How the Media Fought the General Election

By Phillips, Tom | Contemporary Review, July 1997 | Go to article overview

How the Media Fought the General Election


Phillips, Tom, Contemporary Review


In winning the seat of Tatton in the 1997 British General Election, the former BBC Foreign Correspondent Martin Bell has become the first independent Member of Parliament since the departure of A. P. Herbert from the House of Commons nearly 50 years ago. More perhaps than any other successful candidate, he owes his victory to the role the media played in the long weeks between John Major's announcement of the election date and the close of polls at 10.00 pm on Thursday May 1st. Dubbed The Man In The White Suit and campaigning against declining standards in public life - the problem of 'sleaze' - Mr. Bell achieved what for a single-issue candidate is the unusual feat of winning the fifth 'safest' Conservative seat in the country with a handsome majority. At the end of a campaign which saw many journalists and commentators assuming the role of 'unacknowledged legislator', Mr. Bell and several other reporters - including Martin Renton in Battersea and Ben Bradshaw in Exeter - succeeded in taking the next logical step. They have become acknowledged Members of Parliament.

Not that Mr. Bell should be seen as the media's candidate. As his first rather shaky press conference proved, he was not given an easy ride. The BBC, in particular, took great pains to distance itself from its former hero. Nevertheless, the Tatton constituency was watched closely throughout the campaign and, according to research carried out for The Guardian, sleaze was the third most widely covered election issue. No matter how much the politicians attempted to steer media interest towards what they vaguely referred to as the 'real issues', sleaze would not go away. Following Mr. Bell's election, the media will no doubt feel justified in having kept it at the top of the agenda.

Even before the pre-election debates began, the media recognised and reinforced the key issues on which the campaign would be fought. Sleaze was pushed into the limelight by a series of sensationalist exposes in the press. For nearly two years, internal divisions over Europe within the Conservative party and suspected left-wing rebellions in Labour's ranks were the object of media scrutiny. By the time John Major named the day, the economy had been replaced as the dominant theme of British news coverage. In fact, once it gathered momentum, this election campaign was contested within extraordinarily narrow parameters. Although they criticised their many interviewers for an apparent obsession with Europe, sleaze and the personalities of the party leaders, politicians themselves seemed incapable of sustaining significant discussion about anything else. Individual policies on education and health, taxation and privatisation were spelled out, of course, but never with the enthusiasm and passion expressed in answers concerning which party the electorate should trust. Foreign affairs - except where they related to the European Union - were almost entirely ignored even though Hong Kong was soon to be handed back to the Chinese and the reputation of the United Nations was being undermined by its handling of crises such as the conflict in Zaire. The 'special relationship' with America - which the Conservatives have used to their advantage in the past - and the difficult decisions facing NATO as more Eastern European countries seek to join it were also overlooked. Right up until the polls opened, many voters confessed to being confused about the policies each party was advocating.

If limited in scope, media coverage of the election was certainly not limited in scale. From Day One, the broadsheet newspapers recruited as many pundits and celebrities as they could find and launched special 'election supplements'. The BBC extended its main evening news programme from 30 minutes to 50 minutes, worked its political editor Robin Oakley to the bone and littered its output with 'big' interviews, political debates and election specials. It opened a website on the Internet which ran to hundreds of pages. …

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