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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » The Party May Soon Be Over for the Political Broadcast

The Party May Soon Be Over for the Political Broadcast

 

The BBC could call time on the well-established tradition of political parties broadcasting their views – free – on radio and TV. This article first published on Suite 101, 7 December 2011. After the poor interest in the badly timed elections in November for Police and Crime Commissioners, this article could be even more relevant.

The phrase, ‘there now follows a party political broadcast on behalf of the …. Party’ was often sufficient to send millions of viewers scurrying to make tea or search for the remote. When there was only BBC and ITV on screens, both showed the broadcast simultaneously.

Now, next Budget Day, around March, is when listeners and viewers will no longer get a 5 minute statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer explaining the fiscal and tax plans he has set out in the Commons that day.

There will be no right of reply from the Shadow Chancellor on the Labour benches, and neither from the Lib Dems nor any other party. Not on the Budget. Most people think it will quickly follow that other broadcasts may be ended.

History of PPBs

The practice, enshrined in the BBC Charter as a public service broadcasting requirement, began in 1953 with Harold Macmillan (well before he became Prime Minister) speaking for the Conservatives when neither TV nor radio was streamed from the Commons. The Budget broadcasts particularly were how the general public (who may not have bought a newspaper the next day) could get information about what would affect their pockets, with political slants and bias thrown in.

In addition, parties were given a number of slots every year, usually pegged to the political calendar. The State Opening of Parliament (Queen’s Speech Day) was the reason for the autumn one, when the government of the day sets out its legislative programme for the Parliamentary year ahead, and the opposition parties usually ridicule it, condemning it as too little or too much, too late or too soon.

That said, parties can raise any issue (since all issues are political) they think will embarrass the others and present themselves in the best light. It’s illegal in the UK for a political party to directly advertise on TV or radio, unlike in the USA, for example, so this has always been the next best thing.

When there was no television in the 1920-30s, the idea that there should be even-handed distribution of radio broadcast time across parties did not happen at once. It took years for opposition time as well as ruling party time to be accepted.

Elections

During general and local elections, the same principle prevails. A share of broadcast time is allocated depending on public support at the previous election. The programmes are usually made in a day for broadcast that evening, to allow for issues and changing priorities of election campaigns to be utilised.

There have from time to time been ministerial factual statements or the idea that members of the government should address the nation during times of crisis or big decision, like the Common Market Referendum of 1975.

Over the years, as fashion and technology evolved, the style of broadcast moved from a suit in front of a camera with a script on his (almost always a man) desk, to a short feature film with graphics and music that modern audiences demand. Sometimes the mock interview technique is employed, or the health-product advertisement favourite, an ‘expert’ in a white lab coat, pontificating.

There have been periodic attempts to change the arrangements. In 2001, the Electoral Commission published a discussion paper/summary of issues rather than fresh ideas to take account of technological advances and ‘changing public attitudes to broadcasting’. They found evidence to support the effectiveness of political broadcasting was ‘inconclusive’, which failed to diminish politicos’ enthusiasm for the free medium.

The New Regime

Under plans put forward by the BBC Trust (motto: ‘getting the best out of the BBC for licence payers’), parties will be given three main annual broadcasts, in spring, autumn and winter. The run-up to polling day arrangements will remain in force. The Budget will not be on the broadcast calendar.

The Trust feels that broadcasts are outdated and take no account of ‘changes to the political environment’, televising Parliament and devolution. People get both their data and political comment from rolling news, streaming and the internet, live or later.

In December 2011 the Trust published consultation documents setting out the clear criteria. If a party can demonstrate substantial levels of support across a series of elections in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively, or holds more than one Commons or Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly or Northern Ireland Assembly seat, they will qualify for broadcasts.

This will allow minority parties to have slots. All must submit to BBC broadcast guidelines. The criteria may be adjusted to take account of new parties, party splits, defections and deaths, not to mention by-elections and referenda that may or may not come between elections.

The discussion is on-going till 20 January 2012, and revolves around scheduling, allocation criteria and particularly the abandoning of Budget broadcasts. Clearly it’s right that the publicly-funded main broadcasting channel of Britain should give platforms to elected representatives in a democracy. These changes seem sensible and proportionately modest, and in any case will not be given up lightly by the performers who ply for hire on our political stages.

Is the next step, though, for the media to advocate allowing parties to advertise directly (as well as indirectly) and to be taxpayer-funded to do it?

Sources:

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