Election '97: British bulldog plays patriotic card for Labour

Tony Blair and Baroness Thatcher's worries about the long election campaign turning people off is reflected in poor viewing figures for news programmes on television and slipping newspaper sales.

The Nine O'clock News, which was blamed at the weekend by Mr Blair for boring the electorate with tit-for-tat election coverage, has been hardest hit by election apathy.

The BBC's flagship news programme's viewing figures tumbled by nearly 2 million from an average of 6.1 million to about 4 million since it increased its length by 25 minutes to give more election coverage on 2 April.

The Corporation is powerless to improve its news ratings because it feels it has a duty to inform the public during the election. "Our public service obligation is part of the democratic process," said BBC News spokesman Richard Peel. "We are giving people information to help them make a choice."

Mr Peel believes that the phoney campaign before the election was called has put people off, but expects interest to recover closer to polling day.

News at Ten has lost an about 800,000 viewers from its 6 million average, but its programme has not been extended.

Channel 4 News and Newsnight seem to have an in-built constituency of political addicts and their viewing has fallen by much smaller amounts, Newsnight is down 100,000 to 1 million and Channel 4 News is down 40,000 to 700,000.

Newspapers are doing no better. In the official Audit Bureau of Circulation figures for March only one daily newspaper saw its sales rise significantly compared with February - The Sun - while the rest largely stood still. The figures are flat because sales started to fall almost as soon as the election was called in the middle of the month.

The latest estimated sales figures available are for the first two weeks of April. These show that since the election was called the quality press has seen its sales fall by an estimated 55,000 a day or 2.2 per cent.

The tabloid mass-market and mid-market papers have fared better, but have still lost an estimated 106,000 sales a day, or 0.9 per cent of the market.

The figures are particularly damaging because newspapers expect to do well out of a general election and see their sales go in the other direction. Some industry insiders hope that once people return to work after the Easter holidays sales will start to climb.

The Labour Party will use a three-year-old bulldog called Fritz to play the patriotic card in tonight's party election broadcast. The dog is seen at the beginning of broadcast tired and worn out after 18 years of Tory government.

After listening to Tony Blair talk about his plans for the country intercut with scenes of Mr Blair with President Bill Clinton and President Nelson Mandela the dog wakes up. Eventually it is straining at the leash and breaks free so it can run towards the rosy-coloured future that is a Labour government.

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