Election Marathon: background to an idea

How elections were covered before Granada

Political broadcasting in Britain is of two kinds:

  1. There are programmes for which the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Independent Television Authority, with the programme companies, are responsible: these are such programmes as the BBC’s Who Goes Home? or The Week in Westminster and ATV’s Free Speech, and, of course, the routine news coverage of party conferences and other political events.
  2. There are the “party political broadcasts” for which the political parties themselves are responsible, both during and between elections, in time allocated by agreement between them and the broadcasting authorities.

No British election has ever been covered so fully on television as the General Election of 1959. Television itself had grown enormously since the last election, in 1955. In that year, only million TV sets were in use in Britain: by 1959 there were 9 million sets, some two-thirds of the adult population were fairly frequent viewers, and it was said that, in a single TV appearance, a party leader could speak directly to more of the electors than Gladstone could have in the whole of his life. So potent and widespread a means of access to the electorate could not be ignored by the politicians; for some time before the 1959 election both the major parties — and, to a lesser extent, the Liberals — were preparing to use it more extensively than ever before.

But it was not only the party political broadcasts that were more numerous during this election. The biggest change from previous practice was in the BBC and ITA programmes. During earlier elections there had been a complete shut-down on political discussion and comment in BBC programmes. (Independent television did not begin until after the 1955 election.) Only in the “party politicals” were the election issues set before viewers and listeners — and, since each party separately presented its own case or attacked its opponents, there was no real clash.

This muted handling of a major event in the life of a democratic nation no longer seemed necessary or reasonable in 1959. Millions of viewers who had got used to watching serious TV discussions, young people who knew little about politics, “floating voters” — all were entitled to expect a full and independent coverage of the Election, with fairly balanced but free argument.

Already there had been some cautious relaxation of the strict rules that governed political broadcasting, even between elections. The “14-day rule” — under which nothing could be discussed on TV or radio if it was to be debated in Parliament in the coming fortnight — was dropped. The most important advance, however, was the coverage by Granada TV of the Rochdale by-election in February, 1958. This experiment was agreed to by the parties with some misgivings, and they watched it anxiously. Whether or not it contributed to the remarkably high poll (80.19 per cent.), the general verdict was that it had helped to stimulate public awareness of what was going on. Had the Rochdale experiment failed, it seems likely that there would have been less TV during the General Election itself.

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