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TV Debates: they started here

Phil Griffin reveals the true nature of the Leaders Debate held in Manchester this week

Published on April 16th 2010.


TV Debates: they started here

Television electioneering came home last night, and for a few brief hours, I’m told, home felt like an exciting and important place to be once more. I need to explain.

You may think it reprehensible that the TV company in your midst could so cruelly have inflicted on the world such a torrent of obfuscation and deceit as must be our diet for the next few weeks. That’s plain cynical.

On 12 February 1958 there was a by-election in Rochdale. Up until that time there had been no direct coverage of elections on TV. Before you get carried away on a volcanic plume of envy back to those happier days, consider for a moment what that world was like.

When, in 1951, a mic-wielding man from the BBC asked Prime Minister Clement Attlee if he had anything to say about the forthcoming general election he sucked on his pipe and said, “No, not really. We shall just get on with it”.

Then, in 1956 a card-carrying member of the Labour Party was granted a license to broadcast television programmes to the north of England from his new base in Quay Street, Manchester. Sidney Bernstein’s Granada Television, singled handedly and single mindedly, totally changed the face of political broadcasting in Britain and, thereby, utterly transformed the nature of British politics forever.

What happened last night in Granada’s Studio 12 was a fitting epitaph to a once great and pioneering Manchester institution. Sidney would have been proud, and would surely have asked why it took so long.

On Thursday 23 January 1958 the News Chronicle scooped its Fleet Street rivals with a front-page story headed, “Rochdale may be first TV election.” London went a bit haywire.

First off, civil servants and the judiciary thought it was probably against the law that governed elections at the time. The Representation of the People Act, 1949 says a lot about newspapers, and not a single word about television.

The BBC was snotty. When asked by the News Chron for a reaction to the Granada plan, the voice of the nation said, “We do not intend to depart from our usual practice in by-elections that we do not influence voters nor report the campaigns in news bulletins”.

After a lot of huffing and puffing between Westminster, Transport House (Labour central office), Smith Square (Tories) and the Independent Television Authority, there was a sort of pact, and the “television election” would go ahead without any commitment to the future. Rochdale was the television pilot to beat all pilots.

The programmes were only seen in the Granada region (which at that time was coast to coast, Liverpool to Hull). In a night of TV firsts, Granada not only covered the count at Rochdale Town Hall, it also stayed on the air way past closedown, for the announcement of the winner. Labour man Jack McCann won with 22,000 votes.

However, it was the Liberal candidate who was arguably the first British politician to spot the importance and potential of television as a political weapon. He used the Granada coverage to his best advantage and considerably upped his share. He polled 17,603, the highest Liberal vote since the 1920’s. His name was Ludovic Kennedy. He gave up politics and went on to be one of the greatest television broadcasters of his generation.

The following year there was to be a general election and Granada was even more ambitious, putting forward plans to interview all the candidates in each constituency in its region, producing 24 hours of television titled Marathon. Even more legal and political argy bargy.

Individual candidates had never before been screened in an election. The biggest problem was to do with whether the candidates should be paying for their air time….Yes, whether they should be paying for it themselves….out of their own strictly limited and monitored election budgets. Oh happy world, that had politicians paying out rather than raking in.

Eventually Marathon went ahead with each candidate addressing the camera for 60 seconds. Granada even sent out helpful notes to virgin-candidates advising them how best to appear of television…”Plain ties look better than striped…If you wish, wear your rosettes, but avoid things that shine.” They were invited in constituency alphabetical order, so the first ones up were from Birkenhead, Blackpool, Bolton and Blackburn. The Labour candidate for Blackburn demanded a cushion. She was Barbara Castle and, pointing at her Conservative opposition complained, “You can see more of him than me.”

You may think it reprehensible that the TV company in your midst could so cruelly have inflicted on the world such a torrent of obfuscation and deceit as must be our diet for the next few weeks. That’s plain cynical.

What Granada Television did that night in Rochdale Town Hall was to ignite the next stage rocket into a political atmosphere nobody could foresee. A very few London people saw it, and saw that the future was Television.

And if, on the morning of May 7, Nick Clegg hasn’t got his neat little hands firmly and meaningfully wrapped around the reins of power, he can always slip off into a career in television. Which, by the way, is where the underperforming Cameron started out; at Carlton Television. He’d never have got through the door of Sidney Bernstein’s Granada.

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