Real Thing

John Naughton

  • Live from Number 10: The Inside Story of Prime Ministers and Television by Michael Cockerell
    Faber, 352 pp, £14.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 571 14757 7

Some years ago, during an American Presidential election, rumours began to circulate that Senator Edward Kennedy was again thinking of running for the Democratic nomination. A young reporter had the idea of asking ex-President Nixon for his views on this development. ‘If Teddy Kennedy is serious,’ Nixon is alleged to have replied, ‘then the first thing he should do is lose thirty pounds.’ In a country where Presidential politics have been turned into an adjunct of show-business, it is unlikely that any overweight person will ever again be elected to the White House. A necessary (if not sufficient) condition for electoral success nowadays is that one should ‘come over well’ on television. And fat people, by and large and on the average, do not.

Mr Cockerell’s absorbing book might, at first, be seen as a detailed account of how British politics have marched inexorably towards the same grim destination, with only a time-lag separating us from our transatlantic cousins. Just as generals are always fighting the last war, British political parties are always fighting the current election with the media tools of the last American Presidential contest. This import-import business started in 1952 when a certain John Profumo – then the Tories’ media man – visited the US during the Presidential election and came back dazzled by what he had seen. It was, he wrote to the Party Chairman on his return, ‘absolutely essential to get all our people on all the programmes we can: my view is that television is the real thing.’ Thus began a process which has taken us to the ‘Chariots of Kinnock’ broadcast of the last election, in which Neil and Glenys walked hand in hand on sunlit clifftops against a soundtrack of doctored Brahms. The fact that it was Labour and not their opponents which had contrived this little masterpiece merely served to underline the extent to which television values have penetrated British politics.

It would, however, be misleading to read the British experience as simply the American one with a time-lag. For there are two strands in our island story. One is the increasing sophistication of politicians and party machines in using television for propaganda purposes. The other is the problematic relationship between broadcasters and the state. What makes the British case so interesting is that the two strands are often interwoven: so much so that even an experienced observer like Mr Cockerell makes few attempts to separate them. The result is a book which is less analytical than it might have been.

The most intriguing feature of Live from Number 10 is its historical sweep. It is astonishing to be reminded that television’s current dominance over electoral politics is a comparatively recently phenomenon. Although Chamberlain’s return from Munich was televised live (with commentary by Richard Dimbleby), the general consensus in the early days was that television and politics didn’t mix. Thus Sir William Haley, Director-General of the BBC in the late Forties, believed that television was totally unsuited to political discussion. The ‘Fourteen Day Rule’, under which no subject likely to be debated in the Commons within the next fortnight could be discussed on television, was eventually swept away in the maelstrom of Suez. Party Conferences were not covered by television until 1955. There was no television coverage of general or local election campaigns until Granada ran the risk of prosecution by giving airtime to candidates in the 1957 Rochdale by-election. Up to then, ‘political television’ had consisted of panel shows rendered anodyne by the Fourteen Day Rule, stupefying party political broadcasts (begun in 1951) and the odd ministerial broadcast of the kind pioneered by Anthony Eden.

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