The battle for Britain: political broadcasting and the British election of 1997

The battle for Britain: political broadcasting and the British election of 1997

Nicholas J. Cull

The British election of 1 May 1997 was fought in the living rooms of the nation. For 6 weeks leading up to election day, television viewers were bombarded with the images and opinions of those who wished to rule the country for the following 5 years and thereby, as voters were portentously reminded throughout the campaign, take Britain into the new millennium. Television images are, by their nature, ephemeral; the formal Party Election Broadcasts (PEBs) have typically received rather less scholarly attention than written documentation. This collection of articles is designed to remedy that deficit by providing a scholarly account of the way in which the contesting parties used PEBs. These broadcasts gave each party the chance to speak to the electorate without the mediation of journalists. Within the limits of broadcasting laws, the parties had carte blanche in both what they said and how they said it. Taken together, therefore, these articles provide a composite picture of the state-of-the-art of political communication in the United Kingdom in 1997.

These articles represent the first scholarly response to political broadcasting during the election of 1997. They were all written in the weeks immediately following the election of Tony Blair’s New Labour government, when it was still possible to recall that this result was not always a forgone conclusion. These pieces survey the media out-put of all the parties fielding enough candidates to permit the transmission of an all-channel PEB. This introduction establishes the wider media context of and ground rules for these broadcasts. In the articles which follow, the carefully orchestrated Labour campaign is documented by Richard Howells. Peter Catterall addresses the losing Conservative Party campaign, which is then set in historical perspective by Michael Kandiah. The Liberal Democrat broadcasts are analysed by Graham Roberts.

The election raised serious questions about the future of the United Kingdom. The broadcasts by the Welsh national party–Plaid Cymru–and the remarkably innovative output of the Scottish National Party are here addressed by Susan Carruthers and Stephen Hay, respectively. Alan Finlayson presents the view from Northern Ireland, the one part of the United Kingdom in which the Labour Party did not stand–and which, because of the security situation, did not begin to count its ballots until 2 May. Key themes within the election broadcasting are addressed by Robin Brown, who discusses the degree to which the campaign followed the political practices of the United States, and Ian Law, who traces the failure of the campaign to engage the issue of ‘race’.

The election of 1997 included an unprecedented number of single-issue parties, whose media strategies all reflected an astonishing faith in the power of television. These included the Referendum Party, lavishly funded by the dying millionaire Sir James Goldsmith (David Hass) and the UK Independence Party (Kate Morris), which fought on a tiny budget.

In addition to broadcasting, these pieces also touch on the emerging phenomenon of narrow casting. The Labour Party and Scottish National Party both used special broadcasts on the London-based Asian cable television network Zee TV to reach British South Asian voters. Meanwhile, Sir James Goldsmith and, to a lesser extent, the Labour Party, also attempted to make use of video tape as a medium.

Of the minor parties, the output of the right-wing British National Party (BNP) is discussed in the context of the ‘race’ issue by Ian Law and in terms of the party’s references to Scotland by Ian Hay. Graham Roberts addresses the Socialist Labour Party (Nicholas Cull), a rump organisation of left-wingers who resisted Tony Blair’s call to rally to the centre and produced a party political broadcast to match. Nicholas Cull examines the British incarnation of the 1990s global political phenomenon–the Natural Law Party, which although probably the most radical of all British parties, proved the most conservative in its broadcasting strategy.

Some parties are used to being pushed around by the media. The Liberal Democrats, and members of the party with a sound claim to be Britain’s fourth party, the Green Party (Nicholas Cull), frequently pointed out that the broadcast media frequently kill by neglect. Although the Greens transmitted a PEB, which included a memorable image of a sunflower dwarfing Big Ben, their coverage here focuses instead on censorship as experienced by the party.

Beyond this, the belief in the power of the television has a natural analogue in the issue of censorship. This emotive issue surfaced in numerous guises during the campaign. For the Green Party, the broadcasters neglect of their campaign amounted to censorship. The party put all the more effort into its PEBs. The BNP found that Channel Four was unprepared to screen its broadcast, and none of the broadcasters would transmit the broadcast originally submitted by the Prolife Alliance. The final piece, also by Nicholas Cull, discusses the making and the fate of that party’s anti-abortion broadcast.

This survey of the election would have been impossible without the technical services branch of the University of Leeds which generated the off-air images, and the archival resources of the Institute of Communications Studies at the University of Leeds, the British Universities Film and Video Council (BUFVC) in London, and the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth. In some places it is already too late to save the visual campaign record. By the time this collection appears, the video material used to construct Alan Finlayson’s piece on Northern Ireland will already have been destroyed under standard Ulster Television practice. Without institutions like the Leeds University Institute and the BUFVC, Britain’s television heritage is at best obscured from scholarship and at worst lost. A vital part of British political history disappears with it.

Fixing the Rules

British general elections, just like their transatlantic counterparts, have become media events. That this is obvious, however, does not decrease the need for academic scrutiny; on the contrary, it increases it. Few of the voting millions have ever had direct contact with the party leaders (or even their own MPs for that matter), and hence virtually all the information upon which they based their polling day decisions in 1997 was heavily mediated.

The British system of party election broadcasting is, like the British constitution, unwritten and based on precedent. The parties do not buy air-time (broadcasting legislation explicitly forbids commercial broadcasters from carrying political advertising). Rather, a number of slots are allocated by the BBC and ITV companies. The BBC and this year–for the first time–national commercial radio stations, also allocate radio space for election broadcasts. The system generally works well in a British sort of way, though in 1997 it was challenged by several law suits from the smaller parties. These law suits brought the process of allocating broadcasts out into the open, but at the same time vindicated the BBC’s claim to fairness [1].

The rules surrounding PEBs have had 45 years to accumulate. In the early days of television broadcasting, the allocation of election broadcasts and PEBs during a regular parliamentary session rested with the Committee on Political Broadcasting, a body composed of senior party politicians and representatives of the BBC and ITV. Since 1983, the committee has not met and its business has been administered by the Secretary to the Committee who is also the secretary to the Government Chief Whip. In practice, the allocation of slots has been agreed by the broadcasters and put to the Secretary to the Committee. He merely publishes the decision in an annual ‘Press Notice’ [2].

The BBC’s rules are relatively simple and flow from the Corporation’s charter obligation to be impartial in politics. The parties have complete editorial control over their broadcasts, but must produce material within the wider requirements of British Producer’s Guidelines of ‘taste and decency’ and laws pertaining to such things as race relations, criminal incitement and libel. The BBC and ITV have no obligation to screen material which they deem to contravene the BBC charter or Independent Broadcasting Commission code of practice and, indeed, are forbidden by law or charter from so doing. Provided that the material does not break these codes of practice, the broadcasters are bound to transmit the broadcast (by the charter’s requirement of fairness in the BBC’s case, and the Broadcasting Act of 1990 in the case of the independent companies), though Channel Four broke with this practice during the election of 1997 by not transmitting a broadcast by the BNP when the party refused to make certain changes required by the channel.

The BBC began its preparations for the election during the early summer of 1996. First the Chief Political Advisor’s office addressed the question of criteria for a broadcast. The proliferation of small parties posed a particular problem. The Corporation resolved that the fairest way to distribute PEBs would be to require a party to be fighting 50 seats in order to qualify for a single 5 minute slot in the schedule, which is to say 4 minute 40 seconds of broadcast, and 10 seconds of formal introduction and conclusion at either end spoken by a network announcer [3]. The parties with representatives in the House of Commons were all to be offered broadcasts of 10 minutes in length. Only the Labour Party used a 10 minute slot, and then only on one occasion. Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party were each offered two broadcasts within their respective regions [4]. The Liberal Democrats were offered four slots and the Labour Party and Conservative’s five each. In order to fit everyone into the limited campaign, one station would show two broadcasts each night. In the case of BBC 1, this would typically be a major party in the 21.55-22.00 slot and a minor party in the 19.55-20.00 slot. The order of screening during the campaign was determined by previous practice. The broadcast on the night before the election is always given to the ruling party [5].

By early 1997, all the key elements in the broadcasting policy were in place. In early March each party received a letter from the BBC’s Chief Political Adviser, Anne Sloman, explaining the criteria for a broadcast. On 25 March the parties also received guidelines to establish the ground rules for production. When nominations closed in early April it became apparent that certain small parties who had believed that they would require a broadcast slot had fallen short of the 50 seat requirement. The British viewers would be denied the views of the libertarian Rainbow Dream Ticket Party and satirical Monster Raving Loony Party. But the complaints came from elsewhere. The Referendum Party immediately balked at the BBC’s allocation. Swiftly (and unsuccessfully) it initiated legal action to demand two or more slots. The Green Party objected to the plan to give precedence to national party broadcasts rather than local election broadcasts; in many regions local elections–keenly fought by the Greens–were also held on 1 May.

Once the broadcasts became available for review, the BBC and ITV faced other problems. The BNP had contravened guidelines by including shots of an identifiable member of the public (a blonde mother seen in a park) without obtaining her permission first. To make matters worse the context in which these shots were used created the impression that this person endorsed the party’s policies. The broadcasters demanded an edit. Fortunately the BNP accepted the cut and the BBC duly made it. The BBC also requested that material be cut from a broadcast prepared by Sinn Fein for transmission in Northern Ireland. The Corporation feared that two statements in the broadcast were potentially libellous. The party went to court for the right to broadcast uncut. The BBC won its case on 25 April. The only violation of the ‘taste and decency’ guideline came from the Prolife Alliance. The broadcasting companies all refused to transmit images of aborted foetuses in what Anne Sloman in her affidavit called a ‘mangled and mutilated state’. After the High Court found in favour of the BBC, a sanitized version re-edited by the alliance aired in the scheduled slot.

The broadcasters also operated tight rules for news coverage of the election. The major parties were carefully allocated equal time on the television news, story for story. There was no room in so brief a campaign to give space to the minor parties. Even so, the small parties had slight but no less meticulously timed coverage on the news. For the BBC policy-makers, this coverage was a duty discharged in the best tradition of public service broadcasting to ensure that the British public at least knew that the small parties were contesting the election. A dutifully measured taste of publicity poured into the bottom of minor party glasses. To the small parties this taste merely focused their minds on a supposed brimming bottle of all-transforming coverage that the broadcasters were withholding. The Green Party, which resented being placed in the same category as the Natural Law, and Referendum Parties and the Prolife Alliance, muttered of censorship, but to no avail. The furore over the broadcasters’ system of allocation broadcasts changed nothing. Yet it did highlight the astonishing degree of faith that minor parties place in the power of the media to boost their political fortunes, and the ease with which coverage limitations became scapegoats to explain defeat at the polls.

The other challenge to British election procedure came from the major parties, conducted out of court–1997 saw pressure from elements within both the Labour and Conservative parties to break British tradition and attempt a head-to-head ‘presidential’ debate between Major and Blair. The discussion of the form that this might take began as early as December. Had the party spin-doctors a better knowledge of the American system they would have known that such debates are devilishly hard to arrange even during a 5 month campaign. Even starting early left no time to resolve such problems as exactly how to integrate Paddy Ashdown of the Liberal Democrats into proceedings. Major would not debate Ashdown, but a broadcast without Ashdown could be challenged in court, and Tony Blair, apparently, had no desire to be connected to any litigation. For 2 weeks in March, challenges and recriminations flew. But in the event no debate was held. It was easier for all concerned to let the matter drop. Yet the underlying issue seems destined to endure, and doubtless the question of ‘presidential-style’ debates will become a hardy perennial until formal rules for such a confrontation can be agreed.

Video, Satelite Broadcasting and the Internet

If, Peter Catterall argues below, the Conservatives trusted to the poster, the Referendum Party trusted to a newer method: the video tape. The party distributed a short tape to ‘selected households’ across the country. James Goldsmith and his minions sincerely hoped that this medium would redraw the political map of Britain. With labels urging the viewer to pass the video on to a neighbour, the strategy seemed reminiscent of the smuggled taped sermons of the Ayatollah that precipitated the Iranian revolution. It did not set the British imagination ablaze. Labour, also tried video in the form of the How to Vote tape sent out to young people. Moreover, Labour prepared to use the medium within Whitehall once they had won. During the course of the campaign the future foreign secretary Robin Cook arranged with film producer David Putnam to make a film to explain his corporate philosophy to Foreign Office personnel at home and overseas.

Satellite television news covered the campaign, though of greater interest was the behind-the-scenes story of Tony Blair’s apparent wooing of Rupert Murdoch. Having flown to Australia some months previously to meet the media tycoon, Blair was blessed with the editorial support of Murdoch’s influential tabloid, The Sun. Blair’s pledge not to obstruct the coming of digital broadcasting with the associated shift of broadcast power into Murdoch’s camp was seen before the election by commentators as a quid pro quo.

Nineteen ninety-seven was the first election in which the Internet played a part. It also attracted its share of controversy as the Prolife Alliance came under pressure to remove material from its web-site. All the parties at national, and in many cases constituency, level established web pages, and posted their manifestos, press releases and candidate biographies. The BBC established a much-visited World Wide Web page. Whether these pages had any impact is doubtful. Many of the ‘hits’ apparently came from outside of the United Kingdom or from people too young to vote. Not all the material displayed was necessarily political; several sites, including that of the Labour Party, featured games.

Polling was handled with concern for immediacy of access. Unlike the practice in such countries as France, opinion polls were gathered and published throughout the entire election campaign. In this way, the British media (alongside private polls carried out by the parties themselves) to an extent monitored the effectiveness of the various media campaigns. It was, in the last analysis, an extraordinarily mediated general election.

On election day the polls closed at 10 p.m. immediately the BBC and ITN election teams issued their predictions based on exit polls. The BBC shot high–predicting a majority of some 190-200 seats for Blair; ITN shot low–predicting at least 150. The end result in a final touch of fairness, fell exactly between these two points.

The BBC’s election night coverage brought a new level of sophisticated computer graphics; everything was carried live and in full by C-Spann in the United States. Election returns were miraculously translated into a three-dimensional image of the House of Commons, which filled with appropriately colour-coded MPs. Piles of virtual earth obligingly slipped on to Prime Ministers from Lloyd George to John Major in proportion to the scale of their landslide defeat. Most visually arresting was the graphic in which blue boxes representing the Labour Party’s ‘target constituencies’ exploded as the results were computed, to the accompaniment of a video game ‘zap’ sound effect. Live-action cameras captured the announcement of results from key constituencies, including numerous speeches of defeat from Conservative Cabinet Ministers, who generally had no idea that they were going to lose their seats. It soon became apparent that the party balance would not be the only thing to change in the new parliament. An astonishing proportion of new Labour MPs were women. It was compelling television, drawing the viewer ever deeper into the night to see just one more result, and one more Conservative concession speech. To general astonishment, it emerged that the Conservatives had failed to hold any seats at all in either Scotland or Wales. The slick presentation on both BBC 1 and ITN was a far cry from the limited levels of regional broadcast material possible as recently as 1979, bygone days when the Canadian-born analyst Robert McKenzie would operate the pendulum arm of his swingometer by hand, to interpret results. Yet for all the new technology, tradition was also respected: the BBC and ITN selected David and Jonathan Dimbleby respectively to anchor their coverage; sons of Richard Dimbleby, who pioneered election night coverage in the 1950s and early 1960s. On the morning of 2 May the British people awoke to a new Labour government.



[1] The details of BBC procedure are based on an interview with Anne Sloman, Chief Political Advisor, BBC, 9 July 1997.

[2] This shift in the system was not noted by the Referendum Party, whose case for extra broadcasts beyond their allocation rested on the claim that the system was dominated, via the CPB, by parties already sitting in Parliament, with a vested interest in silencing a new comer who wished to ‘go for Government’.

[3] The usual duration of PEBs is 5 minutes, minus 20 seconds for standard front and back-announcements: ‘There now follows a Party Election Broadcast of behalf of the XXXX party’ and ‘that was a Party election broadcast on behalf of the XXXX party’.

[4] The major parties were also given the option of dividing a broadcast if they wished to deliver Welsh or Scots specific messages.

[5] The system in Northern Ireland operates somewhat differently. The BBC and Ulster Television (UTV) have Campaign Election Broadcasts, which offer parties the option of either submitting a video or recording a piece to camera. The order of transmission is determined by the number of seats held by the party.

Nicholas Cull is Professor of American Studies in the Department of History, University of Leicester, England. He is the author of Selling War. The British Propaganda Campaign Against American ‘Neutrality’ in World War II (Oxford University Press, 1995), and is Book Review Editor (Europe) for the HJFRT.

Richard Howells worked as a print journalist and radio producer before taking his BA at Harvard University and his Ph.D. at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He is lecturer in Communication Arts at the Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds, and is currently writing a cultural history of the sinking of the Titanic.

Correspondence: Nicholas J. Cull, Department of History, University of Leicester, Leicester LE1 7RH, UK; Fax 44 (0)116.252.3986; email

Richard Howells, Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK Fax 44 (0)1132.335.808; email eader’s comme

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