Radio – Party Election Broadcasting

The British Broadcasting Company was created in 1922 and within two years of its creation it became involved in matters of high politics. John Reith, its Managing Director, was closely linked to the political leaders and used those connections to advance the cause of the BBC. Those links, however, also enabled him to encourage political leaders to broadcast to the nation.

Reith’s diaries show that some consideration was given to how political parties should use the medium of radio as early as the 1924 general election.

11/12 October 1924 The government whips rang up in the evening to say that we could have one political broadcast from each party but suggested that I should phone the PMG (Post Master General) … to confirm this, which I did. (Stuart, 1975: 90)

By the next election, the BBC had already become a Corporation and Reith its Director General. But the relationship established between the BBC and the government – which was somewhat affected by the events surrounding the General Strike in 1926 – continued to privilege the political parties at election time. Nevertheless, a sense of ‘fair play’ appears to have operated in respect of the allocation of free time to the political parties for the purpose of broadcasts.

14 February 1929 Lunched with Ramsay MacDonald (Labour Party Leader). He wanted to talk about political broadcasting, the Labour Party being so dependent on the wireless. I told him we would agree if the three parties agreed among themselves. We might even make arrangements if two of them did. He said the Labour Party were ready to agree to almost anything. (Stuart, 1975: 100)

There was much debate, though, about both the allocation of broadcasts and the rota for the broadcasts and the diaries give a sense of protracted discussions. For example,

4/5/6 April 1929 A long letter from Ramsay MacDonald, he being much incensed about the political arrangements … Samuel (Lord, Liberal) very decently agreed to change the second rota from Conservative-Labour-Conservative-Liberal to Conservative-Liberal-Conservative-Labour to meet the Labour party… Letter from Davidson (J.C.C.) saying the Conservatives cannot agree which is monstrous. (Stuart, 1975: 101)

In the event, there were two rotas with the government allocated four broadcasts and the opposition parties two each. (Stuart, 1975: 124)

By the mid-1930s, and other parties clamouring for access, the arrangements needed some further careful consideration. Reith was embroiled in discussions about the broadcasts – or political speeches, as they were sometimes referred to – and developed a set of rules so as to guide him.

6 October 1931 Business about General Election speeches. Dr Forgan, the Whip of the (Oswald) Mosley party came to see me. I told him that if they were putting 50 candidates in the field, as they said, I thought they would have a claim. (Stuart, 1975: 107)

16 October 1931 Had an interview with the New [Mosley] party organizer. Glyn (Major Ralph Glyn, PM’s parliamentary secretary) had left it that they would have a place next Monday [19 Oct.], if they had 40 candidates, but they only had 23 so they are out. The line I have taken throughout is that the list seems to create equal discontent in every party and hence is perhaps as satisfactory as it could be. The Labour party are being very unjust about it, as one would expect, and they have certainly least cause. (Stuart, 1975: 109)

21 February 1935 Saw Margesson (David Margesson, Conservative chief whip)in the House of Commons and explained to him the idea of a Speaker’s committee to advise us on political talks, both when Parliament is sitting and at election times and said it must be clear that the initiative is from us. He said he liked the idea but was doubtful whether it would work since (the political representatives of the parties) would never agree about anything. (Stuart, 1975: 120-1)

The framework established by John Reith remained in place in the 1950s and 1960s when television began to replace radio as the mass medium. (Link to Television Party Election Broadcasts.)

Stuart, C. (1975) (Ed.) The Reith Diaries. London: Collins.

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