Political Television 1955-59

A review

Christopher Chataway at the start of an early ITN bulletin. A lot of graphic design has gone into the titles!

Political coverage took a big leap forward in 1955 as Independent Television went on the air. The consortium of independent companies operating regional franchises took their news from a new company founded by a former Labour MP who was later to join the Conservatives, Aidan Crawley. Crawley decided that ITN was not some imitation of the BBC. He brought in some techniques from American television such as named newscasters and filmed reports with sound; ‘vox pop’ interviews with the public were invented by ITN news editor Arthur Clifford.

Political discussion was still very limited on television (and radio). The “Fourteen Day Rule” started during the Second World War as an emergency measure prohibiting broadcast debate of any matter to be debated in Parliament in the following fortnight. As Parliamentary business was only fixed for one week, this rule effectively stopped any topical discussion. In the News was very rarely able to discuss things that were in the news.

In June 1955 the BBC proposed to abandon the rule. The government insisted on it. Eden did not want television to be used as a medium through which his policies could be attacked. The rule was reimposed, upgraded from an agreement to a formal order, and extended to ITV.

For political coverage on ITN, a barrister and radio producer called Robin Day was hired as an abrasive interviewer. The BBC had not liked interviews and provided the questions in advance to any politician who appeared; spontaneous interviews were conducted at the end of foreign trips which were no more than the chance for the politician to make a prepared statement.

The BBC’s response to this began four days before ITV started. It was to revamp Panorama into a political weekly with Richard Dimbleby as presenter, and an bow-tied aggressive interviewer of its own - ex-Labour MP Woodrow Wyatt. Because of the Fourteen Day Rule Wyatt had to tread carefully when talking to British politicians, but the programme often covered foreign affairs and there he had free reign. Wyatt was then a left-winger and reported enthusiastically on the spread of decolonisation in Africa.

The new Panorama was a hit with the critics. It attracted large audiences and quickly became one of the most well-known programmes. In 1957, a famous edition on 1st April reported on the spaghetti crop and showed the strings of raw spaghetti being picked from the plants.

With the success of the new version of Panorama, Associated-Rediffusion responded with its own version, called This Week. With an unforgettable theme tune (by Sibelius), This Week ran for thirty-five years until A-R’s successor Thames Television lost the London weekday franchise in 1992. One early reporter was a young Liberal politician, Jeremy Thorpe.

This new form of political broadcasting was not welcome to the government. Eden liked television - or rather, he liked appearing on it without any hostile or sceptical voices. He believed that he should have the right, as the nation’s Prime Minister, to speak to the nation on television when he wanted to. Shortly after Eden came to office, agreement was reached to allow Ministerial broadcasts on television as well as radio. The opposition was to have right to reply only when the government allowed it or the broadcast was controversial, and the definition of controversial was abstract.

Top: Opening titles of Panorama from 1955. Bottom: Richard Dimbleby (left) and friend. At last a BBC programme reporting on politics, so good it survives to this day.

Opening titles for Tonight in 1957. Topical magazine programme, with a populist stance.
© BBC.

Over at the BBC, senior executives had begun to take drastic action after the success of ITN in grabbing 70% of the audience. So, to go with Panorama, a new and more populist news magazine programme was begun, called Tonight. The presenter was a jolly Cliff Michelmore and the stories were light. Alan Whicker made his name on television as a Tonight reporter. BBC newsreaders were named on air and news values were shifted to demote routine royal visits and promote more controversial stories.

In 1956, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal. Eden determined that Nasser was a dictator, who could not be appeased and must be fought. He decided to take a ministerial broadcast to explain it, and on 8th August he went to the BBC studios at Lime Grove (Television Centre not being complete) to make it.

There were few studios available on short notice, and the BBC could only give Eden an old studio mainly used by continuity announcers. It was up three flights of stairs, cramped and boiling hot in mid-summer. Eden thought this was a deliberate ploy by the BBC (which, like Churchill, he believed to be Communist-controlled) and he accused them of shining lights in his eyes to put him off. Despite this he thought the broadcast succeeded. The Labour opposition was giving support to his policy and so there was no right of reply.

As the Suez crisis went on, and Eden made preparations for military action, Labour grew increasingly sceptical of Eden’s policy. Eden forced the BBC to allow Australian Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies to make another broadcast supporting his policy. As part of war preparations, Eden then invited acting Director-General Harman Grisewood to the MoD to instruct him on the BBC’s role in the war. Eden intended to reintroduce wartime censorship. Grisewood could not agree. Unlike World War II this was not a war which virtually everyone supported. It was highly controversial.

Anthony Eden addresses the nation on the need to take military action in Suez. He was forced to use his glasses to read the script.
© unknown, possibly BBC.

Hugh Gaitskell opposes the Suez invasion on television.
© unknown, possibly BBC.

Military action began on 31st October with the bombing of Egyptian airfields, a clear preparation for an invasion. Eden decided to make another ministerial broadcast - this time inviting the cameras to Downing Street. Leader of the Opposition Gaitskell, now totally opposed to action, demanded the right of reply. The government insisted the broadcast was non-controversial. Gaitskell appealed to the BBC.

Eventually the Chairman of the BBC Board of Governors decided that Gaitskell would get to broadcast. By coincedence, this was Sir Alexander Cadogan, who had been the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office during Eden’s Foreign Secretaryship. Eden was enraged, but Gaitskell was not pacified; the broadcast was his right. Gaitskell called for Eden’s resignation and savaged the idea of war in Suez. Gaitskell’s speech also went out on the Arabic Service radio and so was heard by the troops and their Egyptian enemies.

The Suez invasion failed and Eden was forced to negotiate a ceasefire with the Egyptians. Immediately after the Suez Crisis, the Fourteen Day Rule was suspended for six months, eventually dropped. It was now impossible to continue to prohibit debate about current events on television and radio. Two months later, Eden was forced to resign as Prime Minister.

His successor was Harold Macmillan. The evening he took over, Macmillan was surprised to find television cameras following him to dinner at the Turf Club. Macmillan had to learn to deal with television, at which he had little experience. He took a Ministerial broadcast six days after he became Prime Minister to introduce himself and steady the damaged Conservative Party. The producer, Huw Wheldon, read the speech Macmillan intended to use and was appalled; it was completely unnatural. The speech was rewritten. Click on the picture for a RealVideo of Macmillan’s views on TV.

Harold Macmillan makes a TV broadcast as Prime Minister. Macmillan had to put some effort into his TV appearances; he was not a ‘natural’.
© unknown, possibly BBC.

Harold Macmillan in his favourite location for interviews.
© unknown, possibly BBC.

Macmillan decided to plan the image he wished to portray on television. In private he was very emotional and quite shy, and had deliberately affected nonchalance in order to hide it in public. It was this appearance he determined to build on when cultivating a TV image: Macmillan would be unflappable, no matter what the crisis.

In January 1958, the entire Treasury Ministerial team, including the Chancellor Peter Thorneycroft, resigned over Macmillan’s insistence on higher government spending. The next day Macmillan had been due to depart for a tour of Africa. He decided to go ahead, and prepared what to say when he was cornered at the airport by the television reporters. So millions of viewers saw Macmillan declare “I thought the best thing to do was to settle up these little local difficulties, and then turn to the wider vision of the Commonwealth”.

Airports were Harold Macmillan’s favourite location for interviews and he made sure he got a lot of practice. Click on the picture for a wry Macmillan comment on television cameras at airports.

Political and current affairs coverage had been established on the broadcasting scene by 1957. The Labour Party had let the TV cameras into its annual conference in 1955 but only for one morning. In 1957 they were there for the full week, and so the public saw Aneurin Bevan turn on the proposers of a motion for unilateral nuclear disarmament. The TUC conference was routinely covered on ITV from 1957; in 1960, regular coverage of party conferences began (taking up the daytime, when few other programmes were disrupted).

In January 1958, senior broadcasters met in conclave with senior politicians at Nuffield College, Oxford. The Directors-General of the BBC and ITA were there, as well as the Leaders of the Labour and Liberal Parties and the Government Chief Whip. There they discussed whether it was time that television covered elections. David Butler and Robert McKenzie, the academics who had appeared on the election night programmes, argued that it should.

Aneurin Bevan calls unilateralism “an emotional spasm” at 1957 Labour Party conference. The quality of this telerecording was very poor.
© BBC.

In March 1958, Mark Bonham Carter won the Torrington byelection for the Liberals. Here he is chaired by his supporters. This was probably the first byelection covered by the BBC.
© BBC.

Immediately after this meeting, a byelection occurred in Rochdale, in the northern area where Granada held the ITV franchise. Granada had not attended the Nuffield meeting; it decided independently to report the campaign. The BBC decided not to. ITN sent a camera crew to the constituency to film the candidates campaigning for the seat. In the mid-term, with the Treasury resignations recent news, Rochdale was a very interesting fight - it had been Conservative held at the previous general election, but by only 1,590 votes over Labour, and with a dynamic Liberal intervention with a celebrity candidate (Ludovic Kennedy, former ITN newscaster).

In order to prevent claims that ITN was promoting its former employee, the candidates were not shown speaking, though in a later program made by Granada all three were put on a panel and questioned by local journalists. Rochdale polled on 12th February 1958, and there was a big turnout of over 80%. For the first time, the result was televised. The Conservatives were humiliated into a poor third place; Labour gained the seat, but the Liberals were close behind. No legal problems were encountered by the broadcasters and since Rochdale, byelections have been reported in full.

Macmillan fought back by giving the first television interviews with a Prime Minister, first on the BBC’s Press Conference, then three days later on Tell the People made by ITN with the help of ABC. The BBC gave an easy ride, but on Tell the People, Macmillan was invited to tell the people whether he was to sack his Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd who had come in for criticism. Chief Whip Edward Heath complained to ITN about it, though Macmillan had been expecting the question.

With the government losing byelections, behind in the polls and an election due, Harold Macmillan decided to take steps to improve his public image. In January 1959 he visited the Soviet Union and later in the year, made brief tours of most European countries. In August he staged a TV spectacular by inviting US President Eisenhower to a dinner party at 10 Downing Street, which would be televised. As both cordially praised each other and paid tribute to good Anglo-American relations, viewers saw the image of a Prime Minister above politics.

The conjunction of very positive images of Macmillan appearing just as an election was imminent did not go unnoticed. When Macmillan was asked about he said that the visit had not been arranged for electoral purposes, but it was a “happy coincidence”. The election was called a week after the broadcast.

President Eisenhower (left) has a cosy chat with Prime Minister Macmillan, and we all got a peek.
© Central Press

The BBC’s ‘Hustings’ programme put on during the 1959 election. Television electioneering by kind courtesy of the political parties. This is one of the London programmes; the panellists are, left to right, Desmond Banks (Liberal), Reginald Maudling (Conservative) and Gerry Reynolds (Labour).
© BBC.

1959 was the first time television ever covered an election campaign. It was a tribute to the broadcasters of the time that at the end of it, one observer wrote that “it is hard now to realise that throughout the 1955 campaign and for many elections previously, the BBC .. ostentatiously excluded from the air all references to politics apart from the party broadcasts”. The Television Act 1954 had made it a legal duty (the broadcasters already considered it an ethical duty) to be fair and unbiased. In fact the main parties made only two complaints of bias. As in previous elections the broadcasters bent over backwards to be legal (the ITV network forbade itself to show voters declaring which party they supported).

Many existing programmes disappeared or were drastically changed during the campaign. ‘Tonight’ went, ‘Press Conference’ stayed but with no politicians. In order to report the campaign the BBC put on a new programme, ‘Hustings’ where three politicians nominated by the parties were asked questions by an audience nominated by the parties, before a neutral chairman. The programmes were regional - two in each of the seven BBC regions. (There was no programme in Northern Ireland because the Unionists refused to appear with their opponents in the Northern Ireland Labour Party, and had made Sinn Féin illegal). These programmes could often be rumbustious and put the parties off studio confrontrations with their opponents and the voters for many years.

News coverage of the 1959 election was patchy, but this was caused by the parties as much as by the broadcasters. As far as the broadcasters were concerned, they had still few sound-film cameras which were needed to cover speeches, and then needed to get the film back and develop it quickly in order to get to the air. The need to balance meant that coverage had to be planned in minute detail; it could still be thwarted when the film arrived too late, or (as happened once to Hugh Gaitskell) the film crew managed to blow the fuse and force the abandonment of the meeting.

Politicians were still making their speeches largely for the audience in the flesh, not watching at home, so the quick quotes which were appropriate to TV news had to be found by the editors. The parties had begun to put speeches on earlier so that the film was available for the news broadcasts.

On the left, a cameraman films Hugh Gaitskell (right) for television during a tour in the 1959 election. Note that many of the crowd are more interested in the camera.
© BBC.

Hugh Gaitskell concedes defeat, live on ITN, at 12:55 AM. ITN’s big scoop from election night.
© ITN.

On election night the BBC found that it had competition for the first time. ITN was given authority to use all the ITV companies for local links, and gave the election programme a priority. Ian Trethowan, later Director-General of the BBC, was the presenter; as the programme went on the air, Geoffrey Cox (Editor-in-chief of ITN) said to him “I just want you to know, Ian, that the whole future of ITV is on your shoulders tonight.”.

In the event the ITN programme suffered from a series of technical disasters and lost the largest audience share to the BBC (it always seemed that, at great national events, the British public went to auntie BBC). ITN did have the consolation of a major scoop: when only a few results had been declared, it was clear that most showed an increased Conservative majority and in an interview before 1 AM Leader of the Opposition Hugh Gaitskell declared that “I think that, in view of the results that have come in, it is clear that there is going to be a Conservative government, and I must therefore concede victory in this election to our opponents”.

Television politics was well-established by the 1959 election and covered it well. The parties had long since abandoned their reluctance to use the medium and the party broadcasts were in many cases very slick, high standard productions. Overall, the competition between BBC and ITV served the viewer well, and among the ITV companies, Granada led the way.

In the 1959-64 Parliament, television no longer became simply a tool for politicians. It became a weapon against them as well.

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