The Creation of Political News: Television and British Party Political Conferences. James Stanyer. Brighton, UK: Sussex Academic Press, 2001. 206 pp. $69.50 hbk. $29.95 pbk.
Anyone familiar with the dynamics of American news organizations' coverage of national political conventions will find intriguing parallels in James Stanyer's analysis of television coverage of British party conferences.
The party conferences occur annually, rather than quadrennially, but much else is similar. On both sides of the Atlantic, these occasions have become television events rather than deliberative sessions, and they are designed primarily to advertise the party's wares-personalities first, ideas second. They are largely the products of a symbiotic planning process in which communications professionals carry more weight than politicians.
The author is a lecturer at the University of Leicester's Centre for Mass Communication Research, and he did a good job of canvassing three years' worth of party conferences. He found that British politics now comprises a "permanent campaign" that relies on the news media-primarily television-to reach the public daily. He reports that the conferences feature intensive politicking but have become intellectually sterile. Dissent is frowned upon by party leaders who fear that "gladiatorial contests" at these sessions will lead voters to assume that if a party cannot run its own business in an orderly fashion, it certainly will not be able to run the country.
The BBC began live television coverage of the conferences in 1954. The conferences were occasions for the BBC, and later the other broadcasters, to showcase their presenters and other stars. But as the author shows, there has been a precipitous decline recently in the amount of time devoted to coverage of the conferences. That has produced desperation among politicians for whom television exposure is oxygen. Dissenters within a party organize fringe meetings, which they know a bored press corps will cover, while the leadership's spin doctors try to keep the journalists from straying from the party's carefully crafted agenda. As part of their effort to control news content, party officials schedule debate about controversial topics at times when there is little likelihood of live coverage.
This tug-of-war between convention managers and reporters is complicated by the fact that the news organizations have become thoroughly entwined in the planning of the conferences. …