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British Politics and the Media – About Television

Television began in 1936 with the BBC as the sole broadcaster. This page talks you through the impact of television on British politics up to the end of the 1990s.

John Reith, the first Director General of the BBC, accepted that television and radio could entertain but saw providing information and educating as vital. This created the idea of public service broadcasting.[amazon_link asins=’0851706142′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’brituniversity-21′ marketplace=’UK’ link_id=’7f09c996-a395-4c5c-b6b3-0dd11da6f8db’]

News coverage was limited to the use of films provided by the cinema newsreel companies and the News Map programme which provided some factual reporting of foreign news.

The Government abruptly ordered the ending of BBC broadcasts in the middle of a Mickey Mouse cartoon on the afternoon that war was declared and television did not resume until 1946.

The announcer, Leslie Mitchell, began with the words “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted” and restarted the Mickey Mouse cartoon where it had left off (Ken Livingstone used the same phrase at the count when he became Mayor of London 14 years after the Greater London Council , of which he was leader, was abolished in 1986). Television ownership rapidly expanded from 5 million homes in 1956 to 11 million homes in 1960.

Starting Political Debate

Neither the Director-General of the BBC nor the two party leaders in the early post-war period were favourable to political coverage on television and there was no coverage of the 1950 and 1951 election campaigns.[amazon_link asins=’0415835712′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’brituniversity-21′ marketplace=’UK’ link_id=’f70086d7-abb8-47e0-81fb-3834a62c6273′]

The producer Grace Wyndham Goldie managed to get approval for a factual coverage of the 1950 general election results but more influential was the programme In the News, which had a panel of four unorthodox political pundits, the Conservative Robert Boothby, the Labour MP Michael Foot, the ex-Independent MP W.J.Brown and the left-leaning historian A.J.P. Taylor, who fiercely argued the issues of the day. In 1952 48% of people with televisions watched the programme.

People’s exposure to political discussion now took place at home rather in public forums.

Introduction of Commercial Television

The incoming Conservative Government in 1951 was keen to introduce commercial television and the 1954 Television Act put this into effect with the first broadcasts in 1955.

An Independent Television Authority was set up to regulate standards and award the franchises and commercial television, like the BBC, had to be politically neutral.

Commercial television was opposed by Labour and by many in the Conservative Party and the effect on standards was much debated with Reith comparing it to the introduction of the Black Death.

The 1962 Pilkington Report was critical of ITV standards and this allowed the third channel to be awarded to the BBC and to start broadcasting as BBC2 in 1964.

(Lawrence Black’s article in the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Volume 25 No 4., 2005 covers these debates thoroughly)

Changes in Political Broadcasting

Despite the limited serious content on ITV it pioneered changes in political broadcasting.

The use of named newscasters was borrowed from the US, the news editor introduced interviews with the public in news items and Robin Day became its interviewer and the first to show a less deferential attitude to politicians.

The current affairs programme This Week covered political topics and led the BBC to revamp Panorama as a more investigative current affairs programme.

During the Second World War, the Government had passed regulations preventing broadcasters from discussing any topic which would be debated in Parliament during the next 14 days, and, since the Parliamentary timetable was only known a week before, this had a severe effect on political coverage.

The Suez crisis and the invasion of Egypt by British troops in 1956, which divided the country, forced the abandonment of the rule as television was determined to cover the debate on the issue.

In 1957, there was coverage of the whole of the Labour Party Conference and the 1959 election campaign was the first to be covered by television and included hustings programmes with debates between politicians in each region.

Changes in the 1960s and Political Satire

The basic format of television’s coverage of politics did not change until the 1990s but the 1960s saw significant changes in the broader content of television.

Hugh Carlton-Greene’s period as Director General of the BBC from 1962 to 1969 saw a more realistic depiction of working class life in drama and documentaries and a liberalisation of attitudes towards sex.

It also saw the introduction of political satire in 1962 when That Was the Week That Was, for the first time on television, made fun of politicians.

The satirical magazine, Private Eye, had exposed the Profumo scandal (the Minister of Defence had been seeing a high class prostitute, Christine Keeler, who was also seeing the Russian Naval Attache) and for the first time a television programme covered a scandal in the private life of a politician.

There was nothing new about political satire but it previously been produced for an elite audience while 12 million people watched That Was The Week That Was.

It was taken off the air at the end of 1963 because of the impending general election but inspired a range of later programmes, most notably Spitting Image in the 1980s. (The demolition of the Home Secretary, Henry Brooke by David Frost and William Rushton in the last programme of That Was The Week That Was can be seen on Youtube).

Transformation in the 1990s – The Broadcasting Act

By the mid-1980s the possibility of cable and satellite television was leading the Conservative Government to look again at broadcasting policy with the idea of introducing more competition.

In addition, Mrs Thatcher wanted to get rid of the TV licence and instead allow advertising on the BBC. The Peacock Committee set up to look at the latter instead favoured a subscription to replace the licence and opposed advertising on the BBC. The subscription model was then applied, not to the BBC, but to the new cable and satellite channels.

The Broadcasting Act 1990 brought in the new regime. It set up Channel 5, allowed for satellite television and forced the BBC to outsource 25% of its content.

There was more limited regulation of commercial television which was left to operate largely on commercial lines without public service requirements. There were implications for political coverage, including the introduction of 24 hour news.

(Peter Goodwin, Television under the Tories, 1998, explains the development of policy from 1979 onwards)