The ‘first television election’ - 1955 or 1959?

In 1951, relatively few people had television sets so the audience for the Party Election Broadcasts (PEBs) was comparatively small. By the 1955 general election, television had become more widespread.

Writing of the 1955 election, David Butler noted that ‘the audience for everyone of the sound and television broadcasts still numbered between four and eight million – more, probably, than the total attendance at all the election meetings in the country put together.’ (1956:47)

In view of these changes – the spread of television, the size of the audience for PEBs – David Butler also observed that ‘the contests had been widely hailed as “the first T.V. election”.’ (1956:47)

This pronouncement may have been somewhat premature in as much as television had not yet developed as a medium for political communication. Restrictions on the BBC, such as the 14-Day rule, limited what it could do. Once Independent Television was launched and competition brought about change, television began to emerge as a serious medium for political communication.

Two restrictions are worth highlighting:

  1. The 14-Day rule prevented broadcasters from dealing with matters that were to be debated in Parliament within a period of 14 days. This had the effect of preventing broadcasters from commenting on topical political issues. (See Negrine, 1999)
  2. A cautious approach to political broadcasting in general meant that the BBC in 1955 – as in 1951 – made little mention of the campaign in its news programmes. In his study of the 1955 general election, David Butler commented that it was ‘hard to support the BBCs refusal to carry any news at all about the election, except with reference to pure technicalities like the closing of nominations and the distribution of ballot boxes.’ (1956: 64)

The launch of Independent Television in 1955 – thus creating a more competitive news environment – and the demise of the 14-Day rule in 1956/7 created a different environment for political coverage. Key political events during this period such as the Suez Crisis and its aftermath (1956 - ) and the first television interview with a Prime Minister (Harold Macmillan) by Robin Day in 1958, illustrated the growing power of television and broadcasters in general. (See Cox, 1983; Seymour-Ure, 1996)

By the 1959 general election, television had become a more dominant force and it was no longer constrained as it had been in 1955. Political broadcasting had ‘come of age’ (Seymour-Ure, 1996: 188)

It may be more appropriate, therefore, to see the 1959 election as ‘the first television election’.

Butler, D. (1956) The British General Election of 1955 London: Macmillan.

Cox, G. (1983) See it Happen. The Making of ITN. London: The Bodley Head.

Negrine, R. (1999) The Press and Broadcasting since 1945 Manchester: MUP.

Seymour-Ure, C. (1996) The British Press and Broadcasting since 1945. Oxford: Blackwell.

Cockerell, M. (1989) Live from Number 10. The Inside Story of Prime Ministers and Television London: faber and faber.

Briggs, A. (1979) The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, Volume IV. Sound and Vision. Oxford: Oxford University Press.