Good Morning Prime Minister

Robin Carmody on UK General Election coverage

First published June 2001

We all measure General Elections by the moments we remember from TV coverage. Michael Portillo’s defeat in 1997 was merely the latest in a long line of iconic, era-defining excerpts from televised elections. We recall them, collectively, as we saw them on TV the first time, in shock, amazement, and, depending on our political line, grief, indifference, or joy.

In 2001 as the election machine grinds again, we can consider 50 years of televised election coverage. Despite still being bound by the tightest of strictures, and invariably scrutinised to the nth degree, televised elections have come a long way over the years. And whilst politicians have sought to wrestle control of the TV screens from the programme makers, the last half a century has really only seen the battlegrounds of election coverage shift location. So how did we get from “Good evening, sir, welcome to Panorama” to “You are a big personality and some would say a control freak”?

There now follows a Party Election Broadcast …

In the years immediately after the World War II, the vast majority of British audiences got their General Election coverage from the Home Service. During the 1951 election, however, average audiences for radio broadcasts fell, and not just because, as political academic David Butler wrote at the time, “far more people are away from their firesides in a clement October than in a less temperate February”. In this year BBC television began airing Party Election Broadcasts for the first time, something of a novelty, though only accessible to 10% of the potential electorate. Existing BBC election conventions dictated that news bulletins confine themselves only to reports of formalities, such as the dissolution of Parliament and the arrangements for polling day. Indeed, in 1951 a programme dealing with the birth of a baby was dropped simply because it referred to the NHS. However in 1950, 1951 and 1955, there were election night programmes on the BBC – then the only British television channel – but these were dull, stuffy affairs, and would not have been watched by the majority of the electorate. Nonetheless the 1955 election broadcast was considered a great success and was notable for the first appearance of the swingometer, briefly demonstrated by David Butler. Robert McKenzie would in turn form his well-remembered association with the swingometer in 1964, while Butler would continue involvement in television elections, in 2001 taking part in Sky News’s broadcast, giving him a remarkable and unrivalled 46-year span of election coverage.

The ’55 election also saw an early near-miss on screen for Labour as a young Harold Wilson broadcast to the nation in a PEB entitled “Your Money’s Worth”. The broadcast was to detail the cost of living for an average family, with Harold Wilson taking on the role of the husband-figure. However, Morgan Phillips, the Party’s General Secretary was very keen on being involved too, and insisted a “mystery voice” should cry out in the middle of the programme: “What are you going to do about it?” Phillips additionally insisted that that voice should be his. Leonard Miall at the BBC (who was helping in the production of the broadcast) tried to explain to Phillips that it would seem as though the interruption had come from one of the TV camera crew. “To hell with the BBC!” Phillips said, and threatened to gatecrash the recording anyway. When Wilson expressed his displeasure at this prospect, however, Phillips finally backed down.

The BBC’s persistent refusal to cover absolutely anything to do with the Election campaign raised much criticism in 1955. The Economist noted, “As usual the purity of intention behind the BBC’s rules must be applauded with politeness rather than enthusiasm; these slightly ludicrous pre-election arrangements are inevitable as long as the monopoly in broadcasting remains.” Hugh Carlton-Greene later viewed the Beeb’s behaviour throughout the 1950s as, “a tremendous abdication of responsibility.” By the time of the next election in 1959, however, things had changed, principally due to the coming of commercial television. In 1956 – shook by the comparatively critical and questioning approach to news coverage by ITN, itself inspired by the American networks – the BBC abandoned its archaic “14-day rule”, banning discussion on TV and radio of anything due to be debated in Parliament within the next fortnight. Competition between rival broadcasters livened up news coverage, though the ban on programmes commenting on politics at election time wasn’t broken until Granada covered the Rochdale by-election in 1958. Shortly afterwards the BBC followed suit when it covered the by-election at Torrington in Devon. These set a model for future election broadcasting, and the General Election the following year was the first to be properly covered by British television. Still, it was a cautious affair. ITN had to plan carefully, basing editorial selection on news value thanks to a parity of technical resources. Film cameras had to be distributed so neither side would have an unfair advantage. The BBC, still nervous, cancelled Tonight for the duration of the campaign, while Panorama didn’t deal with the political aspects of the election at all. The Beeb’s main innovation was Hustings, a series of regional programmes also repeated on the radio. ITN aired a nightly roundup of news in The Election Day by Day, fronted, like their election night coverage itself, by Ian Trethowan and Brian Connell. But coverage varied across the regions. Tyne Tees and Southern showed nothing but the official party broadcasts and Operation X, a networked ITN production about the mechanics of the election. Granada was most pioneering with their marathon broadcast, attempting to bring every candidate in the area before the cameras. Photos of MPs’ walkabouts during the campaign depicted members of the public seeming awe-struck by the sight of TV cameras as by the MPs themselves.

On polling day itself came the biggest changes. Grace Wyndham Goldie and future BBC1 controller Michael Peacock oversaw the BBC’s coverage that was fronted, as with any big event in this era, by Richard Dimbleby. In an era when television broadcasting hours were regulated by government, election night now became one of the few occasions when Britain had overnight or breakfast-time television. In 1959 coverage on the BBC ran uninterrupted through to 4am, and then again on the Friday on and off through to 8.45pm. ITV also ran into the night and the following day, but its efforts were not considered a great success, beset by badly-designed, barely readable captions, even though they had the notable scoop of Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell conceding defeat. In all other respects, the BBC won Britain’s first “television election”, though as a reminder that the formality of the old order was still far from gone, the Radio Times informed readers that “The bulletins of General Election news broadcast by the BBC are the Copyright Joint Service of the Press Association, Ltd., and the Exchange Telegraph Co., Ltd., and are intended for private reception only.” The 1959 General Election also witnessed the first of many incidences of political parties trying to get tough with the broadcasters. The ITA resisted Labour suggestions that an episode of Rawhide should not be shown at 7pm on polling day as it would dissuade people from going out to vote.

By 1964 90% of British homes had TV sets. The build-up to the campaign had been given much coverage on now established programmes like Gallery, This Week and World in Action. When the election was called, the broadcasters again tried to play safe. Live audiences were forbidden for discussions, and candidates, as usual, disappeared from non-political programmes, and also BBC current affairs programmes. An episode of The Avengers due to air on polling day was dropped after Honor Blackman appeared in a Liberal broadcast – but ironically the Beeb showed Steptoe and Son the same day, overlooking Harry Corbett’s prominent campaigning for Labour. Instead the BBC postponed a sketch in It’s a Square World showing Fu Manchu sailing his Chinese junk up the Thames to sink the House of Commons.

ITN again had nightly special reports from 11.10pm to 11.30pm, hosted by Alistair Burnet and Robert Kee. The big innovation was Election Forum, simulcasted on BBC television and radio on three evenings before dissolution, with the party leaders appearing separately to answering questions put by Ian Trethowan, Robin Day and Kenneth Harris from those raised by viewers on some 18,000 postcards. Granada again attempted its marathon, dubbed by critics “as decorous as a vicarage tea party” and “as uninspiring as a television valve”. Audiences for news programmes actually rose during the campaign. The night itself found ITN in the company of Alistair Burnet and Robert Kee, and BBC1 with Dimbleby, David Butler, Robin Day, Robert McKenzie and his swingometer, Cliff Michelmore and Ian Trethowan (who had moved over from ITN, and would ultimately become BBC Director General). Coverage again ran through the following day, interspersed with news from the Tokyo Olympic Games. Peter Snow’s debut on ITN began a 37-year career of election coverage. Transmissions ran until at least 4.45pm (when normal afternoon programmes were scheduled to start) the following day, and quite possibly beyond, as thanks to the ultra-close results this was one of the latest declarations of the winning party ever.

More developments came in 1966. The Beeb were still anxious about output – cancelling satirical series BBC3, while an edition of ITV’s Hallelujah was dropped for fear that two hymns contained political sentiments. Experiments with live relays from political meetings were attempted by ITN, who opened one bulletin with four and a half minutes of live footage of the PM facing hecklers in Birmingham. BBC1′s late-night Twenty-Four Hours – which had succeeded Tonight in 1965 – was heavily involved in election coverage. But the death of Richard Dimbleby meant Cliff Michelmore became the channel’s main election night presenter; ITN were in the capable hands of Alistair Burnet, and also enjoyed a interview with the victor Harold Wilson, who simultaneously snubbed the BBC despite the Corporation converting a special coach of the Liverpool – London train the PM was returning to Downing Street in for live transmission. This was just one manifestation of Wilson’s mounting mistrust of the BBC.

Come 1970 and the General Election was televised in colour for the first time. As polls now closed at 10pm rather than 9pm, the coverage started later, BBC1 entertaining viewers with a now very dated Johnny Speight pub sketch called “The Campaign’s Over”, with Eric Sykes as the Foreman, Warren Mitchell as Alf Garnett and Spike Milligan as Paki-Paddy. Cliff Michelmore was in charge once again, while Michael Barratt presented the following early morning roundup. ITN now had the News at Ten leading its coverage, considered worthy of a TV Times cover; and on election night itself contrasted Burnet with co-host David Frost.

The next General Election, in February 1974, was called during an energy crisis that had meant all British television had been closing down at 10.30pm. Whitehall’s initial response was that this law would have to stay; a few hours later the order was reversed and broadcasters adopted their usual expanded coverage. The brevity of the campaign affected the scope, balance and quantity of coverage. The broadcasters panicked and increased the main BBC news to an hour in length, while News at Ten was bumped up, and with the hour-long Midweek Special on BBC2 from 11pm to 12am you could watch three unbroken hours of election coverage on all three channels. LWT’s Weekend World became a major site for analysis and would remain so for years to come. Alistair Burnet fronted the Beeb’s election night coverage, while ITN’s featured Robert Kee with Peter Jay, Peter Snow and Andrew Gardner. With this election resulting in a hung parliament, the nation went to polls again in October. Coverage of the February election had been considered all round to be excessive, so this time it was scaled back. Burnet was still with the BBC, but both networks used early computers to provide results and graphics. A young Sue Lawley also joined the Beeb. The BBC were becoming more predisposed to giving their results coverage stylised names; the 6am morning-after shift being subtitled “Where Are We Now?”

Five years later came another election and the usual round of changes and cancellations. A total of 12 programmes were postponed or simply dropped, including a screening by LWT of the satire on industrial relations, I’m Alright Jack (Labour had complained to the IBA and the film was pulled). The BBC’s nightly Campaign 79, broadcast each night just 40 minutes after the main evening news, inevitably suffered from repetition and its audience was lower on average than in 1974. The BBC introduced some new ideas during the campaign, such as the Nationwide Debates, chaired by Robin Day, and Hustings, a late night BBC2 compilation of MPs’ speeches. But on election night itself the Corporation did not do well. David Dimbleby was in charge for the first time, joined by amongst others Angela Rippon, while ITN now had Alastair Burnet. ITN processed the first result from Glasgow Central before the BBC had even mentioned it, while the second result, from Cheltenham, was reported and processed by ITN while Angela Rippon was telling BBC1 viewers about a power cut in another constituency. When the BBC then cut to Cheltenham, viewers saw a still of the town hall accompanied by silence.

The Beeb did catch up slightly, but they misquoted the result from Angus South when their computer, Rover, which was universally judged as inferior to ITN’s VT30 Display System, gave the Tories 2000 votes instead of 20,000. When Mrs Thatcher arrived in her constituency of Finchley, the BBC had pictures of Anna Ford, leading Dimbleby to comment, in the terms of a BBC still shy of acknowledging ITV’s very existence, “There’s a lady from a television channel I won’t mention”. The following morning BBC1 tried to lighten the mood with some musical wit and whimsy from Richard Stilgoe, Glyn Worsnip and Richard Coles, airing the same time as ITV’s memorably-named Good Morning Prime Minister. The new PM didn’t arrive in Downing Street till later that afternoon – when BBC1 were showing Play School, and BBC2 a testcard. Rumours were that frustrated BBC technicians deliberately blacked out the Tories grand moment.

The 1979 election had seen the inception of Election Call, a Radio 4 phone-in programme where callers put questions to different senior politicians every day. Introduced by Robin Day, it was simulcasted on BBC1 from 1983 and continues to this day, remaining the programme most likely to trip up politicians. Back in 1983, however, it was judged part of a glut of TV coverage. “This has been a television election, for good or ill,” concluded John Tusa on Newsnight just before polling day. Newsnight itself was a newcomer to General Election campaigns; both networks now had electronic news gathering facilities (ENG) and improved graphic packages, both extended their main evening bulletins, and now there was a fourth channel also providing news, as well as the two breakfast services TV-am and Breakfast Time. There was also a deluge of minority programmes, such as Seven Days (C4), Black on Black (C4) and Ebony (BBC2). C4 had The Election 500, a Granada series with 500 voters from the North-West talking to Gus MacDonald, but was an election-free zone on the night of the poll itself. Undoubtedly the best-remembered moment from the 1983 election came from the BBC: the incident on Nationwide when Mrs Thatcher was rattled by Cirencester housewife Diane Gould’s questioning her approach to the Falklands War. Dimbleby and Burnet was once more in charge on the night itself, BBC1 prefacing their coverage with a live special edition of Carrott’s Lib. Bob McKenzie had died two years earlier and, in recognition both of his death and of the emergence of the Liberal/SDP Alliance making the election a less straightforward two-horse race than before, the swingometer was absent this year. Instead, Peter Snow, having moved over from ITN, worked the BBC computer. Both channels hit on the idea of showing films before breakfast TV rather than closing down.

In 1987 coverage again increased, with the expansion of TV broadcasting hours. The BBC now believed it had had a rather bad time in 1983 with coverage under-resourced and ill-coordinated. Five minutes were added to weekday bulletins at lunchtime and teatime, and the Nine O’clock News went up to 50 minutes. News at Ten only gained an extra five minutes; C4 news appeared on Saturday and Sunday. Reporting appeared more sharp – coverage of a Tory rally jumped from a tasteless racist joke by Ted Rogers to the face of an Asian in the audience, and a report on the Kinnock campaign spoke of a “frenetic day spent promoting the leader’s image rather than the party’s policies.”

The BBC ran the early-evening question-time programme On the Spot with Sue Lawley, while Julia Somerville presented BBC2′s late-night On the Hustings. Coverage of election night itself ran from 10pm, with Jasper Carrott’s Election Confidential moving over to BBC2, followed by Omnibus‘ history of music videos, Video Jukebox, with election results flashed up on screen. Coverage ran right through the following day, with a break for Children’s BBC where Phillip Schofield and Gordon the Gopher appeared in the Broom Cupboard wearing suits. ITN’s Vote 87 was preceded by a live Spitting Image election special, then Alistair Burnet, Peter Sissons and Alistair Stewart did the business.

Coverage of the 1992 General Election was heavy, thanks to the long build up to polling day and protracted speculation over the election date. The Nine O’clock News was extended, from 25 to 50 minutes, On the Hustings reappeared again, and Channel 4 opened up its Star Chamber for politicians to be quizzed by their resident computer voice. Vincent Hanna chaired Midnight Special on C4. The cover of the Radio Times for election week showed Peter Snow alongside the new computerised swingometer, restored after 13 years’ absence. On election night itself – Thursday 9 April – BBC1′s coverage kicked off at 9.55pm and was scheduled to run to 4am, but programmes were dropped to broadcast Major’s return to Downing Street. Coverage was fronted for the fourth time by David Dimbleby, breaking for a special edition of Breakfast News at 6am presented by Nicholas Witchell and Laurie Mayer.

This was the first election after ITV went 24-hour, and therefore the first time ITN’s coverage was billed to run from 10pm to 6am, fronted this year, following the retirement of Sir Alistair Burnet in 1991, by Jon Snow, joined by Robin Day now retired from regular work with the BBC. However coverage did not stay on ITV come early the following morning – as in 1987 – switching instead to C4 to take the place of the regular Channel Four Daily. Both BBC2 and C4 consciously countered election night coverage with humour. BBC2 had a special election Have I Got News For You and the Comic Strip film Red Nose of Courage, loosely inspired by Major and Kinnock, while C4 had the film Scandal, a special election edition of Kit and the Widow, and the Marx Brothers film Duck Soup. 1992 was also the first election covered by Sky News, though the satellite channel’s impact was limited.

Coverage was still more excessive in 1997. The Beeb extended the Nine O’clock News to double its usual length, a move that perhaps backfired, especially as other channels didn’t go to such extremes. Channel 5 was tackling its first election, promising to cover party policies in 60 seconds flat. GMTV were also newcomers. ITN chartered a helicopter to fly off and find real people’s views; editions of the BBC1 lunchtime news and C4 News were often in part or entirely on location. Channel 4 ran a series in its well-established 7.50pm Comment slot called Thatcher’s Children, picking up on the fact that first-time voters had never known anything other than a Conservative government. They also revived Midnight Special, though now cut down from two hours to 90 minutes, ran a full debate among young people, presented by Anthony Wilson, and aired satirical chats between John Bird and John Fortune. In place of the leaders’ debate that once again fell through, the BBC staged Debate for a Chancellor while the ITV 500 quizzed the leaders in turn, not in debate, though John Major had pulled out at the last minute to be replaced by Michael Heseltine. BBC1 also ran The Leader Interview, a series of Panorama specials fronted by David Dimbleby at 8.30pm on Monday nights.

On election night itself BBC1′s coverage ran through the night with Dimbleby joined by Jeremy Paxman and Peter Snow, while ITN’s coverage, from 10pm to 4am, was fronted by David’s brother Jonathan with Michael Brunson, Alistair Stewart and Sue Lawley. There was another election special of Have I Got News For You on BBC2 at 10pm followed by the epic three-hour Election Night Armistice involving Armando Iannucci, Peter Baynham, David Schneider, Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge, Tony Robinson and Valerie Singleton.

In 2001, however, coverage was noticeably scaled down. On election night itself both BBC1 and ITV ran through the night, BBC1 sharing its coverage with News 24. It began at 9.55pm, but then cut to the news, rather spoiling the tension. David Dimbleby was back for the sixth time supported by Jeremy Paxman, Peter Snow and newcomer Fiona Bruce. Jonathan Dimbleby, along with John Sergeant, Mary Nightingale, Dermot Murnaghan and analyst Colin Rallings, fronted ITN’s coverage. BBC Wales and BBC Scotland, covering their first elections after devolution, ran full overnight broadcasts on BBC2, while in Northern Ireland, where votes weren’t counted until the following day, a special programme was shown that evening between 4pm and 8pm. But BBC1′s main coverage ended at 1pm. There was no extended coverage in the afternoon or evening, nor on ITV, who broke, unbelievably, for This Morning. ITV’s main evening news meanwhile went out at 11pm, after a repeat of It Shouldn’t Happen to a Newsreader.

Much has changed since 1997. Digital TV has arrived, multi-channel takeup has risen considerably, the internet has evolved from a cult into a mass-market phenomenon, and both the BBC and ITN now cover elections with their own 24-hour news channels – though, admittedly, the ITN News Channel has had limited success compared to BBC News 24. This has partially contributed to a decline in the amount of time devoted to the 2001 election on the terrestrial channels, coupled with perhaps the certainty that Labour would win a second term. Maybe a closer election, with a smaller majority held by the party in government, would help, but the general cynicism of the public seems to have got through to the broadcasters this year. Meanwhile the fragmentation and reduction of the amount of time devoted to the election on BBC1 and ITV represents a significant trend, and quite probably indicates a future where extended coverage of news events – even General Elections – will be confined to 24-hour news channels alone.

When television first started to cover the General Election it did so from a position of subservience. Although never actually a tool of the politicians (something it has always resisted), TV did initially conduct itself in a very cap-in-hand manner. Over the years, we have seen this relationship invert, with politics now very much shaped by TV coverage. Our MPs’ chief concern is now to grab the lead story on the 10 O’clock News. And thus it’s probably fair to say that it’s slightly disingenuous to claim the real power in Britain lies with the voter when in reality it lies with the broadcaster.