Party Political Broadcasts – the nearest British politicians can get to advertising their wares on television – have had their day. Media fragmentation, and new media in particular, have made them an irrelevance. Discuss.
I suspect, after all the relentless four-minute interruptions on prime-time terrestrial televisions coming up in the next few months, most readers would happily forego that discussion – they will simply want to ban them.
Throughout their history (which as far as television is concerned, goes back to 1951) the salient quality of PPBs has been their ability to create derision. By turns stilted, dull, amateurish, inept or too slickly professional, they have failed to impress. There is no concrete evidence that they have ever been able to swing an election one way or the other. So why do politicians continue to be infatuated with them?
Part of the answer is provided by an excellent short film on their history – likely to be screened on BBC3 in the next month or so – which has been produced by former ITN journalist David Walter.*
The PPB often falls at the first hurdle. It professes to target the C2 female floating voter, but really it’s all about ministering to an entirely different audience, the party faithful. Tory grandee Michael Heseltine – one of the most incisive commentators to appear on the programme – admits as much: “They are not very important. They may create quite strong reactions among your own supporters, but I don’t think they change people’s minds.” The lure of vanity, and free prime-time TV air time, however, is such that most party leaders don’t trouble themselves with such trifling considerations.
This, after all, is an opportunity to grandstand on an issue with which they are intimately familiar: their own messianic importance. No surprise, then, that PPBs often focus on the biopic approach, magnifying the party leader’s role.
But what is supposed to be a message of reassurance to voters sometimes goes astray in the telling. There has probably never been a better-produced PPB than “Kinnock: the Movie”, directed by Hugh “Chariots of Fire” Hudson and aired in the run-up to the 1987 election. It seemed to do the trick, lifting the popularity of then Labour leader Neil Kinnock. Sadly, voters didn’t make the same connection with his party, which took another beating at the polls. John Major’s “The Journey” (directed by John Schlesinger) did better, focusing on his working class roots. The faked delight of Major “rediscovering” his family home in Brixton (he’d checked it out weeks before, just in case) may have been cheesy, but at least he went on to win the 1992 election he was hotly tipped to lose.
If concentrating on the leader has its drawbacks, some of the alternative stratagems are still more flawed. A common tank-trap is negative campaigning, of which the most notorious example is the so-called “War of Jennifer’s ear”. The Labour Party negatively contrasted the treatment given to an NHS patient with that of a private patient suffering from the same complaint. But the danger of using real people is that the other side can do some fact checking; and duly did. It turned out that Jennifer had been neglected not because of a long waiting list, but as a result of an administrative cock-up. Much egg on Kinnock’s face in the ensuing fall-out. The mind boggles at what might have happened had John Major given the go-ahead to Maurice Saatchi’s no-holds-barred “Faustian Pact” PPB in 1997, featuring Tony Blair being tempted by the devil. Major evidently decided he did have more to lose than an election – he had his legacy.
I wonder if Gordon Brown, in much the same situation, will make the same call? Brown the bruiser certainly seems to have gone into deep negative mode, with attacks on his shadow counterpart’s privileged background; while Harriet Harman, one of his campaign managers, is doing her best to stir up class-war. It would be no great surprise to find Labour PPBs committing the classic mistake of appealing to the converted (in this case, hard-core socialists) at the expense of floating voters who might turn the tide.
David Cameron, ironically, may find himself treading the same path as Kinnock all those years ago, with a heroic biopic – no doubt big on marriage and family values – that distances him from the lightweight public relations man depicted by his opponents.
It could, of course, be argued that – this time round – the role of the PPB will be diminished by the advent of televised debates between the party leaders. That remains to be seen. Live televised debate is not a format suited to the current incumbent – poor communicator that he is. And, though Brown has reluctantly agreed to participate, there are legal snags that could yet provide an excuse for him pulling out.
More insidiously, new media – at the moment mostly represented by YouTube – may eventually make the PPB an irrelevance. But that threat looks a long way in the future. For now, I suggest exactly the same argument employed by advertisers’ trade body ISBA to support ITV1 can also be used to justify the PPB. Sensibly exploited, there is no quicker, better way of building a brand than mainstream terrestrial TV.
And let’s also remember that, compared with anything else, it’s very cheap to make (unless, of course, you choose to employ Hugh Hudson or
John Schlesinger in a five-star production). A chronic party-funding crisis means any political incumbent has a strong vested interest in maintaining the PPB (and its tactical ally, the poster) for as long as possible. Unrestricted television advertising, of the sort first introduced to the US under President Eisenhower in the 1950s, would simply be prohibitively expensive.
So, long live the PPB, however ineffectual it may be in winning votes.
*My thanks to Charles Lewington, founder of Hanover Communications – which sponsored the production of Who Voted for This? – for letting me review a copy of the film. Lewington was John Major’s director of communications from 1995 to 1997.