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Labour seeks to curb political 'sound-bites'

SENIOR Labour Party figures hope that when John Birt becomes the BBC's director general next week, he will help to create a shift in media attitudes to politics.

The reduction of television and radio coverage of complex issues to brief 'packages', containing even briefer statements by experts - known as sound-bites - is causing increasing frustration at Westminster.

While some broadcasters blame politicians for the trend, sources at both ITN and the BBC concede that the pattern of coverage tends to reduce most serious arguments to 'tabloid' newspaper level.

An extended ITN interview with John Smith, the Labour leader, was reduced to a 'package' of 2 minutes 40 seconds earlier this month. It was followed on News at Ten by a longer item about the use of remote control surveillance cameras in supermarkets. What Mr Smith had to say about Labour's plans for a social justice commission was dropped from the broadcast interview.

David Hill, Labour's director of communications, said: 'This is all about balance. If people from three different parties are going to have to put their message across in less than a minute, any package is going to be very difficult to absorb. What happens at the moment is that a politician is asked three or four questions and two- thirds of one answer is used.

'What ought to happen is that three questions should be asked, three answers given and three answers broadcast. That's the direction in which the broadcasters should move - providing political balance over a period of time.'

Peter Mandelson, Labour's former director of communications and a former close associate of Mr Birt, believes that could happen when the new director general takes over in the new year. He said Mr Birt favoured 'lengthier, more in-depth, more serious treatment of political issues and events which so many people sneer at and say is above the heads of the ordinary viewer and listener - patronising claptrap'.

Mr Mandelson, who was targeted by the Tories as Labour's media manipulator before he became MP for Hartlepool, said the broadcasters were to blame for the shrinkage of serious coverage.

'Overwhelmingly, the majority of people get their information and form judgements about what politicians are saying through television and radio. The problem for us is that television is now packaging politics in a form of 40-second sound-bites and it is the politicians who are the victims of the output editors, not the other way round.'

There is, however, a view held by some public relations experts that what the politicians say is not as important as the way they say it.

One study by a US psychology professor suggested that people were most influenced by appearance, posture and body language (55 per cent) and how they spoke (38 per cent). The audience gave only a 7 per cent rating to what was said, the substance or content.

Bill Jones, director of the Department of Extra-Mural Studies at Manchester University, said in an analysis of politicians' television interviews earlier this year: 'More important than what Major says, or his use of words, are two qualities which do not lend themselves to measurement: tone and manner. Major's tone enables him in interviews to communicate without words, but with great eloquence, qualities like modesty, competence, calmness, concern for others, humour and friendliness . . .'

But many fear that if leaders increasingly 'communicate without words', debate and argument will be sacrificed.

Media, page 13

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