Tuesday, 20 January 2015

The forgotten TV election debates of 1959

"I’m not particularly attracted by [televised] confrontations of personality. If you aren’t careful, you know, we’ll have a… what’s it called… Top of the Pops contest. Even though I dare say I would win it, I’m not very attracted by this as you then get the best actor as leader of the country and the actor will be prompted by a script writer. I’d rather have our old ways and put our policies firmly in front of the people.”

Swap “X Factor” for “Top of the Pops” and that could be David Cameron laying out his reasons for wanting to give the leadership debates the swerve ahead of the forthcoming General Election.  In fact it was one of his predecessors, Alec Douglas-Home laying out his reasons for not wanting to have televised debates to Robin Day in 1963.

It’s easy - but wrong - to think that since the first series of US Presidential debates in 1960, between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, such debates have been a regular occurrence in America.  In fact they didn’t happen again until 1976 with first Lyndon Johnson (1964) and then Nixon (1968 and 1972) doing more or less exactly what Cameron is doing now and refusing to debate by invoking the Federal Commission’s equal-time provision which meant that all candidates, including those from fringe parties had to take part. (The provision had been suspended for a year in 1960.) Even in 1980 President Jimmy Carter refused to take part in the first debate due to the inclusion of independent candidate John Anderson.  The debate went ahead anyway. Carter was effectively empty-chaired. His main opponent Ronald Regan did show up and the rest, as they say, is history.

But why was Douglas-Home running scared?  Well, that’s because of the aftermath of the little-remembered TV debates that took place during the 1959 General Election campaign.  There was no TV coverage of the Khaki Election in 1945 as Britain’s infant television service had been in hiatus since the outbreak of war in September 1939. Yet even when broadcasting recommenced in 1946, there would be no real election coverage for more than a decade.  During the War the BBC agreed to the so-called 14-day Rule.  This was introduced without public knowledge as an emergency measure prohibiting discussion on the radio of any matter to be debated in either House of Parliament in the coming fortnight. After hostilities ceased the Beeb voluntarily agreed to keep the rule in place, meaning there was no coverage of campaigning in the 1950, 1951 or 1955 General Elections.  By the time of the last of those elections, the BBC proposed abandoning the rule only for the Government to make it official and public and to extend it to the new independent TV service, despite howls of protest that it restricted freedom of speech (plus ça change, eh?).

A year later when the Suez Crisis erupted, the rule meant the BBC and ITN were effectively unable to report on the conflict, despite the fact that the majority of both the Commons and the country were against it.  However, when Prime Minister Anthony Eden took to the airwaves to state his case for military action and Labour leader Hugh Gateskill successfully demanded a right to reply, the archaic rule was, in effect, abandoned.

However, when it came to election coverage the TV channels were still seriously restricted by the Representation of the People Act 1949, which stated that no expenses be incurred ‘with a view to promoting or procuring the election of a candidate’ except by candidate themselves.  While newspapers were exempt from the law, the act wasn't clear about broadcasting media and as late as 1956 the BBC Handbook said that anything which could be considered likely to effect viewers voting intentions was to be excluded from coverage. Denis Foreman a director at Granada, one of the ‘Big Four’ new independent TV companies, disagreed, arguing “in a democracy the most important time to expose the voter to the full force of political argument was in the run-up to an election” and in early 1958 he decided to cover the up-coming Rochdale by-election, caused by the death of Lieutenant Colonel Wentworth Schofield (a Tory in case you hadn't guessed).  The poll was always likely to be a close-run affair. Schofield, had won a slim 1,590-vote majority in a two-way fight with Labour’s Jack McCann in 1955, and the by-election came just a month after the Conservatives’ entire Treasury team resigned in protest at Harold Macmillan’s plans for higher Government spending. And in 1958 there was third, wild-card, candidate in the form of Liberal Ludovic Kennedy a celebrity TV journalist who was married to Moira Shearer one of the country’s favourite actresses (a 1950s Russell Brand, perhaps).

Some felt that such coverage would be illegal, so it was a calculated risk by Foreman who readied himself for the possibility of jail despite discussions with legal experts and the ITA.  Granada broadcast two programmes, introduced by a young journalist called Michael Parkinson (not sure what became of him), in which the candidates - McCann, Kennedy and John Parkinson for the Tories - discussed the key issues among themselves and with journalists.  Turnout was a massive 80% and opinion polls suggested that the programmes both encouraged people to vote and helped them decide who to vote for. Labour won, Kennedy come second with the Liberal’s best by-election result since the 1920s and the Conservatives were humiliated in third place. Granada broadcast the count live - another first - and The Daily Mail’s Kenneth Allsop was moved to write that “the televoter is born […] Rochdale has changed the nature of democratic politics […] television is established as the new hub of the hustings.”

The impact of the coverage was emphatic.  ITN reported on a by-election for the first time and in the aftermath of the vote Harold Macmillan became the the first Prime Minster to give television interviews, first on the BBC’s Press Conference, and then on ITN’s Tell the People.  Seven months later, in October, the State Opening of Parliament was broadcast for the first time.

From left, Desmond Banks (Liberal), Reginald Maudling (Conservative)
and Gerry Reynolds (Labour) face the cameras in 1959.
When the 1959 General Election swung into view it was all but inevitable that both the BBC and ITV, which by then reached 90% of the country, would cover it in some form. By that time about 75% of British households had a television set nestled in the corner of the sitting room, compared to just 38% at the time of the previous General Election in 1955 (when ITV had yet to start broadcasting). In the space of one Parliamentary term watching TV had gone from a being minority pursuit to being the norm and viewers were spending about 40% of each evening watching TV. As a consequence, both the BBC and ITV decided to broadcast a series of programmes in which politicians debated each other in front of an audience.

Granada’s Election Marathon took the format of the company’s Rochdale by election coverage and extended it to every constituency in the the region. However, the law meant that no one could appear as a candidate for a specific constituency unless all their rivals did too. In total 348 candidates were invited to take part but 54 declined and a further 65 were unable to appear (two due to illness and the rest because their opponents weren’t taking part).  Election Marathon filled nearly 12 hours of airtime and was chaotic affair and neither the channel, nor the candidates themselves were able to publicise who would appear when, in case of dropouts.  The candidates, banned from discussing local issues and confronted with a new medium not all of them quite grasped the potential of, approached their allotted one minute with varying degrees of confidence and success. Some nervously read from notes; others claimed the make-up and lighting made them look older than their years; one candidate gave a potted history of his 24 years in Parliament while another another, for reasons best known to himself, tried to précis the history of National Insurance. Unfortunately he had only reached 1949 when the light flashed and drew his no-doubt scintillating speech to a close.

It’s fair to say Election Marathon did not go down in history as the most entertaining programme ever, but it did succeed in shifting the focus, albeit briefly perhaps, away from London and remind voters that a General Election is a actually a series of local elections for local candidates. It also demonstrated that TV was a means through which candidates could significantly raise their profile as it enabled them to reach a far greater number of constituents than they would be able to at traditional public meetings or knocking on doors.

Not to be outdone the BBC broadcast Hustings, a series of 12 programmes which went out at 6.45pm and lasted 40 minutes each. There were two each in all but one of their regions, the exception being Northern Ireland where Sinn Féin was illegal and the Unionists refused to appear alongside the Northern Ireland Labour party.  Parties contesting one fifth of the seats in any region were entitled to appear, which effectively excluded all but the main three parties.  The parties themselves chose which of their candidates would appear and they were presented as representatives of their respective parties and not as candidates from any particular constituency (neatly side-stepping the need for all candidates from each constituency to appear).  The audience too was made up of an equal number of people chosen by each party, with a smattering of undecideds and a neutral chairperson.  The partisan nature of the audience meant that the programmes were often boisterous affairs, with some being described at the time as ‘gladiatorial’.  

But they paled into insignificance when compared to Granada’s show The Last Debate which aped the Hustings format and was broadcast on October 6th, two days before the polling day.  The three-person panel comprised of John Selwyn Lloyd, the Foreign Secretary; Labour’s Barbara Castle and Arthur Holt from the Liberals, all senior members of their parties.  It was as close to a televised leadership debate as Britain would see for more than 50 years.  Each candidate delivered a short speech and then answered questions from the audience and that’s when things went downhill. Filmed in a large, galleried studio, the programme had the feel of a public meeting and the candidates faced a barrage of hostility.  They were interrupted and heckled on such a scale that they were repeatedly forced to shout to make themselves heard.

The show’s producer described it as “unquestionably the best and most exciting programme of the campaign”.  Yet, while it might have made for entertaining viewing for those in the studio it looked messy and chaotic for those viewing in the comfort of their own homes who more often than not couldn’t hear the insults that were being hurled at the panelists; only the panelists’ shouted responses. The undignified sight of front-bench heavyweights like John Selwyn Lloyd and Barbara Castle becoming agitated and losing their temper on television was a negative image that lived long in the memory. For the next 15 years (which included three General Elections) the main parties agreed to refuse to take part in any broadcasts that involved live interaction with members of the public. Electioneering was repackaged for TV, and interaction with the electorate was confined to carefully choreographed photo-opportunities timed to catch the broadcast news bulletins. Televised election debates between politicians were put into cold storage until 2010.

Roger Domeneghetti is the author of From the Back Page to the Front Room: Football's Journey Through the English Media. Available in all formats from www.ockleybooks.co.uk.

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