Election Marathon: the idea mooted

The legal issues in the way of Granada’s plans

Early in 1959, when a spring election seemed likely, there were long discussions between the BBC, the ITA, and the parties. On March 18th an agreement was announced: the statement declared that during the General Election regional television programmes might be arranged independently, in addition to the normal party political broadcasts.

Granada had already begun to think about the type of programmes it would propose. Two weeks earlier, on March 5th, the general idea of Marathon had been tentatively discussed. (The date is important, for Granada’s intentions in putting forward the idea were later misrepresented.)

By March 18th the constituencies technically in the Granada Northern region had been defined. After some deliberation it was decided to propose this scheme to all constituencies in Granada’s primary- and secondary-signal areas except where a secondary-area constituency overlapped with the primary area of another programme company, then the constituency would be excluded.

Granada arranged interviews at the various party headquarters so that all the proposals for election programmes might be presented. These interviews took place on April 2nd. Granada representatives went to the headquarters of the three parties in London; the ITA were also kept informed. The Election Marathon was proposed in this form:

Candidates will appear constituency by constituency and each candidate will make a brief election address without debate or discussion. There will be four minutes for each candidate and Marathon will be broadcast continuously for five days from noon to 4 p.m., a total of 24 hours’ broadcasting time.

At the Liberal Party headquarters the Liberal Press Officer, Miss Phyllis Preston, raised no objections. She said she would refer the proposals to the Liberal Campaign Committee.

At the Labour Party headquarters the Granada producers met Mr. Morgan Phillips, the Labour Party Secretary. He accepted Marathon. His only doubts were: Could Granada organise it, and would the Conservative Party agree? At by-elections about this time at East Harrow, South-West Norfolk, and Galloway the Conservative candidates had refused to appear on television and so, under the law, their opponents had been barred from appearing.

The answer to the second of these questions was learned by other Granada executives simultaneously visiting the Conservative Party headquarters across from Transport House in Smith Square. The Conservative representatives did not commit the party. Their view was that they must consult the Party Chairman, Lord Hailsham, but they thought the idea “imaginative” and their questions were not on points of principle.

They raised one legal point. They wondered how Granada press advertisements of candidates to appear in Marathon would be affected by the limitation of candidates’ election expenses in the Representation of the People Act. The feeling was that an advertisement naming no candidates but referring to all of them would not be a breach of the Act.

Granada now released its proposals to the Press.

First Press Reactions

Marathon interested the newspapers.

“Granada offers TV Election” said the News Chronicle headline.

“Election TV Surprise” said the Daily Mirror (the reporter called the Marathon proposals “revolutionary”).

The Daily Mail reported that party legal experts would study the proposals and added: “Party chiefs are hoping they will give the go-ahead to this history-making scheme — individual candidates have never before been screened in an election.”

The Times political correspondent observed: “Granada, from the beginning the most politically conscious and sociologically experimental of television producers, have certainly set a hot pace to other programme companies and the BBC by making these proposals. . . .  The first reaction of rank and file politicians will be of gratitude, but the party headquarters will have their moments when they will look the gift horse sourly in the mouth”. However he entered one caveat on behalf of viewers: “Twenty-four hours of solid local television hustings, often featuring candidates with no skill in the art, and sometimes candidates who are not particularly articulate, is an awesome prospect”. (As it turned out, no candidate was, in fact, stuck for words.)

The Sunday Dispatch complained that Marathon was too fair: “That benevolent Socialist Mr. Sidney Bernstein who runs Granada TV is prepared to be fair to the point of idiocy. Every candidate in his area will get equal treatment. What nonsense this is!”

The Yorkshire Post political correspondent said: “These proposals will alleviate the fears of many MPs without television experience that they would not be given a fair crack of the whip”. The Yorkshire Post also reported that Mr. Donald Kaberry, MP for NW Leeds and Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party, “liked very much the idea of a straight speech by candidates within a limited period” — apparently because of the difficulties of achieving proper balance otherwise.

In fact, straight speeches alone were not to prove possible under the Television Act.

The Hand of the Law

For Marathon’s proposals now precipitated a complex debate in press and Parliament on television and the election law.

Even politicians cannot break the laws which they have helped to make.

Whatever arrangements were made for broadcasting the 1959 election had to be legal, and clearly seen to be legal, under two Acts of Parliament: the Representation of the People Act, 1949, which ensures fair play for all candidates, and the Television Act, 1954, which governs independent television.

The proposal that the Election Marathon should consist of a series of direct election addresses by each candidate in turn was at first felt by Granada to be not inconsistent with section 3 of the Television Act, which lays it down that, apart from party political broadcasts, all political broadcasts are to be in the form of “properly balanced discussions or debates”. After further consideration, however, and on advice from several quarters, it was decided to change the series of addresses into short debates between candidates.

More complex was the interpretation of section 63 of the Representation of the People Act. The problem can be stated thus:

  1. Should a candidate appearing on television have to include the cost of his appearance in his election expenses? These expenses are strictly limited by the Representation of the People Act, on pain of disqualification. Obviously, if a candidate had to include the expense it would severely affect his ability and willingness to appear on television.
  2. On the other hand, if the broadcasting authority pays for the cost of the programme, would the authority be liable for prosecution for promoting or procuring the candidate’s election? The Act says that apart from the agent or candidate or persons authorised by him, it is a corrupt practice for anyone to present the candidate or his views to the electors. Newspapers are specifically exempted from this ban. But the Act was passed in 1949, and television is not mentioned in it.

Granada’s own view was that since it was proposing equal time for all candidates in a constituency it could hardly be said to be promoting the election of any one of them. It was on this agreed reasoning that Granada had been able to broadcast the Rochdale by-election programmes a year before.

Mr. Morgan Phillips agreed that Marathon was legal. The Daily Mail, on April 4th, reported him saying: “We welcome the Granada plan; it is a very good idea. There is nothing illegal about it provided there is equal representation of candidates.”

A Conservative party spokesman was quoted: “From our point of view one thing is quite definite: it is up to individual candidates to decide whether they want to go on TV. If a particular candidate decided against it I cannot see how his opponent — even if wishing to do so — could take part.”

But the Mail also reported that “some leading politicians” were against the idea. The ITA comment, reported in the Mail, was: “Consultations will take place before the full implications of these rather dramatic proposals are known.”

In the next few weeks the air was heavy with legal opinions. Five days after the Marathon proposals were made public, Mr. Charles Fletcher-Cooke QC MP published a trenchant legal analysis in the Daily Telegraph of April 8th.

Yes, said Mr. Fletcher-Cooke, Granada’s Election Marathon was legal, but it was the only proposed election programme that was. The BBC’s plan to screen “selected” candidates was illegal, said Mr. Fletcher-Cooke.

Even party political broadcasts were illegal, said Mr. Fletcher-Cooke, unless any company giving 10 minutes to a Minister gave exactly the same time to all the other candidates in his constituency “however crack-pot, however obscure.”

Why? Because, said Mr. Fletcher-Cooke, if only one candidate in any constituency were given screen-time the broadcasting authority would be preferring his election in that constituency and thereby guilty of a corrupt practice. It did not matter that the authority was giving equal time to an opposing candidate from another constituency. British law did not recognise parties, only individuals and constituencies.

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke suggested that Granada had really “blown the gaff” about the March 18th agreement between the parties, the ITA, and the BBC, to screen regional election programmes.

Granada, said Mr. Fletcher-Cooke, had seen the illegality of the BBC proposal to screen “selected” candidates, announced at the time of the new agreement, and had then decided not to “play along”. By proposing to screen every candidate, Granada, he said, had spotlighted the legal flaw in the plans of the BBC and other programme companies.

In fact, as has been emphasised, Marathon had first been thought of on March 5th, two weeks before the BBC announced its plan to televise selected candidates. Granada had not devised Marathon with the intention of embarrassing anybody. (That it had was a rumour to which the Daily Mail also gave currency: it reported that BBC and Independent programme-company heads were “very bitter about this Bernstein bombshell”. The only quote reported from the BBC was: “No comment”.)

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke’s opinion made front-page headlines.

The Daily Mail said that both Crown and BBC lawyers had now ruled the BBC programmes with selected candidates a breach of the electoral law. All candidates must be given equal time. The Mail added that a Speaker’s Conference to revise the law was possible.

“TV Election Tangle probed by Cabinet”, said the Daily Mirror headline.

“New Law for Election TV?” said the News Chronicle.

The Daily Telegraph political correspondent declared that Marathon did not comply with the law: “The problem cannot be solved by ensuring that all the candidates in a constituency are given equal time on television. On a meticulous view of the law each would still be liable for a share of the expenses involved.”

The Daily Telegraph, like other newspapers, reported that back-bench MPs thought legislation was needed before the election to safeguard the position of candidates invited to appear on Marathon. The opinion, it seemed, was that the exemption accorded to newspapers in the Representation of the People Act should be extended to television.

The Daily Telegraph political correspondent hinted that the party leaders “may agree on a policy of masterly inactivity leaving it to some aggrieved candidate to raise a test case and thus obtain a judicial interpretation of the Act”.

The Manchester Guardian was tart about the fuss. The confusion over the rights of television companies had now reached “absurd proportions”. A test case would “let the politicians off too lightly”. The Guardian urged rebellion: “One would like to see the two television authorities stand on the letter of the law and refuse all part in the election until the law is amended to secure for them the full freedom of reporting enjoyed by newspapers.”

The Daily Mirror agreed: “How ridiculous!” In a belligerent editorial headlined “This Muddle is Dangerous”, the Mirror said “It is vital that TV should be given fair elbow room to report elections. These muddles should be straightened out — now. The law must be brought up to date — now”. The Mirror also made this point: “Candidates do not have to pay for newspaper reports of their speeches. Why should they have to pay for television appearances?”

The Times political correspondent referred to the Act’s “extraordinary oversight” on the position of television. But the party leaders, he said, did not think that there was enough confusion to make radical rationalisation necessary.

Two days later the newspapers reported that the problem had indeed been shelved. The parties, they said, had agreed not to bring test legal actions against each other. The Daily Telegraph summed up: “The attitude of both parties is that there is a case for revising the 1949 Act, especially on the question of expenses, but that it should be left for the next Parliament to tackle”.

This, however, did not clear the way for Marathon in the forthcoming election. The BBC, too, announced that it was revising its plans. It would not screen the “selected” candidates as candidates from individual constituencies. It would screen them as regional spokesmen for the party.

The Manchester Guardian was scornful of this solution. In a biting editorial on April 18th, headlined “TV in Chains”, the Guardian said: “When is a candidate not a candidate? The answer we are now asked to believe is: when he appears in a BBC election broadcast. This prize bit of humbug is the latest attempt to find a way out of the stranglehold of our archaic election laws…. This solution does not overcome the other impediment to free television reporting; the right of the parties to veto programmes is kept intact”.

On the same day, in Parliament, Mr. R. A. Butler said: “There is nothing more abstruse, except medieval theology, than the general rules covering political broadcasts”.

In a confused situation, Granada made its own position clear on April 20th by saying: “We have had no objection to the scheme from the three main political parties or from the ITA and as far as we know no-one else has raised any serious objection”.

The issue was given a final airing in the Commons on April 24th. Doubts about the legal position were expressed by Mr. Gaitskell, and Mr. Shinwell asked for an inquiry. Mr. Butler replied that the ITA was taking legal advice on Marathon. Until the ITA view, based on legal advice, was received, “we cannot make any progress on that”. He added: “But it would be right for me to keep in touch with the Leader of the Opposition and with members, so that if a statement was necessary it could be made to alleviate fears about the possible operation of the Representation of the People Act in relation to these proposals”.

The prospect of a spring election faded. Granada continued to plan for Marathon in a possible autumn election. Their own legal advisers had already said that, in their opinion, Marathon was not a breach of the Representation of the People Act, and could certainly, with some adjustment, be made to conform with the Television Act.

The ITA, however, now told Granada that it seemed doubtful, on preliminary legal advice, whether any programme featuring candidates as such would be legal.

A few weeks later the ITA discovered another snag. The ITA’s legal advice was that the provision of the Television Act on political programmes, other than the set party political broadcasts, must be in the form of “properly balanced discussions or debates” would rule out a series of election addresses as proposed in Marathon, even if a programme in that form could be devised to comply with the Representation of the People Act.

Granada was, of course, prepared to modify Marathon so that it became a series of balanced debates in conformity with the Television Act. But now the parties began to have doubts. Mr. Morgan Phillips wondered how easy it would be to secure balance between, say, three candidates in a short discussion programme. Moreover, there still remained the uncertainties of the Representation of the People Act, and the programme-planners’ problem of screening Marathon in Granada’s permitted hours.

Voice of Authority

At this point it seemed necessary to take independent and authoritative advice. Granada’s own counsel had already advised that, in his opinion. Marathon was not a breach of the Representation of the People Act, and could be made to conform with the Television Act with the slight adjustment suggested by the ITA. But, even though a revised Marathon might not be declared illegal by the ITA or by the parties, there might be a massive reluctance to take part unless Marathon was clearly and indisputably seen to be legal. Candidates of the main parties might still fear that an independent candidate might bring an action to invalidate the result in a constituency in which all the candidates had taken part in Marathon.

Accordingly, on August 11th, Granada invited Sir Ivor Jennings, Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, to give an opinion on Marathon’s legality. On August 20th, less than three weeks before the Prime Minister announced the date of the election, Sir Ivor gave his opinion on Marathon. It was favourable.

Marathon, he said, was legal under the Representation of the People Act. He concluded his analysis: “The expenditure incurred in a broadcast by Bill Bloggs, candidate for Loamshire, is not a corrupt practice so long as it is not incurred with a view to (i.e. with the object of) his election for Loamshire. The evidence that it is not so incurred is that John Moggs and Jack Coggs, the other candidates, have also broadcast”.

Sir Ivor recommended that:

  1. No candidate should appear on television unless all the other candidates in his constituency are prepared to appear;
  2. All such candidates should appear in the same programme, each of them speaking for x minutes in an order determined by lot;
  3. Candidates should be instructed that they must speak judiciously about the “issues” of the election which appear to them to be important on the national plane, and must not address their constituents direct; and
  4. Granada should make it plain, preferably through the announcer at the beginning of each session, that the candidates are explaining their opinions to viewers generally, because it is just as important to have good back-benchers as it is to have good front-benchers.

On the Television Act, Sir Ivor said Section 3 was not to be interpreted as a legally enforceable set of duties but rather as a code of behaviour.

Thus reassured about the Representation of the People Act, Granada decided to change the form of the Election Marathon to a series of short debates between candidates. This would remove any possibility of contravening the Television Act.

Hardly had this been done, when the Prime Minister announced the Dissolution of Parliament. The revised Election Marathon proposal was speedily approved by the Independent Television Authority. On September 10th it was put before the parties, this time simultaneously to Northern party officials and to the party headquarters in London. All agreed to it.

The legal bogeys had been laid; official approval was secured; and the way was clear for the candidates themselves to accept or reject Granada’s offer.

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