Leading Article: Time to call `Cut!' on party election broadcasts

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When the dust clears next weekend and the electoral autopsies begin, among the first bodies up on the slab ought to be party election broadcasts. The parties themselves will agonise for a long while about their effectiveness - Molly Dineen's hagiographical exercise on behalf of Labour vs John Major's simultaneous impersonation of Lord Kitchener and Winston Churchill. Disentangling their impact from the general noise of the campaign is difficult, and most are more effective in satisfying party egos than swaying loose votes. But a question worth asking is: what they are doing on our screens at all?

Broadcasting - for once the saying is apt - is undergoing a revolution. Digital transmission is upon us; huge expansion of channels, terrestrial and satellite, is nigh. The idea that in the midst of this creative chaos we should have party broadcasts imposed on the BBC and ITV but not the Disney Channel, Carlton Select or Asianet is to state only part of the anachronism. These are not broadcasts intended to inform citizens in order to make them more informed participants in the dance of democracy, as choreographed by John Stuart Mill. (What would he have made of the Natural Law Party's broadcast?) What the mainstream parties put out is designed to make us buy. Yet the BBC's Charter and Licence forbids advertising, and Channel Three and Sky usually charge for it. It is time that the charade of party election broadcasting was recognised for what it is and the whole set of clubby arrangements underpinning it junked.

Some of the anomalies surrounding election broadcasting were demonstrated by last week's fuss over foetuses and the far right. It is unlikely that anyone could have found Martin Tyndall on behalf of the British National Party anything other than risible. A demented-looking old cove using phraseology and poses cribbed from an old Movietone News clip of Oswald Mosley shot against the cliche of the white cliffs (you get the point). However repellent his views, this was merely ridiculous. The demonstrators outside Broadcasting House were not asking the right question when they deplored the BBC's decision to go ahead. Why didn't the club of broadcasters, led by the BBC, refuse all such slots entirely?

The BBC had gone to court a few days previously to defend its right to censor the Pro-Life Alliance's film of abortions. A functionary with the grand title of "chief political adviser" was trotted out to claim that the BBC had a prior obligation to public taste and decency that allowed it to decide which bits (literally, in this case) of the anti-abortion party's film could be seen. The merits of the anti-abortionists' case are not the issue. The problem is why the BBC feels obliged to broadcast tendentious material from political parties at all.

The answer is partly the BBC's desperate clinging to its central place in the national scheme of things. Here is also an instance of how Britain, despite 18 years of allegedly anti-corporatist government, is still run by cliques. No law compels the BBC or commercial television to run these broadcasts. No parliamentary committee decided the ratio of candidates to broadcasts. It was cooked up years ago in private discussions, reminding us that the lineage of party political broadcasting goes back to a stitch- up in the mid-1920s, by the BBC's astute director-general, John Reith, and Stanley Baldwin.

The case for letting some cold air into the cosy committee rooms is strong. The broadcasters themselves surely realise they are in for trouble. What the BNP and the Pro-Life Alliance have done gives a lead to every tuppenny- ha'penny outfit which for the price of 50 lost deposits can demand a slice of primetime broadcasting. As the mavericks and the mere opportunists come out of the woodwork, are the broadcasters going to start picking and choosing?

The parties, too, must surely see the limitations of the genre. Why PEBs often fail is that their "grammar" is wrong. Advertising is sharp, ironic - and brief. As Molly Dineen herself acknowledges, "real" fiction works so much better. Of course, some PEBs have impact - Hugh Hudson's Kinnock - The Movie in 1987 is credited with a sharp rise in the Labour leader's stock with the public, though the rise was as high among the 75 per cent of electors who had not seen the film but did respond to the publicity it generated. What parties want is to sell. So why not advertise: buy time on air in 30-second slots?

Some may deplore that as the Americanisation of British politics. But if advertising replaced the closet compulsion of the present scheme, it would necessarily bring with it American-style rules about party expenditure and finance. Suddenly a millionaire businessman - Paul Sykes - pops up and spends hundreds of thousands of pounds placing pro-Tory adverts. But only in newspapers. The example demonstrates two things. First, how much we need a regime for party financing which sets legal limits on outlays and forces clear accounting of every pound spent, every limousine or helicopter donated. The point is not to re-open old arguments about the state financing of political parties. It is to make the case for freeing the political process while increasing scrutiny and inspection.

The Sykes example says something else. He can buy space in newspapers, but not television or radio. They are constrained by rules made in the days when frequencies were limited and channels clogged. Those rules are unfit for the modern communications age. Parties are in the business of marketing and persuasion. Voters are mature enough to judge the product. There is no reason why the effort to sell to the public should, in television, any longer be cramped and crimped by the tired conventions of party election broadcasting.