Negative, nasty and very effective

Expect more of the type of political broadcast that caused this week's uproar, says Dennis Kavanagh
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The Independent Online
Labour's controversial party broadcast this week breathed new life into a dying format. It is far more than just a juicy political row, giving party leaders an opportunity to sling insults at each other. Above all, it shows the growing American influence on our politics and our broadcasting.

Most media folk and some politicians intensely dislike party political broadcasts. Viewers vote with their feet. In 1992, one-fifth switched off before Conservative broadcasts began, hurting audience figures for the following programme. Independent television bosses resent the loss of advertising time. Labour would have had to pay nearly £1m to get this week's four minutes and 40 seconds of commercial airtime.

Party political programmes have changed enormously since they were introduced on BBC television in 1951, but the principle of broadcasters handing editorial control to the politicians remains - the broadcasters are still exempt from constraints on commercial advertising.

Until 1959 political broadcasts were the only contribution the BBC or ITV made to covering the election campaign. They were transmitted simultaneously on all channels at peak time. Viewers had no escape, apart from switching off, and few did - audiences were large. The spin-doctor and advertiser did not intrude. It was the politician's show. The middle-aged, middle- class male politician lectured live to his captive audience for 20 to 30 minutes.

Today's broadcasts would make Lord Reith turn in his grave. Rather than purporting to inform and convert voters, they appeal to partisans and aim to put opponents on the back foot. They are also much shorter. Conservatives reduced the length to five minutes in 1983 and have been copied by others. Tim Bell, indeed, wanted to cut the broadcasts to two minutes and many advertising executives would prefer 30 seconds, the length they are used to working with.

The politicians have virtually disappeared from the scene. The more sophisticated packages use music, actors, graphics and voice-overs. Like a commercial, the party broadcast has to be "good" television.

Squabbles are not new. But usually they have been within the parties about who would appear. Peter Mandleson was not the first communications director to try and exclude left-wingers from Labour broadcasts; both Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan schemed to keep Tony Benn off the screen. Mrs Thatcher also intervened to exclude unattractive figures from broadcasts. Before the 1987 campaign, she and her staff viewed in some horror the broadcast that had been prepared to illustrate her role as a world leader. It showed her in a succession of venues in the company of various Third- World dictators. Friends used the broadcast to stoke her suspicion of the party chairman, Norman Tebbit.

Labour's latest offering shows that clearest signs so far of the approach of the worst features of American campaigns, particularly so-called negative advertising. Campaign ads on television concentrate on the character failings of the political opponent - his hypocrisy, lies and inconsistencies. The advertising is relentlessly destructive, expensive and, in the view of most candidates and campaign consultants, it works. A striking example was the infamous Willie Horton "spot" for the Republicans in the 1988 American presidential election. The ad stated that the Democratic candidate Dukakis had, as governor of Massachusetts, allowed out on parole a convicted rapist, Horton, who then raped again. It addressed public concern over law and order, was designed to show that Dukakis was soft on crime and has been widely credited with transforming George Bush's position in the campaign.

Such messages gain in potency because the controversy they generate ensures that they spill over into news and current affairs programmes. They become a "news ad", a segment of news that is equivalent to paid political advertisement. Labour's broadcast, which was seen and approved by the party's high command, has been an outstanding success in gaining free coverage about John Major's "broken promises" and Conservative tax increases. The consequent row at Prime Minister's Question Time was carried by the media, and the story was given further life for another day.

Negative broadcasts are probably here to stay. The credibility of politicians is low and voters are unlikely to believe the promises of any party. Because it is difficult to sell a positive message campaign managers are now likely to argue the other side is even worse than their own party.

The central thrust of the 1992 Conservative election campaign was to attack Labour's weakness on tax and Kinnock's leadership. Labour has now given notice that it will campaign on tax and Major in 1996/7. Not for the first time the message of one election determines the agenda of the next one. Is the day of the party broadcast over? Party publicists devote most of their attention to gaining "free" coverage in news and current affairs programmes. It is because these are not run by the parties that they are more trusted by voters. The parties know that audiences for the broadcasts are steadily falling, particularly on ITV and, in recent elections, for Conservative broadcasts. The end of simultaneous transmission on all channels and the spread of new cable and satellite media will further reduce the audience.

In the past, Labour has looked to the broadcasters to overcome the bias of the Tory tabloids. Free access and the prohibition of buying broadcast time by political parties has also helped Labour, because it could be outspent by the Conservatives. Ironically, the tabloids have ended their love affair with the Conservative Party and Labour is likely to outspend the Conservatives in the next election.

For all their dissatisfaction with present arrangements, the political parties are unlikely to surrender their free time on television. It gives them the opportunity to say exactly what they want to voters, unedited and unmediated by Jeremy Paxman or the Sun - even if that message is increasingly uninformative.

The writer is Professor of Politics at Nottingham University and co-author of "The British General Election of 1992".