The Battle for the Campaign Agenda in Britain (1997) The 1997 election was a struggle, not just for votes, but also to control the campaign agenda. Significant, but contradictory, challenges faced the media, parties and the public. For journalists, the problem was how to engender any zip into the campaign. Ever since Black Wednesday, in September 1992, Labour had seemed assured of victory while Conservative support floundered in the doldrums. For five years, perhaps it just seemed like longer, pundits had been writing of the end of the Conservative era, bolstered by all the accumulated evidence from opinion polls, by-elections and local elections. By the start of the six-week official campaign, the horse-race story was almost lifeless.
Moreover, to the dismay of leader-writers, commentators and columnists, Blair’s strategic shift towards the centre-left had removed much of the drama of serious policy conflicts between the major parties. Few issues remained where one could discern clear blue water between Labour and the Conservatives – devolution and constitutional reform, perhaps the faint ghost of trade union rights and spending priorities – but on so much the contest was a classic case of an echo not a choice. Lastly, at the outset the campaign promised tight party control, in as gaffe-free an environment as could be humanly managed. At the start the Labour party seemed insecure and sweaty despite its enormous lead in the polls, and the professional mandelson machine at Millbank Tower left almost nothing to chance, as though the souffle of support might suddenly collapse.
... Negative Campaigning During Political Elections Like most good ideas Television coverage of elections started out innocent and innovative. But in the ... of rising campaign costs, attack ads that run every on every major broadcast outlet in America during an election season ... in 1996. Overall (inflation adjusted), the cost of campaigning increased 4 times during this period. In the somewhat narrower ...
Based on their formidable track-record during the 1980 s, the Conservatives had a reputation for running highly professional campaigns. Given the palpable sense of public boredom and impatience, a feeling of oh-do-lets-get-on-with-it, the challenge for journalists was to find something fresh and interesting to hol the attention of their readers and viewers. During the six week campaign there was, on average, about ten hours of regular BBC and ITN television news and current affairs programmes every weekday 1, not including election specials, nor Sky News, CNN, Radio 4, Five Live, newspapers and magazines, the internet election web pages, and all the other plethora of media outlets. Something had to fill the ravenous news hole. For the public, the primary urge seemed to be to get it all over with. But voters also needed to make sense of the choice before them, when policy differences between the parties had shaded from the red-and-blue days of Thatcher v.
Foot to a middle of the road wishy-washy mauve. Many issues confronting voters were complex, technical and subtle, with no easy answers: what will happen to the economy if Britain enters, or stays out, of the ERM How can the peace process move ahead in Northern Ireland, given the intractability of all sides Can Britain afford an effective and comprehensive health service, given ever-increasing demands on the system and spending limits accepted by all parties These, and related, issues facing Britain have critical consequences for the lives of citizens, but they admit of no simple sound-bite panaceas. The needs of the news media and the public were at odds with those of the parties. Given their lead, the primary challenge for Labour was to manage their media environment against unexpected crises, in play-safe reactive mode. The watchword was control. Memories of the polling fiasco in 1992, and Neil Kinnock’s false expectation of victory in that campaign (“We ” re allright!” ), dominated strategy in 1997.
The challenge for the Conservatives was to staunch grassroots morale, and even build momentum, by emphasising the positive economic performance of the government, by reassuring voters to trust Prime Minister John Major against the inexperienced and unknown Tony Blair, and by attacking Labour on the old bugaboos of taxes and trade unions. To gain traction the Conservatives had to take more risks than Labour. The challenge facing all the minor parties, but particularly the Liberal Democrats, was to avoid being squeezed by Labour’s smothering slither centre-left. Who won The aim of this chapter is to examine this battle and evaluate the outcome. The first section sets out the long-term context by considering how campaigning has been transformed in the post-war era. The 1997 election represented another critical step, it can be argued, in the transition to the post-modern campaign in Britain, – characterised by partisan dealignment in the press, growing fragmentation in the electronic media, and strategic communications in parties.
... . The idea of permanent campaigning, or fighting an election every day, is very apparent in New Labour's manipulation of the media ... international (mainly US) capital. Now the question is whether Britain will form part of an 'international alliance' to combat ' ... Commons, so effectively maintaining the 'elective dictatorship' that gives parties huge amounts of power in relation to the proportion of ...
The second section goes on to analyse what was covered in the national press and television during the campaign, and whether this suggests Labour won the battle of the campaign agenda, as well as the election. Lastly, we consider how the public reacted to the coverage, whether they felt that journalists generated interesting, fair and informative coverage, and the implications of this analysis for the struggle over campaign communications. The Evolution of the Post-Modern Campaign Modernisation theory suggests that during the post-war era the political communication process has been transformed by the decline of direct linkages between citizens and parties, and the rise of mediated relationships. Swanson and Mancini argue that similar, although not identical, developments are recognisable across industrialised democracies 2. In the earliest stage, the premodern campaign in Britain was characterised by the predominance of the partisan press; a loose organizational network of grassroots party volunteers in local constituencies; and a short, ad-hoc national campaign run by the party leader with a few close advisers. This period of campaigning gradually evolved in the mid-nineteenth century following the development of mass party organizations registering and mobilising the newly enfranchised electorate.
Despite the introduction of wireless broadcasting in 1922, this pattern was maintained in largely identifiable form until the late fifties 3. The critical watershed came in 1959, with the first television coverage of a British general election, symbolizing the transition to the next stage. The evolution of the modern campaign was marked by a shift in the central location of election communications, from newspapers towards television, from the constituency grassroots to the party leadership, and from amateurs towards professionals. The press entered an era of long-term decline: circulation of national newspapers peaked in the late fifties and sales have subsequently dropped by one-third (see Figure 1).
... Conservative party and by 1979 she has revitalised a stagnant party back into government with her fresh and invigorating style of leadership ... Thatcherite Policies: Audit of an Era (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1992). Evans, Brendan. Thatcherism and British Politics 1975- ... privatisation and competitive tendering. Also, for the first time a government was brave enough to consider making reforms ...
The fall was sharpest among tabloids, pushing these further downmarket in the search for readers 4. This fierce competition transformed the nature of the British press, producing growing sensationalism, and more journalism with attitude, while changes in ownership ratcheted the partisan balance further in the Conservative direction.
One major factor contributing towards declining circulation was the rise of television. The political effects of this new technology were strongly mediated by the regulations governing broadcasting in each country. In Britain the legal framework for the BBC/ITV duopoly was suffused by a strong public service ethos which required broadcasters to maintain ‘party balance’ and impartiality in news coverage, to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ according to high standards, and to provide an agreed allocation of unpaid airtime to arty political broadcasts 5. Within this familiar context, television centralised the campaign, and thereby increased the influence of the party leaders: what appeared on BBC 1’s flagship 9 O’clock News and ITN’s News at Ten, and related news and current affairs studios, was the principle means by which politicians reached the vast majority of voters.
To work effectively within this environment parties developed a coordinated national campaign with professional communications by specialists skilled in advertising, marketing, and polling. The ‘long campaign’ in the year or so before polling day became as important strategically as the short ‘official’ campaign. These changes did not occur overnight, nor did they displace grassroots constituency activity, as the timeless ritual of canvassing and leafleting continued. A few trusted experts in polling and political marketing became influential during the campaign in each party, such as Maurice Saatchi, Tim Bell and Gordon Reece in Conservative Central Office, but this role remained as part-time outside advisors, not integral to the process of government, nor even to campaigning which was still run by politicians. Unlike in the United States, no political marketing industry developed, in large part because the only major clients were the Labour and Conservative party leaderships: the minor parties had limited resources, while parliamentary candidates ran retail campaigns based on shoe-leather and grassroots helpers. But the net effect of television during the era of modernisation was to shift the primary focus of the campaign from the ad-hoccery of unpaid volunteers and local candidates towards the central party leadership flanked by paid, although not necessarily full-time, professionals 6.
... seemingly strong leadership and ability to adapt, unlike the Labour party the Conservatives had “not a creed or a doctrine but ... reason for the 13 years of Conservative dominance is the divisions within the Labour Party as they fundamentally undermined both Attlee ... in the Labour party is clearly evident as Labour won the general election in October 1964, ending Conservative dominance. Labour had a ...
Lastly in the late twentieth century Britain seems to have been experiencing the rise of the post-modern campaign, although there remains room for dispute in the interpretation of the central features of this development and its consequences. The most identifiable characteristics, evident in the 1997 campaign, include the emergence of a more autonomous, and less partisan, press following its own ‘media logic’; the growing fragmentation and diversification of electronic media outlets, programmes and audiences; and, in reaction to these developments, the attempt by parties to reassert control through strategic communications and media management during the permanent campaign. Partisan Dealignment in the Press In the post-war period parties have had long-standing and stable links with the press. In 1945 there was a rough partisan balance with about 6. 7 million readers of pro-Conservative papers and 4. 4 million readers of pro-Labour papers.
This balance shifted decisively in the early 1970 s, with the transformation of the left-leaning Daily Herald into the pro-Conservative Sun, and the more aggressively right-wing tone of The Times, both under Rupert Murdoch’s ownership. By 1992 the cards had become overwhelmingly stacked against the left, since the circulation of the Conservative-leaning press had risen to about 8. 7 million compared with only 3. 3 million for Labour-leaning papers (see Figure 1).
... likeable Harold Wilson came along. Therefore, both Labour disunity and conservative strengths contributed to their dominance until 1962, when ... then things may have favoured labour. However, Suez did not split the conservatives and labour were left with few targets ... reasons others because of the pro Russian sentiment. This campaign for unilateral disarmament prompted the demonstration at Aldermaston, ...
Throughout the 1980 s Mrs Thatcher could campaign assured of a largely sympathetic press, which provided a loyal platform to get her message across 7. One of the most striking developments of recent years has been the crumbling of these traditional press-party loyalties. The evidence comes partly from editorial policy. The Conservative press had started to turn against Mrs Thatcher in 1989-90, when the economy was in recession and her leadership became deeply unpopular, and this constant barrage of criticism probably contributed towards her eventual demise 8.
During the 1992 election, while the Sun and the Daily Express continued to beat the Tory drum, comment from some of the other pro-Conservative press like the Mail and The Sunday Times was more muted, and four out of eleven daily papers failed to endorse a single party 9. The new government enjoyed a brief respite on returning to office but press criticism of John Major’s leadership deepened following the ERM debacle on 16 th September 1992, with only the Daily Express staying loyal. Journalists continued to highlight the government’s difficulties over Europe, and internal splits over the debate on the Maastricht Treaty. By the winter of 1993, a succession of scandals involving Conservative politicians created headline news while editorials regularly d enunciated the government, and particularly the Prime Minister. By the time of the July 1995 leadership challenge only the Daily Express backed John Major solidly, while the Sun, the Mail, The Times and the Telegraph all argued that it was time for him to be replaced 10, an embarrassment for their leader writers given the outcome. The question, in the long run-up to the election, was whether the Tory press would return home, once the future of the Conservative government was under real threat.
In the event, the 1997 election represents a historic watershed. In a major break with tradition, six out of ten national dailies, and five out of nine Sundays, endorsed the Labour party in their final editorials (see Table 1).
This was twice the highest number previously, and it reversed the long-standing pro-Conservative leanings in the national press. With impeccable timing, the Sun led the way on the first day of the campaign, (THE SUN BACKS BLAIR), with a frontpage claiming Blair is a “breath of fresh air” while the Conservatives were “tired, divided and rudderless”, and its defection stole the headlines and damaged Tory morale. This change of heart came after assiduous efforts by Labour to court press support, including meetings between Blair and Rupert Murdoch, especially Blair’s visit to Australia in 1995. hroughout the campaign the Sun, with ten million readers a day, provided largely unswerving support for Blair, although opposing Labour policy on Europe and the unions, and many commentators predicted that the switch, based on Murdoch’s commercial considerations rather than political affinities, would not last long 11.
... completely abandoned Thatcherism, however many would argue that the Conservative party is not privatising as much as Mrs Thatcher did ... completely abandoned Thatcherism, however many would argue that the Conservative party is not privatising as much as Mrs Thatcher did ... completely abandoned Thatcherism, however many would argue that the Conservative party is not privatising as much as Mrs Thatcher did ...
Labour’s traditional tabloid, the Daily Mirror, with six million readers, continued its brand of centre-left journalism (“the paper for Labour’s TRUE supporters”).
On the last Sunday of the campaign, influenced by Murdoch, The News of the World decided to follow the lead of its sister paper, the Sun, and backed Labour. Among the broadsheets The Guardian called for tactical voting for the Liberal Democrats in seats where it made sense, but broadly endorsed Labour. The Independent was more restrained in its backing, casting its editorial vote for Labour “with a degree of optimism that is not entirely justified by the evidence.” The paper was clearly more anti-Tory than pro-anything. The Times advised their readers to back Eurosceptics candidates from whatever party, although, in practice, nearly all were Conservatives. Only leads in the Daily Telegraph, and the Daily Mail (“LABOUR BULLY BOYS ARE BACK”LABOUR’S BROKEN PROMISES”) remained strongly in the Tory camp.
Even the Daily Express was more neutral than in the past: a double-page spread was divided between Lord Hol lick, its chief executive, arguing for Labour and its chairman, Lord Stevens, arguing for the Conservatives. The front-page of the election-eve Mail carried a colourful Union Jack border and the apocalyptic warning that a Labour victory could “undo 1, 000 years of our nation’s history.” Yet any comparison of editorial policy probably under-estimates the balance of partisanship in news coverage during the overall campaign. For example, the Mail ostensibly endorsed the Conservatives during the campaign, but in practice it probably deeply damaged the government by headlining sexual scandals in the party, and reinforcing images of disunity with leading articles highlighting the number of Tory Eurosceptics. With friends like this, the Conservatives did not need opponents. To understand this we need to go beyond the leaders, which are rarely read, and even less heeded, to examine the broader pattern of front-page stories.
The most plausible evidence for dealignment is that certain papers like the Sun, traditionally pro-Conservative, switched camps, but also that front-page stories were often so similar across all the press, driven by news values irrespective of the paper’s ostensible partisanship. Since the early 1970 s fierce competition for readers has encouraged far more sensational coverage in the popular press, fuelling an endless diet of stories about ‘scandals’, (mostly sexual but also financial), infotainment, and the Royals, preferably all three. This process started when Rupert Murdoch bought the News of the World in 1968, and the Sun a year later. It accelerated in the cut-throat competition produced by the launch of the Daily Star in 1978, which sought to out-do the Sun in its relentless search for sex, investigative ‘exclusives’ about celebrities, violent crime, and graphic coverage of the bizzare.
Those who thought British newspapers had reached their nadir at this point had under-estimated the soft-porn Sunday Sport, launched in 198612. The tackiness of the popular press, such as their exhaustive gossip about the goings-on of the younger Royals, gradually infected and corroded the news culture of the broadsheets as well. By the mid-1990 s, the journalism of scandal trumped party loyalties, hands down. This fuelled the series of sleaze stories about senior Conservative politicians hroughout John Major’s years in government, and there was no let-up during the campaign. As documented in detail later, the first two weeks of the election were dominated by a succession of stories about corruption in public life and sexual ‘scandals’, providing a steady diet of negative news for the government which swamped their message about the economy. The most plausible reason for this focus on sensationalism is the fierce competition for readers following plummeting circulation figures: between 1981-95 the proportion of the public reading a daily paper dropped substantially (from 76 to 62 percent of men and from 68 to 54 percent of women) 13.
In Britain the national press competes for attention headline-to-headline in newsagents shop-windows, unlike in countries where there is a strong regional press each with its own distinct market. The drive for readers may also have indirectly influenced the shift in partisanship, if papers decided to follow, rather than lead, changes in popular support for the government, although evidence here remains inconclusive. At the start of the campaign, according to MORI polls from January 1 st to March 17 1997, out of nineteen daily and Sunday papers, only the Express and Telegraph had an overall majority of readers who said they would vote Conservative (see Table 2).
Papers may have believed that they could not expect to retain their popularity if they advocated policies which failed to get the support of the majority of their readers.
This was publicly acknowledged by Lord Rothermere, proprietor of the Mail, in the aftermath of the election, who was asked whether the editor, Paul Dare, would be allowed to continue to express his Euro scepticism:” It is a free country, and he is entitled to his views and to express them. But, of course, if they start to affect the circulation that will be different.” 14 In many countries which used to have a strongly partisan press, like the Netherlands, political coverage is now driven more strongly by an autonomous ‘media logic’ in the fierce competition for readers rather than by traditional allegiances or the politics of their proprietors. “Modern media are more powerful, more independent, and more determined to pursue their own interests through a professional culture of their own making.” 15. This dealignment has increased the complexity and uncertainty of media management for parties, who can no longer rely on getting their message out through a few well-known and sympathetic sources. The Growing Fragmentation of the Electronic Media Although newspapers have shrunk, the electronic media expanded during this same period, with far greater diversification in the 1990 s.
The erosion of the BBC/ITV duopoly of viewers proceeded relatively slowly in Britain, compared with the fall in the network share of the audience in wired countries like the United States, the Netherlands and Canada. Channel 5 covered about two-thirds of Britain when launched in March 1997, although with a modest audience, and this added to the choice of four terrestrial channels. But today the BBC and ITV duopoly faces the greatest competition from the rapid evolution of digital, cable and satellite television narrow casting, and also from new forms of interactive communications like the Internet. The first satellite services became available in Britain from Sky TV in February 1989, followed by BSB the following year.
By 1992, about 3 percent of homes had access to cable TV, while 10 percent had a satellite dish. In contrast by 1997 almost a fifth of all households could tune into over fifty channels on satellite and cable. In these homes, more than a third of all viewing was on these channels. During the campaign, between 10-15 percent of the audience usually watched cable and satellite programmes every evening. Occasionally when there was wall-to-wall election on the terrestrial channels, like on Thursday 24 th April, a week before the election, the proportion of cable and satellite viewers jumped to almost a quarter of the audience. Moreover, Sky News, CNN, Channel 5, and BBC Radio’s Five Live, have altered the pace of news, to brief headlines on the hour every hour.
While probably only political junkies surfed the internet, the easy availability of the BBC’s Election ’97, ITN Online, the online headlines from the Press Association and Reuters, party home pages, as well as electronic versions of The Times and The Telegraph, dramatically speeded the news cycle. The BBC’s Politics ’97, with easy access to RealAudio broadcasts of its major political programmes, promises the shape of things to come. With 24 hour coverage, the acceleration of the news cycle has dramatically increased the need for parties to respond, or get knocked off their feet, by a suddenly shifting agenda. Strategic Party Communications during the Permanent Campaign As press-party loyalties have declined, and the outlets for electronic news have diversified, politicians have been forced to respond to a more complex communications environment.
Parties have been transformed by the gradual evolution of the permanent campaign where the techniques of spin doctors, opinion polls, and professional media management are increasingly applied to routine everyday politics. The central role of Peter Mandelson in the Labour campaign, and the high-tech developments in media management at Millbank Tower, are not isolated phenomenon 16. Supposedly modelled on the war room in the Clinton campaign, the Millbank organisation had a tight inner core, including Peter Mandelson, Gordon Brown, the press secretary Alastair Campbell, the pollster Philip Gould, Blair’s personal assistant Anti Hunter, Lord Irvine of Lair and Jonathan Powell. The interior circle was surrounded by about 200 staffers connecting via fax, modem and pagers to key shadow spokespersons and candidates out in the marginal constituencies, to keep the party ‘on-message’. Briefings were sent out nightly, sometimes twice a day.
The Labour party designed their communications strategy down to the smallest detail, with a rebuttal unit (and the Excalibur programme) under the direction of Adrian McMenamin, ready for a rapid response to anticipated attacks. After 1992 Labour realised that elections are not usually won or lost in the official campaign, and they subsequently designed their strategy for the long-haul. Labour renewed their interest in constituency campaigns, although local contests became increasingly professional ised by strategic targeting of key voters under the guidance of Millbank Tower. For two years before polling day a Labour task force was designed to switch 5000 voters in each of 90 target marginals.
Those identified as potential Labour coverts in these seats were contacted by teams of volunteers on the doorstep, and by a canvassing operation run from twenty telephone banks around the country, coordinated from Millbank during the campaign. In January 1997 get out the vote letters were sent to each type of target voter, and young people received a video of Tony Blair 17. Candidates in marginals were each asked to contact at least 1, 000 switchers. Information from the canvassing operation, especially issues of concern raised by voters, was also fed back to Philip Gould, to help shape Labour’s presentations.
Opinion polling was carried out regularly from late 1993, and Philip Gould and Deborah Martinson conducted a programme of focus group research to monitor reaction to Labour’s policies. Strategy meetings were conducted almost daily from late 1994, tackling Labour’s weaknesses on taxation, trade unions, and crime well before the official campaign came close. The manifesto, New Labour: Because Britain Deserves Better was designed to focus on five specific pledges: cutting class sizes for under seven year-olds; fast-track punishments for persistent young offenders; reducing NHS waiting lists; moving 250, 000 young unemployed into work; and cutting VAT on heating. By launching the draft manifesto New Labour, new life for Britain as a dry run a year earlier, Labour had ample opportunity to iron out any pledges which proved unduly controversial. The main theme of Labour’s advertising was “Britain Deserves Better”, fairly bland and safe, if unmemorable. To press home the message, Tony Blair visited 60 constituencies, travelling about 10, 000 miles by road, rail and air, and providing controlled photo-opportunities rather than press conferences for the media.
The membership drive launched by Blair was also part of this long-term strategy, increasing grassroots membership by almost two-thirds, up from 261, 000 in 1991 to 420, 000 by the time of the election 18. This achievement was in stark contrast to Conservative party membership which has fallen, perhaps by half, to an estimated 350, 000 to 400, 000, from 1992-9719. Lastly Labour’s assiduous courting of the city, including launching the special business manifesto, was all part of this careful planning to anticipate and batten down any lines of potential weakness. In contrast Conservative Central office more often appeared to be knocked off message by events out of their control, with the topics planned for press conferences torn up at the last minute.
The campaign was led by the party chairman, Brian Malwhinney, the deputy leader Michael Heseltine, Danny Finkelstein, head of Tory party research, and advised by Lord Saatchi, although up to twenty people attended strategy meetings, each with different priorities. During the long campaign the Conservatives seemed unable to decide whether the most effective strategy was to attack Old Labour (the party of trade unions and taxes) or New Labour (the party of ‘smarmy’, ‘phony’ and untrustworthy Blair).
Tory briefings, and posters, veered back and forth uncertainly 20. Their most effective slogans were probably “Britain is Booming – Don’t let Labour Blow it”, or “New Labour, New Danger”, but their advertising was generally regarded as unconvincing (indeed their ‘Tony and Bill’ poster was widely believed to be a Labour advertisement).
Labour suffered a wobbly day or two in early-April, over privatisation of the air traffic control service, with contradictory messages coming from Blair and Prescott.
There were also some wobbles in the second week over the unions, and Blair made an embarrassing ‘parish council’s lip over Scottish devolution. In the sixth week a rogue poll by ICM for the Guardian, suggesting the Labour lead was closing, also induced concern in the Labour camp. But these were minor upsets. In contrast the Conservatives became deeply mired in divisions, arguing with each other not addressing the public, as the splits over Europe burst open again. On 14 th April the Mail published a list of 183 Conservative candidates who had come out against EMU in their constituency leaflets, in contradiction to the official ‘wait and see’ line. In response John Major tore up the PEB planned for 17 th April, and instead broadcast an impromptu appeal on Europe.
But the internal row only intensified the following day with publication of a Conservative advertisement showing Blair as a puppet on Kohl’s lap, which brought public criticism from Edward Heath and Ken Clarke, (as well as offence from Germany) thereby only highlighting Conservative splits. Other diversions included speculation about the Tory leadership election to replace Major, and comments like Edwina Currie’s prediction of Conservative defeat in the twilight days of the campaign. In short, the Conservative message of Britain’s economic health was drowned out as much by internal conflicts, fuelled but not caused by the media, as by anything the opposition did or said. The Mail may have tossed the lighted match, but the row between Eurosceptics and Europhiles was a conflagration waiting to happen, based on years as a party tearing itself apart. The shift towards the permanent campaign in Britain has still not gone as far as in the United States, in part because of the pattern of longer electoral cycles 21. Nevertheless the way that the techniques for campaigning are becoming merged with the techniques of governing was symbolized by the way that Tony Blair, once elected Prime Minister, announced monthly ‘meet the public’s es sions, to attract popular support and publicity outside of his appearances in the Commons, following the example of President Clinton’s ‘town-hall’ meetings.
Moreover, many of those who played a key role in controlling Labour campaign communications were transferred to Number 10, with the aim of adopting the same techniques in government. New Ministers, for example, were told that all press briefings had to be cleared centrally with Peter Mandelson, Minister without Portfolio in the Blair administration. Whether this process succeeds or not remains an open question but what it indicates is that, given a more complex communications environment, modern parties have been forced to adapt, with greater or lesser success, to the new communications environment if they are to survive unscathed. The 1997 election therefore suggests that the evolution to a post-modern campaign currently remains in transition in Britain, and certain components are more clearly developed than others. In particular, the full impact of the digital television revolution and the internet remains uncertain, and if Britain experiences an explosion of channels the next election is probably going to be fought in a very different broadcasting environment.
Nevertheless these trends seem to be producing a distinctively new context for the process of political campaigning in Britain, as elsewhere, characterised by dealignment of the press, an increasingly diverse and fragmented electronic media, and, in response, more strategic attempts by parties to maintain control and remain on-message. The term ‘post-modern’s seems appropriate to describe a communication process which has become increasingly diverse, fragmented, and complex. Similar developments have been identified in many industrialised democracies, although the impact of technologically-driven change is mediated by each nation’s culture, political system, and media structure 22. The consequences of this transition remain a matter of dispute.
Some critics, reflecting on similar patterns in the United States, fear these developments will serve to disconnect leaders and citizens, to over-simplify and trivialize political discourse, and to produce a more cynical and disengaged public which tunes out from politics altogether. Others, however, remain more sanguine, while some speculate that the fragmentation of media outlets may provide a positive opportunity for more varied, and less mainstream, cultural voices to be heard 23. Who Won the Battle of the Campaign Agenda Within this environment, what was the contents of coverage of the 1997 campaign And, in particular, did Labour win the battle of the campaign agenda, as well as the election Here we can turn to content analysis of the national press provided by CARMA, who monitored 6, 072 articles in the national daily and Sunday newspapers from the announcement of the election (18 th March) until polling day (1 st May).
CARMA analysed whether the article featured the Conservative party (4, 827 articles), Labour (4, 536), the Liberal Democrats (1, 390) or the Referendum party (319), then for each party classified the major topic of these articles using 150 coding categories (such as inflation, education and trade unions).
CARMA counted the number of articles (although not the length) which mentioned each topic every day, as well as estimating the favourability or unfavourability of each story 24. This analysis suggests that about a fifth of all the election coverage in the press (19 percent) focussed on campaigning, such as stories about party strategy, the prospects for marginal seats, and much speculation about the (in the event non-existent) television debate. The minutiae of insider electioneering, such as campaign battle buses (complete with layout colour maps), high-tech and wooden soap-boxes, and Blair force One were described in detail by journalists bored by listening to the standard leadership speeches. If we break the analysis down in more detail, (see Table 3) we find that one quarter of this coverage, but in total only 10 percent of all news stories, was about opinion polls, far less than in recent general elections.
As others have noted, the media commissioned fewer polls than in 1987 or 1992, and they gave them less coverage. About a fifth of all front-page lead stories in the national press were devoted to the polls in 1987 (20 percent) and in 1992 (18 percent) compared with only 4 percent in 199725. Coverage of the polls on television news dropped from 14 percent in 1992 to only 7 percent in 199726. This was probably due to new guidelines on television, plus the flatness of the race, with perpetually large Labour leads, as well as the reputation of the polls following their fiasco in 1992. Overall there was relatively little difference in the amount of attention given to each party in terms of electioneering, although it is notable that more stories about the Liberal Democrats focussed on stories about tactical voting, such as The Observer’s detailed survey of marginal seats towards the end of the campaign, and this coverage may have influenced the high levels of tactical voting which were evident in the results. Almost half of all the press coverage (45 percent) discussed policy issues (see Table 4), with detailed sections in the broadsheets analysing the contents of each party’s manifesto promises.
About one quarter of this coverage (27 percent) focussed on problems of domestic social policy, particularly education, the national health service, pensions and crime. The priority given to education by Labour, and even more by the Liberal Democrats, seems to have paid dividends in their media coverage. The economy absorbed another quarter of the coverage, particularly taxation, trade unions (for Labour), unemployment and privatisation, in that order. The analysis clearly reveals the extent of the failure of the Conservatives to focus media attention on their positive achievements. There was remarkably little political coverage of Britain’s low levels of inflation, the balance of payments figures, strong economic growth, and low interest rates, not to speak of the booming stockmarket 27. Altogether economic and social policy absorbed the majority (58 percent) of Labour’s issue coverage, broadly reflecting their manifesto priorities, particularly the five specific policy pledges mentioned earlier.
In terms of agenda-setting, the only major topics given significantly more attention in the press coverage than in Labour’s manifesto were the issues of trade unions and privatisation. In contrast, despite John Major’s strenuous attempts to trumpet the government’s economic record at daily press conferences at Smith Square, and their BRITAIN IS BOOMING slogan, only a fifth (22 percent) of their issue coverage in the press focussed on the economy. The Conservatives simply failed to set the media agenda: there was twice as much coverage of their record on unemployment as inflation. In most elections foreign policy rarely surfaces as a major issue, unless the country is at war or there is major international conflict abroad. During the 1992 campaign, for example, although Labour’s defence policy was highlighted by Tory posters, foreign affairs occupied a mere one percent of front page news 28. Yet in 1997, despite an era of peace and prosperity, at a time when the west has won the cold war, a remarkable 17 percent of all issue coverage in the press focussed on foreign policy, nearly all concerning Britain’s role within the European Union 29.
As discussed earlier, the press headlined Conservative splits over Europe: almost a fifth of the coverage of Conservative issues (19 percent) focussed on Europe. The Conservative agenda was also sabotaged by the issue of standards of public life: 18 percent of their total issue coverage in the press concerned stories about sex and sleaze. This was also the number one topic in editorials 30. The extent to which the Conservatives lost the battle of the media agenda can be illustrated most clearly by this issue. The first week of the campaign was dominated by the ‘cash for questions’ row when part of the unpublished Commons report by Sir George Downey was leaked to The Guardian on 21 st March. As a result 23 Conservative MPs entered the election with a cloud over their heads, notably Neil Hamilton in Tatton and Tim Smith in Beaconsfield.
During the second week, the Tories started to mount a counter-offensive: both the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph led with a splash story about the ‘union threat’ under Labour, with the Mail publishing a ‘secret union hit list’ of employers. Conservative Central Office tried to lead their press conference on this story but before they could gain any traction this news was swept off the front pages by the resignation of Allan Stewart, an ex-minister and Conservative MP for Glasgow Eastwood, forced to stand down following allegation of an old affair which were published in the Sunday Mail. On Thursday 27 th, in a classic case of cheque-book journalism, the Sun led a scoop with photos of the Conservative MP, Piers Merchant, caught embracing a “17-year-old blonde Soho nightclub hostess” while out canvassing in his Beckenham constituency (“SCANDAL OF TORY MP’S MISTRESS, 17, the Sun).
Even the pro-Conservative Express and Mail could not resist giving this set-up story front-page coverage, and it continued to rumble on in the press throughout the quiet Easter weekend. As if this was not enough, that same day Tim Smith, Conservative MP for Beaconsfield, confessed to taking 25, 000 from Harrods’s owner, Mohammed Al Faced, and he stood down from his candidacy.
While the tabloids headlined sex, the broadsheets had their exclusives based on corruption, with the crusade against Tim Smith led by The Guardian (“THE DISHONOURABLE MEMBER”), thereby also renewing pressure on Neil Hamilton in Tatton. The following week Sir Michael Hirst, chairman of the Scottish Conservative party, and front-runner for the recently vacated Glasgow Eastwood seat, had to resign because of allegations of past indiscretions in his private life. The story first broke in the Scottish press, but it was reputed to have been planted by malcontents from within the Scottish Conservative party. Whether all of these stories were really ‘news’, suitable of headline treatment in this feeding frenzy, is highly debatable, but the culture of sensationalism in the British press was by now too well entrenched to avoid such treatment. The start of April saw the launch of the official manifestoes, and more traditional, issue-oriented coverage returned, but by then a third of the campaign period had been dominated by sleaze.
Coverage reinforced the widespread sense that the government had run its course, and become faintly disreputable, divided and tired, fuelling the ‘time for a change’s enti ment. The issue failed to go away since Neil Hamilton (claiming to be innocent of cash for questions until proved guilty) refused to resign. John Major refused to intervene in Tatton, although he had earlier indicated that Piers Merchant (caught guilty of kissing) should rethink his position in the interests of the party, a curious choice of priorities concerning suitable standards in public life, and one not, apparently, shared by the electorate 31. The ‘battle for Tatton’ made headlines throughout the fourth week after Labour and the Liberal Democrats agreed to withdraw their candidates.
This allowed the BBC war correspondent, Martin Bell, to stand, and eventually win, as the first independent MP (without any previous party affiliation) for fifty years. The soap opera of Tatton, with all the personal drama of Hamilton v. Bell, was just too good a news story for any journalists, including those working for the Tory tabloids, to keep off their front pages. By dissolving parliament six weeks before polling day, well before the traditional launch of the manifestos and the formal beginning of the campaign, Major blundered into creating a yawning news hole into which, like the White Rabbit, fell the Conservative party. Without policy conflict, something had to fill the political columns. Throughout the first two weeks these stories reinforced the image of a discredited government under weak leadership, the final nails in the coffin from which the Conservatives never recovered.
Overall CARMA estimated that on balance Conservative coverage was generally negative (44 percent was rated unfavourable to only 18 percent favourable, with the rest neutral).
CARMA confirmed that the papers most positive towards the Conservatives in their contents, (reflecting their editorial preferences) were the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Express, and the Daily Mail 32. If ratings are weighted by the size of circulation of newspaper articles, the government’s overall disadvantage in the press was even more marked. Labour and the Liberal Democrat coverage was far more evenly balanced between positives and negatives. Lastly, just over a third of all press stories concerned the party leadership and candidates, which probably represents a substantial increase on previous campaigns 33.
Here, as shown in Table 5, most of the coverage focussed on the two main leaders, with Blair enjoying a slight edge over Major, while Ashdown trailed far behind (with only 4 percent of the leadership stories).
Within the Labour party, Blair clearly dominated coverage (with 51 percent of stories), followed by Gordon Brown, John Prescott, Peter Mandelson and Robin Cook. Ashdown’s dominance of the Liberal Democrat coverage was even more pronounced, with almost no stories about any other of their politicians. In contrast only a third of the Conservative leadership stories focussed on Major. In second place within his party, Neil Hamilton attracted slightly more coverage than Mrs Thatcher, Ken Clark or Michael Heseltine. Overall the list is overwhelmingly masculine, due in large part to the predominance of the three main party leaders, although women spokespersons were slightly more prominent in the Labour party.
Lastly, the content analysis also rated the favourability of the coverage of the leaders, and here coverage of all the Conservative leaders (with the single exception of Norma Major) was on balance classified as unfavourable, with particularly poor ratings of Tim Smith, Neil Hamilton, Stephen Darrell and Michael Forsyth, while the equivalent coverage of the Labour leadership was generally neutral. The Impact on Voters Lastly, if political campaigns in Britain are moving towards the post-modern era, what impact did this have on voters in the 1997 election How did viewers react to the campaign coverage on television, in particular did they reach for their remotes to turn off, or turn over, from news and current affairs on television And did viewers feel that the election coverage was interesting, informative and fair Here we can monitor viewership figures using data supplied by the Broadcasters Audience Research Board (BARB), which provides the industry-standard measure of viewing behaviour from a panel sample of over 4, 000 monitored households. The evening news and current affairs programmes on British television continue to reach a mass audience, but the availability of alternative channels has slightly eroded their market share. Commentators noted that BBC 1’s Nine O’clock News suffered particularly sharply from a fall in viewership after it was specially extended with campaign news to 50 minutes after Easter.
The BARB figures confirm that this programme lost one third of its viewers, down from 5. 8 million in the first week to 4 million thereafter (see Figure 2).
This figure was also well down from the equivalent during the spring 1992 campaign, when about 6. 3 million viewers tuned into BBC 1’s main evening news.
But what commentators failed to notice was that ITN’s News at Ten, with its regular 30 minute slot, also steadily lost some of its audience during the campaign, down from 6 million in the first week to 5. 6 million in the last. Channel 4 News at 7 pm (with 0. 6 million viewers), ITV’s Early Evening News at 5. 45 pm (with 4 million) and BBC 1’s 6 pm News (with 5. 8 million) remained popular and relatively stable, subject only to the natural trend less fluctuations caused by the television schedules.
Current affairs programmes also experienced fluctuations in their audiences (see Figure 3).
The sharpest fall was registered by BBC 1’s Panorama which carried interviews with all the major party leaders (with an average viewership of 2. 8 million throughout the campaign), although they also picked up towards the end of the campaign. A similar pattern was registered with Question Time (2. 8 m), while BBC 1’s On the Record (1. 5 m) managed a modest and steady rise during the campaign.
Among the special programmes the BBC’s 9 am Election Call gathered about 0. 6 m television viewers, but more listened via Radio 4, and the programme maintaining high standards of public service broadcasting. ITN’s People’s Election, with a live studio audience of 500, attracted a stable viewership of about 2. 8 million.
On Channel 4 Vincent Hanna’s A Week in Politics (0. 8 m) and Midnight Special (0. 2 m) retained a loyal, if modest, audience of political aficionados throughout the campaign. The Labour and Conservative parties showed five election broadcasts each which attracted an average audience of about 11.
2 million across all channels, while the four Liberal Democrat broadcasts were seen by 10. 6 million, and minor parties were watched by about 10. 1 million. None were particularly memorable, though some aroused minor controversy (such as Labour’s use of Fitz the bulldog, traditionally seen as a symbol of the far right BNP, and a Pro-Life film featuring graphic footage of abortions).
The ratings were well down on 1992, when Pets averaged about 13 million viewers 34. On election night, at its peak (at 10.
45 pm) 12. 7 million people tuned into the election specials, or almost one third of the electorate. While the news of Labour’s landslide started to sink in across the nation, the BBC experienced an equivalent landslide of viewers against ITV, by a ratio of about 7: 3. The numbers gradually subsided but even so 5.
2 million remained glued to the set at 1. 45 in the morning, as Tory after Tory faced the end of their political careers, and between 1. 4 and 6. 3 million watched bleary-eyed all the next day as Blair went to the Palace, then emerged triumphant to enthusiastic throngs in Downing Street. We can conclude that popular commentary exaggerated how far the public turned off from the election, and, although BBC 1’s Nine O’clock News suffered more than most during the first week of the campaign, the pattern after then was relatively stable. Since, as mentioned earlier, about ten hours of news and current affairs was available every day throughout the campaign, and since the horse-race was flat almost throughout, this represents a remarkable achievement for television broadcasters.
Yet viewing figures may provide a poor indication of interest, since the size of the audience for news and current affairs is strongly influenced by the placement of a programme in the schedule. For more information about viewer’s reactions we can turn to data from the four-wave panel survey, Television: The Public View with 15, 356 viewers conducted before, during and after the campaign by RSL for the Independent Television Commission. The public were asked to evaluate a range of factors in television’s coverage of the campaign. As shown in Table 6, the results confirm that the public felt there was far too much coverage of the general election, as many television reviewers suggested. Nevertheless a more accurate picture is more complicated. While a clear majority (60 percent) agreed that there had been far too much about the campaign on television, nevertheless a quarter of the public thought that there had been too little, and few felt that broadcasters had got the balance right.
This pattern may have important implications for future elections as British broadcasting moves into a more diverse digital media environment. A multiplicity of channels will make it far easier for some to tune out from politics, while other political junkies will be able to watch 24-hour news. If we turn to coverage by different channels, contrary to the conventional wisdom, Sky News (with Adam Boulton’s rolling live campaign) and ITV were most widely criticised for providing too much coverage, while the public seemed more satisfied by the BBC scheduling. Despite the decline in coverage of opinion polls noted earlier, the public still felt that there was far too much attention to the horse-race on television. Outside pundits were also unpopular and viewers seemed happier with television’s own correspondents. Reflecting the government’s unpopularity in the polls, the public thought there was too much coverage of the Conservative party in television news, while in contrast a fifth of all viewers would have liked more about the Labour party, and also the minor parties like the Greens who rarely featured in the news.
As we have seen Europe received extensive attention in the press, but the public felt that the amount of news about this topic was excessive, along with the level of attention given to foreign policy more generally. Lastly, the public were also asked to evaluate the standards of television news, whether it met the requirements of public service broadcasting by being accurate, informative, balanced and interesting. Here viewers expressed largely positive reaction to news programmes on British television (see Table 7).
Channel 4’s 7 O’Clock News anchored by John Snow came out particularly well from this evaluation, especially in terms of accuracy and balance, perhaps because the distinctively longer format allows more opportunity to present all points of view.
The general picture which emerges from this survey during the campaign confirms once more that British television news is widely held in high regard for providing a broadly impartial source of information, across all the major channels. Conclusions: Evaluating the Coverage During the 1997 British election many voices expressed disquiet about media coverage. On the one hand, some observers claimed that television failed to provide serious, critical and informed debate about public policy issues 35. As we have seen the media agenda was frequently taken over by a feeding frenzy focussing on sexual and financial sleaze, and later the high drama of Conservative party splits over Europe. The obsession with sensationalism may have obscured debate about many complex issues facing Britain, and hindered critical scrutiny of many aspects of the new Blair agenda. On the other hand, other critics argued that, far from providing too little serious coverage of the election, television, – particularly the BBC, – provided far too much 36.
The media was charged with presenting a saturation diet of politics during the long campaign, including BBC 1’s specially extended 9 O’Clock News, as well as the extensive campaign supplements in all the broadsheet newspapers, and this, some suggest, may have contributed towards turned-off voters. At present we can only speculate about the full effects of the campaign on voters, which awaits further analysis once the British Election Campaign Panel study becomes available. What does seem clear at this point, however, is the effects on parties. Little is certain in politics, but we can take a fairly safe bet that the techniques learnt by the Blair team for staying on-message in a more complex and diverse media environment during the permanent campaign are going to be emulated by all the other parties. In this regard the 1997 election did represent a watershed, not just in terms of the outcome for the fortunes of the political parties, but also for the process of campaigning in Britain.