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Why the first televised debates disappeared amid controversy

From left, Desmond Banks (Liberal), Reginal Maulding (Conservative) and Geryy Reynolds (Labour) appear on the BBC's Hustongs before the 1959 general election. Photo: Contributed - Credit: Archant

In the UK, televised election debates are considered a fairly recent introduction. But, as Roger Domeneghetti explains, there were some short-lived earlier attempts, which become embroiled in all the same controversies as now

When Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg took to the stage at Granada studios in April 2010, it was seen as a historic moment. While America had a long history of election debates, dating back to 1960 when John Kennedy bested Richard Nixon, the three-way debate in Manchester was considered a first for the UK. In fact Britain had beaten the USA to the lectern by a year.

In the 1950s, election coverage on the BBC was seriously restricted by the 1949 Representation of the People Act, 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 broadcast media, which was in its infancy when the act was passed. 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 election coverage.

Denis Foreman a director at Granada, one of the ‘Big Four’ new independent television 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.

The Conservatives 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. In 1958 there was a third, 
wild-card, candidate: the Liberals’ Ludovic Kennedy a celebrity television journalist.

Some felt that such coverage would be illegal, so it was a calculated risk by Foreman who readied himself for the possibility of jail. Granada broadcast two programmes, introduced by a young Michael Parkinson, 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%. Opinion polls suggested 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 declared 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. In the aftermath Macmillan became the first prime minster to give a television interview and seven months later the state opening of parliament was broadcast for the first time.

Thus it was all but inevitable that both the BBC and ITV, which by then reached 90% of the country, would cover the 1959 election in some form. By that time about 75% of British households had a television set, 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 television had gone from a being a minority pursuit to the norm and viewers were spending about 40% of each evening watching the box. As a consequence, both the BBC and ITV decided to broadcast a series of programmes in which politicians debated in front of an audience.

Granada’s Election Marathon took the same format as the channel’s Rochdale by-election coverage and extended it to every constituency in 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 a chaotic 
affair. Neither the channel nor the participants themselves were able to publicise who would appear when, in case of dropouts.

The candidates approached their allotted one minute with varying degrees of confidence and success. They were banned from discussing local issues and many of them failed to grasp the potential of the new medium. Some nervously read from notes, others claimed the make-up and lighting made them look older than their years, many rambled.

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 actually a series of local elections. It also demonstrated that television was a means through which candidates could significantly raise their profile.

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 20% of the seats in any region were entitled to appear, which effectively excluded all but the main three parties.

The parties chose which of their candidates would feature 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 chairman. 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 6, two days before polling.

The three-person panel consisted 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 again for more than 50 years. Each candidate delivered a short speech and then answered questions from the audience.

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 entertaining viewing for those in the studio it looked messy and chaotic for those viewing at home, who more often than not couldn’t hear the insults that were being hurled at the panellists, only the panellists’ shouted responses. The undignified sight of front-bench heavyweights becoming agitated and losing their temper on television was a negative image that lived long in the parties’ memory.

For the next 15 years (which included three general elections) the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberals all refused to take part in any broadcasts that involved live interaction with members of the public. Electioneering was repackaged for television, 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.

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