested by the television organisation. Such a remark deprived the choice of politicians, on that occasion, of the naturalnessit generally appears to have; it introduced questions of practice - power, disputes and choice.
The parties have least direct control over what appears in a news broadcast. They can try to mount obvious `highlights of the day's campaign' and signal them as such, but they cannot ensure that these will be selected or given the dominance which they wish in the news programme. According to Seymour-Ure 1974 p 208, Quintin Hogg received a large share of Conservative election coverage in the 1964 General Election. There was no conscious bias involved, nor quantitative imbalance, but nonetheless the news programmes in focusing on Hogg were projecting an image of the Conservative Party's activities probably running counter to what the Party wanted, but in the case of news programmes could not automatically secure.
News broadcasts were certainly the major vehicle of the Television Election in terms of time and audience. Important questions need to be raised about them, some of which have been indicated at various points above. One aspect not yet considered here is the way in which television news programmes treated the extraneous events in the real world, which `erupted' during the Television Election, and had a clear relevance to that Election without being part of it. I am thinking of such events as the misfortunes of London and County Securities, a bank with which Jeremy Thorpe was associated; Herr Schael's assertion that there could be no renegotiation of Britain's terms of entry to the EEC; the discovery of the error in calculating miners' pay; CBI General Secretary Campbell Adamson's surprise declaration in favour of scrapping the Industrial Relations Act; perhaps even Mr Powell's two anti-Common Market, pro-Labour speeches. Such events could be and perhaps are used as independent points of reference by voters struggling to decide where to place their allegiance, for such events are the kind of real, unfalsifiable news which have an immediate credibility lacking in the assertions of politicians. Could Labour have survived the revelation during the Election of the involvement of its Leader's entourage with property `reclamation'?
These autonomous events also .pose a problem for the media. They have to find a way of presenting them which whilst not denying their relation to the ongoing Election does not present that relation in the way it may be perceived by one party and not another. The most important areas undoubtedly concern the way in which strikes are related to politics, and business (especially the CBI) to the Conservative Party. These are areas of continuing tension, and whilst some work has been done on them(ACTT 1971), teachers making a study of news could well begin with monitoring the way in which the relations in question are presented.
The Television Election and the level of debate
It is a frequent criticism, that the television organisations failed on the whole in this as in previous Television Elections to provide any serious discussion, independent of the politicians, of the state of Britain (especially within an international perspective) and the possible strategies which could be adopted by any Government after the Election, and in the light of which discussion the policies of the parties could be to some degree evaluated. In previous sections, I have indicated that I would explain such failure not by the inadequacies of programme producers but by the structural position of the television organisations, enjoying much less independence of the political parties and the Government than is commonly supposed.
In February 1974, a striking failure of the television organisations was their omission to present on our screens any of the extremists and speculators who, as spectres, were central figures in the Conservative and Labour campaigns. Television helped neither to exorcise these spectres or show them to be truly devilish. They remained shadowy, and therefore, more potent. For my part, I suspect that had we seen some extremists and militants, then, tieless and overalled, they might well have looked and sounded much like any other manual worker. And had we had some speculators presented on our screens, then, tied and pinstriped, they might have looked and sounded much like any other capitalist going about his lawful business of reclamation. The appearance of either spectre might have raised real class issues and not the phoney substitutes of extremists and speculators.
Weekend World (London Weekend Television) andPanorama (BBC1) provided the most sustained attempts at independent or semi-independent discussion, but sometimes paralysed by the partisan `experts' called in on such occasions. For example, in their `Fairness' programme (24 February), Weekend World produced economist Michael Stewart (University College, London) to tell us the following:
the only real way one can do it if one is to give everybody - every family with a man, wife and two children - a minimum income of £2000 a year really is to have a higher rate of growth, to have more production. We can't do it out of what's in the pot at the present time.
- which is simply untrue, a reproduction of the Labour Party's ideology for the 1964 Election, and irrelevant to a situation of probable zero growth.
Television as a vehicle for issues and policies
Weekend World requires an hour to develop anything approaching a coherent account and argument about a situation, and there is no reason to suppose that the political parties could develop (if they wished) a coherent account of their theory and practice in any shorter time. The ten minute party political advertising slots encourage (perhaps more accurately, are meant for) image building, noticeable especially in the final Conservative broadcast in February 1974:
Voice over: This is a man who got where he is by knowing what's going on . . . Heath is a practical man . . . It takes an extraordinary man to be Prime Minister . . . This is a man the world respects. A man who has done so much and yet a man who has so much left to do.
So give him the tools, and he'll finish the job.
Programme planners accept that viewers can tolerate, even enjoy, sixty or ninety minute documentaries. Why not make space for party politicals of this length - and between elections, too? The parties would have to concede the right to simultaneous broadcasting on all channels in return for such long programmes. But would the parties want sixty or ninety minutes?
Between Elections, if not at Election times themselves, there is no programming obstacle to granting many more political organisations hour long slots, on the lines of BBC's Open Door series. The obstacles are political; I am sure that the three major parties do not want the Welsh and Scottish Nationalists, the Communists or the International Socialists to have an hour of screen time to themselves to use as they please, and they can ensure that they do not get it. No more would they accept time being given to newspapers, periodicals or ad hoc groups to mount explicitly political programmes. Politics is theirpreserve.
The Television Election and the image of the voters
The Television Election was mounted for our benefit as voters, in order that we could inform ourselves, survey our politicians, and rationally exercise the power we have to elect our representatives. Yet in addressing us, the Television Election - outside the party political broadcasts - did not address us directly as voters, but rather as privileged individuals, intimately eavesdropping a process of which we were not a part. For whilst in television news and current affairs programmes, first person plural forms (we, our, us) are habitually used to include both the television speaker and each and every viewer (the mass audience), even when every viewer does not literally belong to the `we', this practice was broken with during the Television Election. During the Television Election, television speakers typically used the noun forms `the voters' or `the electorate' to refer to an entity which did not explicitly include either the television speaker or the individual viewer and which implicitly excluded them, whilst giving them both privileged observational access.
I found this practice striking and strange. Perhaps one of its functions was to exclude the question `I wonder howthis television middleman will vote?', more likely to arise if he spoke in such terms as `When we go to the polls on Thursday . . .' rather than `When the Electorate goes to the poll . . .' Perhaps also it served to reduce the persecution which viewers undoubtedly feel during Elections - the feeling that they are being got at: the style of the television discourse permitted one to forget that one was also a voter. That a proportion of viewers would not be going to the polls on 28 February would not itself be sufficient to exclude the `normal' use of first person plural pronoun forms.
The image of the voters or the Electorate was thus an objectified, impersonal one, an object which we observed rather than to which we belonged. The image was reinforced by the treatment of the polls, which provided a second image of the Electorate. In the polls, the Electorate appears anonymously as a set of percentages, as an entity whose fluctuating behaviour can be graphically represented on one or other of Robert MacKenzie's machines. In the Television Election, the Electorate sits down to watch itself preparing to exercise its power, and is shown a rat in a maze.
Their finest hours
The Television Election builds up dramatically, with the days being ticked off, not to the Election but to the all-night programme of Election Results (The Nation Decides on ITV), when all the technology and personnel used in the previous three weeks are employed together in both the competitive race between the two television organisations and as a sort of celebration of television and its power. The post mortem analysis provided byBroadcast `a journal for professional broadcasters' can usefully be consulted here. Their analyst, Rod Allen, concludes his survey:
The Nation has decided and it has been informed of its decision efficiently, effectively and - though it probably wasn't meant to be - in an exciting and, yes, entertaining manner by both channels. Television has flexed its muscles, and proved its unique capabilities. (Broadcast, 8 March 1974, p 18)
Thus for Rod Allen, at least, the Election Night programmes have succeeded in conveying at least two orders of message - one concerning the election results; the other concerning the use of the television medium itself; which has `proved its unique capabilities'. These capabilities (which need to be related to the organisation, not just the medium) include the capacity to bring to each individual the results of millions of individual acts of voting with speed, accuracy, completeness, clarity, without many technical hitches or much gimmickry, sustaining visual interest and interest in the performers and even building excitement (all these are features mentioned by Rod Allen in his article).
The display of such televisual power can only, I think, reinforce trust in, even dependence on, the television medium and organisations in general and their news and current affairs services in particular. For on Election Night the personalities identified with the news and current affairs organisations of the BBC and the ITV are stars of a programme which is unquestionably and transparently reliable as to the information it is transmitting. Rarely does television news and even less so current affairs programming consist only or largely in the reporting of sets of data, but I suspect that its tremendous ability to handle the data of Election results (as likewise with sports coverage) lends added credibility to its treatment of the much more qualitative data of the everyday news and current affairs operation.
At the same time, this credibility - that is, the audience's belief that what is reported is true and right - is built up in the closest positive association with existing political institutions, the State and the parties. The possibility of pursuing, finding and stating the truth is identified with the institutions of liberal democracy and the procedures whereby these institutions are sustained. Here is a true ideology of knowledge: liberal democracy permits us not only to vote but to know. It gives us not only power, but also access (if we wish it) to the truth necessary for the rational exercise of that power. Or does it?
Postscript (July 1974)
After the Election, the BBC prepared both a paper for discussion by its General Advisory Council, at the request of that body, and an Audience Research Report, entitled respectively The BBC and the February 1974 General Election and Coverage of the 1974 General Election Campaign on Television and Radio. Both reports were made available to the public in July 1974. Both papers are well worth reading. The first, for instance, contains a list and discussion of six questions which the BBC thought would be most relevant to the concerns of its General Advisory Council (l. Was the total coverage excessive? 2. Was it concentrated too heavily in the one-hour block of programmes on BBC 1 from 9.00 to 10.00 pm? 3. Was too much attention paid to the sayings, actions and travels of the party leaders? 4. Is there evidence that the coverage swayed people's minds in deciding how to vote and, if so, should it not have done so? 5. Is the format of the conventional political interview now too stylised and well-worn? 6. Should there have been more treatment of the issues in depth?').
In this Postscript I wish only to return to the question of Plaid Cymru's Party Election Broadcast.
The BBC, in the first report mentined above (p. 77), says that both it and the IBA `recognised that there was some force in the contention of the major parties' that the scheduling of the Plaid Cymru and SNP broadcasts breached a convention, admittedly not formalised, that `the last three Party Election Broadcasts in the campaign are made by the Liberals, the Opposition and the Government party in that order'.
I submit that there was no force in the contention. For the appeal to convention to carry any force, the three major parties would also have had to object to the national networking of the National Front's party Election broadcast at 6.05 pm on Monday 25 February, the day allegedly reserved for the Opposition party's broadcast and subsequent to the Liberal Party's final broadcast on Saturday, 23 February. The BBC does not claim, and no one else has claimed, that the three major parties objected to the scheduling of the National Front broadcast. The inference is reasonable, even unavoidable, that their objection to the scheduling of the nationalist broadcasts invoked convention only as a cover for the real political motivation: fear of their potential political losses to the nationalists, whose campaign they wished to weaken. (Note in this connexion that according to the BBC's paper the BBC and the IBA had had to `press' on the parties a doubling of Plaid Cymru and SNP Election broadcast time from five minutes in 1970 to ten minutes in February 1974 and that the three major parties had only `finally' - i.e., reluctantly- agreed.)
Most important, however, is the reaction of the BBC to their successful prosecution in the High Court by Plaid Cymru for breach of contract. The BBC states that its `independence' was damaged by the High Court's decision and goes on `In order to avoid a repetition, it will be necessary for the BBC to disclaim any contractual intention, when offering specific facilities for party Election broadcasts by any party' (p 19 of the first report)
If the BBC does have any alternative to taking this line, then I think that the line it has taken is disgraceful. An organisation does not show its `independence' by expressing unwillingness to enter into contracts, for fear that it will be prosecuted for breach of them. The inference is difficult to avoid that the BBC is unwilling to enter into contracts in this area because it has been shown that it does not have enough independence to be able to do so. And that it is unable to assert its independence in contractual form because of the power of the Committee on Party Political Broadcasting - that is, of the three major parties. The above quoted passage virtually admits this. Let us hope that I am wrong in thinking that it does. Let us hope that the BBC will continue to enter into contracts with the political parties for party Election broadcasts.