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Political Communication – The Second Phase

Jay Blumler and Dennis Kavanagh provide a useful way of categorising the changes in the relationship between the media and politics with their model of the Three Phases of Political Communication (Political Communication Volume 16, No 3, 1999)

Widespread television ownership and the development of news and political reporting on TV, by the late 1950s, brings in the second phase.

The 1959 general election was the first in which there was any significant TV coverage of the campaign and, by now, 70% of the population had a television.

Macmillan and Wilson were both effective on television and the television political interview became an important part of political debate in the 1960s. There was more use of opinion polling and parties, to a degree, adjusted policies to public views.

The Labour Party employed its own opinion pollsters for the first time in 1964 and the Conservatives in 1966. The Conservative Party was the first to employ an advertising agency, Saatchi and Saatchi, to contribute to their campaign in 1979.

For elections, a central campaign committee was set up with the use of professional advisers, but firmly under political control. Planning by politicians and party press officers, before and during election campaigns, sought to control the agenda on television and in the press.

The daily party press conference , during the campaign, designed to set the news agenda became established. This took place early in the day as parties tried to establish the theme for that day.

Reporters would ask about any gaffes and attacks by the other parties. The party leader would visit a relevant location with the press in tow, give interviews and make a speech. All this would be supplemented by press releases on particular topics.

The Government Information Service provided mostly factual and non-political information. With the development of television the need for the newspapers to have general journalists to cover breaking news stories declined and the number of journalists with expertise in a topic area increased and this allowed them to develop a closer relation with the relevant Government department.

The main means that Government politicians had to deal with the media was the Parliamentary Lobby. About 100 journalists, from the newspapers, radio and television, were given privileged access to Westminster to talk to politicians and were briefed twice a day, in Westminster in the morning and No 10 in the afternoon, by the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary.

The meetings were not public and journalists would not attribute comments to anyone in Government. Journalists outside the Lobby often criticised it as leading to a cosy politician/media relationship so that journalists were given stories but failed to probe and ask the more difficult questions.

In particular, it has been criticised for its failure to investigate the issue of MPs’ expenses. Alistair Campbell as Tony Blair’s Press Secretary, as relationships with journalists deteriorated, opened the Lobby up to any journalist, made comments attributable and even published the details of the meetings. (Ivor Gabler has a really good article explaining the Lobby and why it has gone into decline, British Politics Volume 4, No 4, 2009).

It might seem that, in the second phase, television has become more important than the newspapers. Nevertheless, the newspapers often set the agenda for the day which the radio and the television then pick up (see the News headlines programmes that the BBC and Sky 24 hour news programmes now run in the late evening).

The Conservative press has certainly influenced the agenda in relation to immigration and the European Union.

There is evidence that the newspapers do have an influence on voting, even if this is difficult to prove with any certainty. (An attempt to assess this for the 1997 general election by John Curtice ‘Was it The Sun what won it again, Crest Working Paper No 75, 1999, available online and for the 2005 election by Heinz Brandenburg, Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, Volume 16 No 2, 2006).

The Leaders’ debates from 2010 represented a major success for television in asserting its importance against the papers. Most newspaper coverage was forced to concentrate on assessing the debates.