Labour to replace party broadcasts with plugs on every TV channel

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The Independent Online
THEY MAKE the dullest viewing on television, driving even the keenest politicos to switch on the kettle or dive for the remote control.

But the Labour Party thinks we cannot see enough of them. It wants Party Political Broadcasts (PPBs) to be expanded to 20-minute films - and trailed on every station, including the Cartoon Network.

Senior party figures, with the backing of Tony Blair, are engaged in talks with broadcasters including Rupert Murdoch's Sky and the BBC, to reform the way PPBs are presented.

They are framing plans for broadcasters to carry 30- to 40-second trailers on every channel with one key message such as, "Labour wants more NHS beds'. The trailer would flag a longer broadcast to be shown on fewer channels later. The trailers would be aimed at mass audiences. Longer films would target viewers interested in politics and current affairs.

Key figures at Labour's Millbank headquarters have discussed proposals with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

Labour fears that within two elections only a tiny minority of people will watch the programmes - losing a vital way of getting its message across.

Only a few channels, including the BBC's and Sky News, carry the broadcasts. And with the digital age brining yet more channels, it will be far easier to miss them in future.

Labour also wants to scrap the cliched Seventies format where politicians sit by a hearth and discuss their ideas for the future. Longer slots would mean guest directors could be hired to make mini-films for political parties.

"Tony Blair is keen to look at the modernisation of the party political broadcast,' said a party spokesman.

Political broadcasts were first carried by the BBC voluntarily before the 1924 general election and have been accepted reluctantly by broadcasters ever since.

Labour and the Conservatives are entitled to five free PPB slots a year and the Liberal Democrats three, as well as budget and election broadcasts. They have a maximum 10-minute slot. Political parties do not pay for the TV slot but pay for the filming of the broadcast.

"We are keen to reform PPBs," said a Labour Party spokesman. "The idea that we are stuck with this 1970s style is rubbish. It has to move on as viewing habits develop. In one or two elections there could be families who never watch news.

"We don't think there should be 10-minute slabs on all channels. Why not have short PPBs on lots of channels and a 20-minute broadcast on others to explain policy in a bit more detail? This would be a much more modern way of doing things."

Earlier this year a furious row between political parties and TV chiefs erupted after broadcasters tried to halve the time-slot, saying the phrase, "And now a party political broadcast from ..." was a cue for 50 per cent of the viewers to switch channels.

In 1992 the tale of Jennifer's ear - a story of five-year-old Jennifer Bennet's wait for treatment on the NHS - spectacularly backfired for Labour and contributed to its election defeat that year.

In 1995 the Conservatives accused Labour of foul play after Tony Blair labelled John Major a liar15 times in a four-minute broadcast over tax cuts.

The impetus for the reform proposals came earlier this month with the publication of the Neill report on funding of political parties. It recommended that the ban on political advertising on television and radio should be maintained but supported political parties' arguments for maintaining election and political broadcasts. It suggested that a new Electoral Commission, to be set up, act as "honest broker" between the broadcasters and political parties on the allocation of free air time.

The report said: "Party political broadcasts do not give universal pleasure to members of the viewing and listening audience, and they are undoubtedly a nuisance for the broadcasters, but they do afford the parties an opportunity, between elections, to set their views before the public on their own terms. The fact that such broadcasting opportunities exist may make it easier for the broadcasters to resist some of the other political pressures to which they are subject."