The Battle For Campaign Agenda In Britain

Essay, Research Paper The Battle for the Campaign Agenda in Britain (1997) The 1997 election was a struggle, not just for votes, but also to control the campaign agenda. Significant, but contradictory, challenges faced the media, parties and the public. For journalists, the problem was how to engender any zip into the campaign.

Essay, Research Paper

The Battle for the Campaign Agenda in Britain (1997)

The 1997 election was a struggle, not just for votes, but also to control the campaign agenda. Significant, but contradictory, challenges faced the media, parties and the public. For journalists, the problem was how to engender any zip into the campaign. Ever since Black Wednesday, in September 1992, Labour had seemed assured of victory while Conservative support floundered in the doldrums. For five years, perhaps it just seemed like longer, pundits had been writing of the end of the Conservative era, bolstered by all the accumulated evidence from opinion polls, by-elections and local elections. By the start of the six-week official campaign, the horse-race story was almost lifeless. Moreover, to the dismay of leader-writers, commentators and columnists, Blair’s strategic shift towards the centre-left had removed much of the drama of serious policy conflicts between the major parties. Few issues remained where one could discern clear blue water between Labour and the Conservatives – devolution and constitutional reform, perhaps the faint ghost of trade union rights and spending priorities – but on so much the contest was a classic case of an echo not a choice. Lastly, at the outset the campaign promised tight party control, in as gaffe-free an environment as could be humanly managed. At the start the Labour party seemed insecure and sweaty despite its enormous lead in the polls, and the professional andelson machine at Millbank Tower left almost nothing to chance, as though the souffle of support might suddenly collapse. Based on their formidable track-record during the 1980s, the Conservatives had a reputation for running highly professional campaigns. Given the palpable sense of public boredom and impatience, a feeling of oh-do-lets-get-on-with-it, the challenge for journalists was to find something fresh and interesting to hold the attention of their readers and viewers. During the six week campaign there was, on average, about ten hours of regular BBC and ITN television news and current affairs programmes every weekday1, not including election specials, nor Sky News, CNN, Radio 4, Five Live, newspapers and magazines, the internet election web pages, and all the other plethora of media outlets. Something had to fill the ravenous news hole. For the public, the primary urge seemed to be to get it all over with. But voters also needed to make sense of the choice before them, when policy differences between the parties had shaded from the red-and-blue days of Thatcher v. Foot to a middle of the road wishy-washy mauve. Many issues confronting voters were complex, technical and subtle, with no easy answers: what will happen to the economy if Britain enters, or stays out, of the ERM? How can the peace process move ahead in Northern Ireland, given the intractability of all sides? Can Britain afford an effective and comprehensive health service, given ever-increasing demands on the system and spending limits accepted by all parties? These, and related, issues facing Britain have critical consequences for the lives of citizens, but they admit of no simple sound-bite panaceas. The needs of the news media and the public were at odds with those of the parties. Given their lead, the primary challenge for Labour was to manage their media environment against unexpected crises, in play-safe reactive mode. The watchword was control. Memories of the polling fiasco in 1992, and Neil Kinnock’s false expectation of victory in that campaign (”We’re allright!”), dominated strategy in 1997. The challenge for the Conservatives was to staunch grassroots morale, and even build momentum, by emphasising the positive economic performance of the government, by reassuring voters to trust Prime Minister John Major against the inexperienced and unknown Tony Blair, and by attacking Labour on the old bugaboos of taxes and trade unions. To gain traction the Conservatives had to take more risks than Labour. The challenge facing all the minor parties, but particularly the Liberal Democrats, was to avoid being squeezed by Labour’s smothering slither centre-left. Who won? The aim of this chapter is to examine this battle and evaluate the outcome. The first section sets out the long-term context by considering how campaigning has been transformed in the post-war era. The 1997 election represented another critical step, it can be argued, in the transition to the post-modern campaign in Britain, — characterised by partisan dealignment in the press, growing fragmentation in the electronic media, and strategic communications in parties. The second section goes on to analyse what was covered in the national press and television during the campaign, and whether this suggests Labour won the battle of the campaign agenda, as well as the election. Lastly, we consider how the public reacted to the coverage, whether they felt that journalists generated interesting, fair and informative coverage, and the implications of this analysis for the struggle over campaign communications. The Evolution of the Post-Modern Campaign Modernisation theory suggests that during the post-war era the political communication process has been transformed by the decline of direct linkages between citizens and parties, and the rise of mediated relationships. Swanson and Mancini argue that similar, although not identical, developments are recognisable across industrialised democracies2. In the earliest stage, the premodern campaign in Britain was characterised by the predominance of the partisan press; a loose organizational network of grassroots party volunteers in local constituencies; and a short, ad-hoc national campaign run by the party leader with a few close advisers. This period of campaigning gradually evolved in the mid-nineteenth century following the development of mass party organizations registering and mobilising the newly enfranchised electorate. Despite the introduction of wireless broadcasting in 1922, this pattern was maintained in largely identifiable form until the late fifties3. The critical watershed came in 1959, with the first television coverage of a British general election, symbolising the transition to the next stage.

The evolution of the modern campaign was marked by a shift in the central location of election communications, from newspapers towards television, from the constituency grassroots to the party leadership, and from amateurs towards professionals. The press entered an era of long-term decline: circulation of national newspapers peaked in the late fifties and sales have subsequently dropped by one-third (see Figure 1). The fall was sharpest among tabloids, pushing these further downmarket in the search for readers4. This fierce competition transformed the nature of the British press, producing growing sensationalism, and more journalism with attitude, while changes in ownership ratcheted the partisan balance further in the Conservative direction.

One major factor contributing towards declining circulation was the rise of television. The political effects of this new technology were strongly mediated by the regulations governing broadcasting in each country. In Britain the legal framework for the BBC/ITV duopoly was suffused by a strong public service ethos which required broadcasters to maintain ‘party balance’ and impartiality in news coverage, to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ according to high standards, and to provide an agreed allocation of unpaid airtime to arty political broadcasts5. Within this familiar context, television centralised the campaign, and thereby increased the influence of the party leaders: what appeared on BBC1’s flagship 9 O’clock News and ITN’s News at Ten, and related news and current affairs studios, was the principle means by which politicians reached the vast majority of voters. To work effectively within this environment parties developed a coordinated national campaign with professional communications by specialists skilled in advertising, marketing, and polling. The ‘long campaign’ in the year or so before polling day became as important strategically as the short ‘official’ campaign. These changes did not occur overnight, nor did they displace grassroots constituency activity, as the timeless ritual of canvassing and leafletting continued. A few trusted experts in polling and political marketing became influential during the campaign in each party, such as Maurice Saatchi, Tim Bell and Gordon Reece in Conservative Central Office, but this role remained as part-time outside advisors, not integral to the process of government, nor even to campaigning which was still run by politicians. Unlike in the United States, no political marketing industry developed, in large part because the only major clients were the Labour and Conservative party leaderships: the minor parties had limited resources, while parliamentary candidates ran retail campaigns based on shoe-leather and grassroots helpers. But the net effect of television during the era of modernisation was to shift the primary focus of the campaign from the ad-hoccery of unpaid volunteers and local candidates towards the central party leadership flanked by paid, although not necessarily full-time, professionals6. Lastly in the late twentieth century Britain seems to have been experiencing the rise of the post-modern campaign, although there remains room for dispute in the interpretation of the central features of this development and its consequences. The most identifiable characteristics, evident in the 1997 campaign, include the emergence of a more autonomous, and less partisan, press following its own ‘media logic’; the growing fragmentation and diversification of electronic media outlets, programmes and audiences; and, in reaction to these developments, the attempt by parties to reassert control through strategic communications and media management during the permanent campaign.

Partisan Dealignment in the Press In the post-war period parties have had long-standing and stable links with the press. In 1945 there was a rough partisan balance with about 6.7 million readers of pro-Conservative papers and 4.4 million readers of pro-Labour papers. This balance shifted decisively in the early 1970s, with the transformation of the left-leaning Daily Herald into the pro-Conservative Sun, and the more aggressively right-wing tone of The Times, both under Rupert Murdoch’s ownership. By 1992 the cards had become overwhelmingly stacked against the left, since the circulation of the Conservative-leaning press had risen to about 8.7 million compared with only 3.3 million for Labour-leaning papers (see Figure 1). Throughout the 1980s Mrs Thatcher could campaign assured of a largely sympathetic press, which provided a loyal platform to get her message across7. One of the most striking developments of recent years has been the crumbling of these traditional press-party loyalties.

The evidence comes partly from editorial policy. The Conservative press had started to turn against Mrs Thatcher in 1989-90, when the economy was in recession and her leadership became deeply unpopular, and this constant barrage of criticism probably contributed towards her eventual demise8. During the 1992 election, while the Sun and the Daily Express continued to beat the Tory drum, comment from some of the other pro-Conservative press like the Mail and The Sunday Times was more muted, and four out of eleven daily papers failed to endorse a single party9. The new government enjoyed a brief respite on returning to office but press criticism of John Major’s leadership deepened following the ERM debacle on 16th September 1992, with only the Daily Express staying loyal. Journalists continued to highlight the government’s difficulties over Europe, and internal splits over the debate on the Maastricht Treaty. By the winter of 1993, a succession of scandals involving Conservative politicians created headline news while editorials regularly denunciated the government, and particularly the Prime Minister. By the time of the July 1995 leadership challenge only the Daily Express backed John Major solidly, while the Sun, the Mail, The Times and the Telegraph all argued that it was time for him to be replaced10, an embarrassment for their leader writers given the outcome.

The question, in the long run-up to the election, was whether the Tory press would return home, once the future of the Conservative government was under real threat. In the event, the 1997 election represents a historic watershed. In a major break with tradition, six out of ten national dailies, and five out of nine Sundays, endorsed the Labour party in their final editorials (see Table 1). This was twice the highest number previously, and it reversed the long-standing pro-Conservative leanings in the national press. With impeccable timing, the Sun led the way on the first day of the campaign, (THE SUN BACKS BLAIR), with a frontpage claiming Blair is a “breath of fresh air” while the Conservatives were “tired, divided and rudderless”, and its defection stole the headlines and damaged Tory morale. This change of heart came after assiduous efforts by Labour to court press support, including meetings between Blair and Rupert Murdoch, especially Blair’s visit to Australia in 1995. hroughout the campaign the Sun, with ten million readers a day, provided largely unswerving support for Blair, although opposing Labour policy on Europe and the unions, and many commentators predicted that the switch, based on Murdoch’s commercial considerations rather than political affinities, would not last long11. Labour’s traditional tabloid, the Daily Mirror, with six million readers, continued its brand of centre-left journalism (”the paper for Labour’s TRUE supporters”). On the last Sunday of the campaign, influenced by Murdoch, The News of the World decided to follow the lead of its sister paper, the Sun, and backed Labour.

Among the broadsheets The Guardian called for tactical voting for the Liberal Democrats in seats where it made sense, but broadly endorsed Labour. The Independent was more restrained in its backing, casting its editorial vote for Labour “with a degree of optimism that is not entirely justified by the evidence”. The paper was clearly more anti-Tory than pro-anything. The Times advised their readers to back Eurosceptic candidates from whatever party, although, in practice, nearly all were Conservatives. Only leads in the Daily Telegraph, and the Daily Mail (”LABOUR BULLY BOYS ARE BACK” “LABOUR’S BROKEN PROMISES”) remained strongly in the Tory camp. Even the Daily Express was more neutral than in the past: a double-page spread was divided between Lord Hollick, its chief executive, arguing for Labour and its chairman, Lord Stevens, arguing for the Conservatives. The front-page of the election-eve Mail carried a colourful Union Jack border and the apocalyptic warning that a Labour victory could “undo 1,000 years of our nation’s history”. Yet any comparison of editorial policy probably under-estimates the balance of partisanship in news coverage during the overall campaign. For example, the Mail ostensibly endorsed the Conservatives during the campaign, but in practice it probably deeply damaged the government by headlining sexual scandals in the party, and reinforcing images of disunity with leading articles highlighting the number of Tory Eurosceptics. With friends like this, the Conservatives did not need opponents. To understand this we need to go beyond the leaders, which are rarely read, and even less heeded, to examine the broader pattern of front-page stories. The most plausible evidence for dealignment is that certain papers like the Sun, traditionally pro-Conservative, switched camps, but also that front-page stories were often so similar across all the press, driven by news values irrespective of the paper’s ostensible partisanship.

Since the early 1970s fierce competition for readers has encouraged far more sensational coverage in the popular press, fuelling an endless diet of stories about ’scandals’, (mostly sexual but also financial), infotainment, and the Royals, preferably all three. This process started when Rupert Murdoch bought the News of the World in 1968, and the Sun a year later. It accelerated in the cut-throat competition produced by the launch of the Daily Star in 1978, which sought to out-do the Sun in its relentless search for sex, investigative ‘exclusives’ about celebrities, violent crime, and graphic coverage of the bizzare. Those who thought British newspapers had reached their nadir at this point had under-estimated the soft-porn Sunday Sport, launched in 198612. The tackiness of the popular press, such as their exhaustive gossip about the goings-on of the younger Royals, gradually infected and corroded the news culture of the broadsheets as well. By the mid-1990s, the journalism of scandal trumped party loyalties, hands down. This fuelled the series of sleaze stories about senior Conservative politicians hroughout John Major’s years in government, and there was no let-up during the campaign. As documented in detail later, the first two weeks of the election were dominated by a succession of stories about corruption in public life and sexual ’scandals’, providing a steady diet of negative news for the government which swamped their message about the economy.

The most plausible reason for this focus on sensationalism is the

fierce competition for readers following plummeting circulation

figures: between 1981-95 the proportion of the public reading a

daily paper dropped substantially (from 76 to 62 percent of men and

from 68 to 54 percent of women)13. In Britain the national press

competes for attention headline-to-headline in newsagents

shop-windows, unlike in countries where there is a strong regional

press each with its own distinct market.

The drive for readers may also have indirectly influenced the shift

in partisanship, if papers decided to follow, rather than lead,

changes in popular support for the government, although evidence

here remains inconclusive. At the start of the campaign, according

to MORI polls from January 1st to March 17 1997, out of nineteen

daily and Sunday papers, only the Express and Telegraph had an

overall majority of readers who said they would vote Conservative

(see Table 2). Papers may have believed that they could not expect

to retain their popularity if they advocated policies which failed

to get the support of the majority of their readers. This was

publicly acknowledged by Lord Rothermere, proprietor of the Mail, in

the aftermath of the election, who was asked whether the editor,

Paul Dacre, would be allowed to continue to express his

Euroscepticism:”It is a free country, and he is entitled to his

views and to express them. But, of course, if they start to affect

the circulation that will be different.” 14In many countries which

used to have a strongly partisan press, like the Netherlands,

political coverage is now driven more strongly by an autonomous

‘media logic’ in the fierce competition for readers rather than by

traditional allegiances or the politics of their proprietors.

“Modern media are more powerful, more independent, and more

determined to pursue their own interests through a professional

culture of their own making.”15. This dealignment has increased the

complexity and uncertainty of media management for parties, who can

no longer rely on getting their message out through a few well-known

and sympathetic sources.

The Growing Fragmentation of the Electronic Media

Although newspapers have shrunk, the electronic media expanded

during this same period, with far greater diversification in the

1990s. The erosion of the BBC/ITV duopoly of viewers proceeded

relatively slowly in Britain, compared with the fall in the network

share of the audience in wired countries like the United States, the

Netherlands and Canada. Channel 5 covered about two-thirds of

Britain when launched in March 1997, although with a modest

audience, and this added to the choice of four terrestrial channels.

But today the BBC and ITV duopoly faces the greatest competition

from the rapid evolution of digital, cable and satellite television

narrowcasting, and also from new forms of interactive communications

like the Internet.

The first satellite services became available in Britain from Sky TV

in February 1989, followed by BSB the following year. By 1992, about

3 percent of homes had access to cable TV, while 10 percent had a

satellite dish. In contrast by 1997 almost a fifth of all households

could tune into over fifty channels on satellite and cable. In these

homes, more than a third of all viewing was on these channels.

During the campaign, between 10-15 percent of the audience usually

watched cable and satellite programmes every evening. Occasionally

when there was wall-to-wall election on the terrestrial channels,

like on Thursday 24th April, a week before the election, the

proportion of cable and satellite viewers jumped to almost a quarter

of the audience. Moreover, Sky News, CNN, Channel 5, and BBC Radio’s

Five Live, have altered the pace of news, to brief headlines on the

hour every hour.

While probably only political junkies surfed the internet, the easy

availability of the BBC’s Election ‘97, ITN Online, the online

headlines from the Press Association and Reuters, party home pages,

as well as electronic versions of The Times and The Telegraph,

dramatically speeded the news cycle. The BBC’s Politics ‘97, with

easy access to RealAudio broadcasts of its major political

programmes, promises the shape of things to come. With 24 hour

coverage, the acceleration of the news cycle has dramatically

increased the need for parties to respond, or get knocked off their

feet, by a suddenly shifting agenda.

Strategic Party Communications during the Permanent Campaign

As press-party loyalties have declined, and the outlets for

electronic news have diversified, politicians have been forced to

respond to a more complex communications environment. Parties have

been transformed by the gradual evolution of the permanent campaign

where the techniques of spin doctors, opinion polls, and

professional media management are increasingly applied to routine

everyday politics. The central role of Peter Mandelson in the Labour

campaign, and the high-tech developments in media management at

Millbank Tower, are not isolated phenomenon16. Supposedly modelled

on the war room in the Clinton campaign, the Millbank organisation

had a tight inner core, including Peter Mandelson, Gordon Brown, the

press secretary Alastair Campbell, the pollster Philip Gould,

Blair’s personal assistant Anji Hunter, Lord Irvine of Lairg and

Jonathan Powell. The interior circle was surrounded by about 200

staffers connecting via fax, modem and pagers to key shadow

spokespersons and candidates out in the marginal constituencies, to

keep the party ‘on-message’. Briefings were sent out nightly,

sometimes twice a day. The Labour party designed their

communications strategy down to the smallest detail, with a rebuttal

unit (and the Excalibur programme) under the direction of Adrian

McMenamin, ready for a rapid response to anticipated attacks.

After 1992 Labour realised that elections are not usually won or

lost in the official campaign, and they subsequently designed their

strategy for the long-haul. Labour renewed their interest in

constituency campaigns, although local contests became increasingly

professionalised by strategic targeting of key voters under the

guidance of Millbank Tower. For two years before polling day a

Labour task force was designed to switch 5000 voters in each of 90

target marginals. Those identified as potential Labour coverts in

these seats were contacted by teams of volunteers on the doorstep,

and by a canvassing operation run from twenty telephone banks around

the country, coordinated from Millbank during the campaign. In

January 1997 get out the vote letters were sent to each type of

target voter, and young people received a video of Tony Blair17.

Candidates in marginals were each asked to contact at least 1,000

switchers. Information from the canvassing operation, especially

issues of concern raised by voters, was also fed back to Philip

Gould, to help shape Labour’s presentations.

Opinion polling was carried out regularly from late 1993, and Philip

Gould and Deborah Mattinson conducted a programme of focus group

research to monitor reaction to Labour’s policies. Strategy meetings

were conducted almost daily from late 1994, tackling Labour’s

weaknesses on taxation, trade unions, and crime well before the

official campaign came close. The manifesto, New Labour: Because

Britain Deserves Better was designed to focus on five specific

pledges: cutting class sizes for under seven year-olds; fast-track

punishments for persistent young offenders; reducing NHS waiting

lists; moving 250,000 young unemployed into work; and cutting VAT on

heating. By launching the draft manifesto New Labour, new life for

Britain as a dry run a year earlier, Labour had ample opportunity to

iron out any pledges which proved unduly controversial. The main

theme of Labour’s advertising was “Britain Deserves Better”, fairly

bland and safe, if unmemorable. To press home the message, Tony

Blair visited 60 constituencies, travelling about 10,000 miles by

road, rail and air, and providing controlled photo-opportunities

rather than press conferences for the media. The membership drive

launched by Blair was also part of this long-term strategy,

increasing grassroots membership by almost two-thirds, up from

261,000 in 1991 to 420,000 by the time of the election18. This

achievement was in stark contrast to Conservative party membership

which has fallen, perhaps by half, to an estimated 350,000 to

400,000, from 1992-9719. Lastly Labour’s assiduous courting of the

city, including launching the special business manifesto, was all

part of this careful planning to anticipate and batten down any

lines of potential weakness.

In contrast Conservative Central office more often appeared to be

knocked off message by events out of their control, with the topics

planned for press conferences torn up at the last minute. The

campaign was led by the party chairman, Brian Malwhinney, the deputy

leader Michael Heseltine, Danny Finkelstein, head of Tory party

research, and advised by Lord Saatchi, although up to twenty people

attended strategy meetings, each with different priorities. During

the long campaign the Conservatives seemed unable to decide whether

the most effective strategy was to attack Old Labour (the party of

trade unions and taxes) or New Labour (the party of ’smarmy’,

‘phony’ and untrustworthy Blair). Tory briefings, and posters,

veered back and forth uncertainly 20. Their most effective slogans

were probably “Britain is Booming – Don’t let Labour Blow it”, or

“New Labour, New Danger”, but their advertising was generally

regarded as unconvincing (indeed their ‘Tony and Bill’ poster was

widely believed to be a Labour advertisement).

Labour suffered a wobbly day or two in early-April, over

privatisation of the air traffic control service, with contradictory

messages coming from Blair and Prescott. There were also some

wobbles in the second week over the unions, and Blair made an

embarrassing ‘parish council’ slip over Scottish devolution. In the

sixth week a rogue poll by ICM for the Guardian, suggesting the

Labour lead was closing, also induced concern in the Labour camp.

But these were minor upsets. In contrast the Conservatives became

deeply mired in divisions, arguing with each other not addressing

the public, as the splits over Europe burst open again. On 14th

April the Mail published a list of 183 Conservative candidates who

had come out against EMU in their constituency leaflets, in

contradiction to the official ‘wait and see’ line. In response John

Major tore up the PEB planned for 17th April, and instead broadcast

an impromptu appeal on Europe. But the internal row only intensified

the following day with publication of a Conservative advertisement

showing Blair as a puppet on Kohl’s lap, which brought public

criticism from Edward Heath and Ken Clarke, (as well as offence from

Germany) thereby only highlighting Conservative splits. Other

diversions included speculation about the Tory leadership election

to replace Major, and comments like Edwina Currie’s prediction of

Conservative defeat in the twilight days of the campaign. In short,

the Conservative message of Britain’s economic health was drowned

out as much by internal conflicts, fuelled but not caused by the

media, as by anything the opposition did or said. The Mail may have

tossed the lighted match, but the row between Eurosceptics and

Europhiles was a conflagration waiting to happen, based on years as

a party tearing itself apart.

The shift towards the permanent campaign in Britain has still not

gone as far as in the United States, in part because of the pattern

of longer electoral cycles21. Nevertheless the way that the

techniques for campaigning are becoming merged with the techniques

of governing was symbolised by the way that Tony Blair, once elected

Prime Minister, announced monthly ‘meet the public’ sessions, to

attract popular support and publicity outside of his appearances in

the Commons, following the example of President Clinton’s

‘town-hall’ meetings. Moreover, many of those who played a key role

in controlling Labour campaign communications were transferred to

Number 10, with the aim of adopting the same techniques in

government. New Ministers, for example, were told that all press

briefings had to be cleared centrally with Peter Mandelson, Minister

without Portfolio in the Blair administration. Whether this process

succeeds or not remains an open question but what it indicates is

that, given a more complex communications environment, modern

parties have been forced to adapt, with greater or lesser success,

to the new communications environment if they are to survive


The 1997 election therefore suggests that the evolution to a

post-modern campaign currently remains in transition in Britain, and

certain components are more clearly developed than others. In

particular, the full impact of the digital television revolution and

the internet remains uncertain, and if Britain experiences an

explosion of channels the next election is probably going to be

fought in a very different broadcasting environment. Nevertheless

these trends seem to be producing a distinctively new context for

the process of political campaigning in Britain, as elsewhere,

characterised by dealignment of the press, an increasingly diverse

and fragmented electronic media, and, in response, more strategic

attempts by parties to maintain control and remain on-message. The

term ‘post-modern’ seems appropriate to describe a communication

process which has become increasingly diverse, fragmented, and

complex. Similar developments have been identified in many

industrialised democracies, although the impact of

technologically-driven change is mediated by each nation’s culture,

political system, and media structure22. The consequences of this

transition remain a matter of dispute. Some critics, reflecting on

similar patterns in the United States, fear these developments will

serve to disconnect leaders and citizens, to over-simplify and

trivialise political discourse, and to produce a more cynical and

disengaged public which tunes out from politics altogether. Others,

however, remain more sanguine, while some speculate that the

fragmentation of media outlets may provide a positive opportunity

for more varied, and less mainstream, cultural voices to be heard23.

Who Won the Battle of the Campaign Agenda?

Within this environment, what was the contents of coverage of the

1997 campaign? And, in particular, did Labour win the battle of the

campaign agenda, as well as the election? Here we can turn to

content analysis of the national press provided by CARMA, who

monitored 6,072 articles in the national daily and Sunday newspapers

from the announcement of the election (18th March) until polling day

(1st May). CARMA analysed whether the article featured the

Conservative party (4,827 articles), Labour (4,536), the Liberal

Democrats (1,390) or the Referendum party (319), then for each party

classified the major topic of these articles using 150 coding

categories (such as inflation, education and trade unions). CARMA

counted the number of articles (although not the length) which

mentioned each topic every day, as well as estimating the

favourability or unfavourability of each story24.

This analysis suggests that about a fifth of all the election

coverage in the press (19 percent) focussed on campaigning, such as

stories about party strategy, the prospects for marginal seats, and

much speculation about the (in the event non-existent) television

debate. The minutiae of insider electioneering, such as campaign

battle buses (complete with layout colour maps), high-tech and

wooden soap-boxes, and Blairforce One were described in detail by

journalists bored by listening to the standard leadership speeches.

If we break the analysis down in more detail, (see Table 3) we find

that one quarter of this coverage, but in total only 10 percent of

all news stories, was about opinion polls, far less than in recent

general elections. As others have noted, the media commissioned

fewer polls than in 1987 or 1992, and they gave them less coverage.

About a fifth of all front-page lead stories in the national press

were devoted to the polls in 1987 (20 percent) and in 1992 (18

percent) compared with only 4 percent in 199725. Coverage of the

polls on television news dropped from 14 percent in 1992 to only 7

percent in 199726. This was probably due to new guidelines on

television, plus the flatness of the race, with perpetually large

Labour leads, as well as the reputation of the polls following their

fiasco in 1992. Overall there was relatively little difference in

the amount of attention given to each party in terms of

electioneering, although it is notable that more stories about the

Liberal Democrats focussed on stories about tactical voting, such as

The Observer’s detailed survey of marginal seats towards the end of

the campaign, and this coverage may have influenced the high levels

of tactical voting which were evident in the results.

Almost half of all the press coverage (45 percent) discussed policy

issues (see Table 4), with detailed sections in the broadsheets

analysing the contents of each party’s manifesto promises. About one

quarter of this coverage (27 percent) focussed on problems of

domestic social policy, particularly education, the national health

service, pensions and crime. The priority given to education by

Labour, and even more by the Liberal Democrats, seems to have paid

dividends in their media coverage. The economy absorbed another

quarter of the coverage, particularly taxation, trade unions (for

Labour), unemployment and privatisation, in that order. The analysis

clearly reveals the extent of the failure of the Conservatives to

focus media attention on their positive achievements. There was

remarkably little political coverage of Britain’s low levels of

inflation, the balance of payments figures, strong economic growth,

and low interest rates, not to speak of the booming stockmarket27.

Altogether economic and social policy absorbed the majority (58

percent) of Labour’s issue coverage, broadly reflecting their

manifesto priorities, particularly the five specific policy pledges

mentioned earlier. In terms of agenda-setting, the only major topics

given significantly more attention in the press coverage than in

Labour’s manifesto were the issues of trade unions and

privatisation. In contrast, despite John Major’s strenuous attempts

to trumpet the government’s economic record at daily press

conferences at Smith Square, and their BRITAIN IS BOOMING slogan,

only a fifth (22 percent) of their issue coverage in the press

focussed on the economy. The Conservatives simply failed to set the

media agenda: there was twice as much coverage of their record on

unemployment as inflation.

In most elections foreign policy rarely surfaces as a major issue,

unless the country is at war or there is major international

conflict abroad. During the 1992 campaign, for example, although

Labour’s defence policy was highlighted by Tory posters, foreign

affairs occupied a mere one percent of front page news28. Yet in

1997, despite an era of peace and prosperity, at a time when the

west has won the cold war, a remarkable 17 percent of all issue

coverage in the press focussed on foreign policy, nearly all

concerning Britain’s role within the European Union29. As discussed

earlier, the press headlined Conservative splits over Europe: almost

a fifth of the coverage of Conservative issues (19 percent) focussed

on Europe.

The Conservative agenda was also sabotaged by the issue of standards

of public life: 18 percent of their total issue coverage in the

press concerned stories about sex and sleaze. This was also the

number one topic in editorials30. The extent to which the

Conservatives lost the battle of the media agenda can be illustrated

most clearly by this issue. The first week of the campaign was

dominated by the ‘cash for questions’ row when part of the

unpublished Commons report by Sir George Downey was leaked to The

Guardian on 21st March. As a result 23 Conservative MPs entered the

election with a cloud over their heads, notably Neil Hamilton in

Tatton and Tim Smith in Beaconsfield.

During the second week, the Tories started to mount a

counter-offensive: both the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph led

with a splash story about the ‘union threat’ under Labour, with the

Mail publishing a ’secret union hit list’ of employers. Conservative

Central Office tried to lead their press conference on this story

but before they could gain any traction this news was swept off the

front pages by the resignation of Allan Stewart, an ex-minister and

Conservative MP for Glasgow Eastwood, forced to stand down following

allegation of an old affair which were published in the Sunday Mail.

On Thursday 27th, in a classic case of cheque-book journalism, the

Sun led a scoop with photos of the Conservative MP, Piers Merchant,

caught embracing a “17-year-old blonde Soho nightclub hostess” while

out canvassing in his Beckenham constituency (”SCANDAL OF TORY MP’S

MISTRESS, 17″, the Sun). Even the pro-Conservative Express and Mail

could not resist giving this set-up story front-page coverage, and

it continued to rumble on in the press throughout the quiet Easter

weekend. As if this was not enough, that same day Tim Smith,

Conservative MP for Beaconsfield, confessed to taking 25,000 from

Harrods’s owner, Mohammed Al Fayed, and he stood down from his

candidacy. While the tabloids headlined sex, the broadsheets had

their exclusives based on corruption, with the crusade against Tim

Smith led by The Guardian (”THE DISHONOURABLE MEMBER”), thereby also

renewing pressure on Neil Hamilton in Tatton.

The following week Sir Michael Hirst, chairman of the Scottish

Conservative party, and front-runner for the recently vacated

Glasgow Eastwood seat, had to resign because of allegations of past

indiscretions in his private life. The story first broke in the

Scottish press, but it was reputed to have been planted by

malcontents from within the Scottish Conservative party. Whether all

of these stories were really ‘news’, suitable of headline treatment

in this feeding frenzy, is highly debatable, but the culture of

sensationalism in the British press was by now too well entrenched

to avoid such treatment.

The start of April saw the launch of the official manifestoes, and

more traditional, issue-oriented coverage returned, but by then a

third of the campaign period had been dominated by sleaze. Coverage

reinforced the widespread sense that the government had run its

course, and become faintly disreputable, divided and tired, fuelling

the ‘time for a change’ sentiment. The issue failed to go away since

Neil Hamilton (claiming to be innocent of cash for questions until

proved guilty) refused to resign. John Major refused to intervene in

Tatton, although he had earlier indicated that Piers Merchant

(caught guilty of kissing) should rethink his position in the

interests of the party, a curious choice of priorities concerning

suitable standards in public life, and one not, apparently, shared

by the electorate31.

The ‘battle for Tatton’ made headlines throughout the fourth week

after Labour and the Liberal Democrats agreed to withdraw their

candidates. This allowed the BBC war correspondent, Martin Bell, to

stand, and eventually win, as the first independent MP (without any

previous party affiliation) for fifty years. The soap opera of

Tatton, with all the personal drama of Hamilton v. Bell, was just

too good a news story for any journalists, including those working

for the Tory tabloids, to keep off their front pages. By dissolving

parliament six weeks before polling day, well before the traditional

launch of the manifestos and the formal beginning of the campaign,

Major blundered into creating a yawning news hole into which, like

the White Rabbit, fell the Conservative party. Without policy

conflict, something had to fill the political columns. Throughout

the first two weeks these stories reinforced the image of a

discredited government under weak leadership, the final nails in the

coffin from which the Conservatives never recovered.

Overall CARMA estimated that on balance Conservative coverage was

generally negative (44 percent was rated unfavourable to only 18

percent favourable, with the rest neutral). CARMA confirmed that the

papers most positive towards the Conservatives in their contents,

(reflecting their editorial preferences) were the Daily Telegraph,

the Daily Express, and the Daily Mail32. If ratings are weighted by

the size of circulation of newspaper articles, the government’s

overall disadvantage in the press was even more marked. Labour and

the Liberal Democrat coverage was far more evenly balanced between

positives and negatives.

Lastly, just over a third of all press stories concerned the party

leadership and candidates, which probably represents a substantial

increase on previous campaigns33. Here, as shown in Table 5, most of

the coverage focussed on the two main leaders, with Blair enjoying a

slight edge over Major, while Ashdown trailed far behind (with only

4 percent of the leadership stories). Within the Labour party, Blair

clearly dominated coverage (with 51 percent of stories), followed by

Gordon Brown, John Prescott, Peter Mandelson and Robin Cook.

Ashdown’s dominance of the Liberal Democrat coverage was even more

pronounced, with almost no stories about any other of their

politicians. In contrast only a third of the Conservative leadership

stories focussed on Major. In second place within his party, Neil

Hamilton attracted slightly more coverage than Mrs Thatcher, Ken

Clark or Michael Heseltine. Overall the list is overwhelmingly

masculine, due in large part to the predominance of the three main

party leaders, although women spokespersons were slightly more

prominent in the Labour party. Lastly, the content analysis also

rated the favourability of the coverage of the leaders, and here

coverage of all the Conservative leaders (with the single exception

of Norma Major) was on balance classified as unfavourable, with

particularly poor ratings of Tim Smith, Neil Hamilton, Stephen

Dorrell and Michael Forsyth, while the equivalent coverage of the

Labour leadership was generally neutral.

The Impact on Voters

Lastly, if political campaigns in Britain are moving towards the

post-modern era, what impact did this have on voters in the 1997

election? How did viewers react to the campaign coverage on

television, in particular did they reach for their remotes to turn

off, or turn over, from news and current affairs on television? And

did viewers feel that the election coverage was interesting,

informative and fair? Here we can monitor viewership figures using

data supplied by the Broadcasters Audience Research Board (BARB),

which provides the industry-standard measure of viewing behaviour

from a panel sample of over 4,000 monitored households.

The evening news and current affairs programmes on British

television continue to reach a mass audience, but the availability

of alternative channels has slightly eroded their market share.

Commentators noted that BBC1’s Nine O’clock News suffered

particularly sharply from a fall in viewership after it was

specially extended with campaign news to 50 minutes after Easter.

The BARB figures confirm that this programme lost one third of its

viewers, down from 5.8 million in the first week to 4 million

thereafter (see Figure 2). This figure was also well down from the

equivalent during the spring 1992 campaign, when about 6.3 million

viewers tuned into BBC1’s main evening news. But what commentators

failed to notice was that ITN’s News at Ten, with its regular 30

minute slot, also steadily lost some of its audience during the

campaign, down from 6 million in the first week to 5.6 million in

the last. Channel 4 News at 7pm (with 0.6 million viewers), ITV’s

Early Evening News at 5.45pm (with 4 million) and BBC1’s 6pm News

(with 5.8 million) remained popular and relatively stable, subject

only to the natural trendless fluctuations caused by the television


Current affairs programmes also experienced fluctuations in their

audiences (see Figure 3). The sharpest fall was registered by BBC1’s

Panorama which carried interviews with all the major party leaders

(with an average viewership of 2.8 million throughout the campaign),

although they also picked up towards the end of the campaign. A

similar pattern was registered with Question Time (2.8m), while

BBC1’s On the Record (1.5m) managed a modest and steady rise during

the campaign. Among the special programmes the BBC’s 9am Election

Call gathered about 0.6m television viewers, but more listened via

Radio 4, and the programme maintaining high standards of public

service broadcasting. ITN’s People’s Election, with a live studio

audience of 500, attracted a stable viewership of about 2.8 million.

On Channel 4 Vincent Hanna’s A Week in Politics (0.8m) and Midnight

Special (0.2m) retained a loyal, if modest, audience of political

aficionados throughout the campaign. The Labour and Conservative

parties showed five election broadcasts each which attracted an

average audience of about 11.2 million across all channels, while

the four Liberal Democrat broadcasts were seen by 10.6 million, and

minor parties were watched by about 10.1 million. None were

particularly memorable, though some aroused minor controversy (such

as Labour’s use of Fitz the bulldog, traditionally seen as a symbol

of the far right BNP, and a Pro-Life film featuring graphic footage

of abortions). The ratings were well down on 1992, when PEBs

averaged about 13 million viewers34.

On election night, at its peak (at 10.45 pm) 12.7 million people

tuned into the election specials, or almost one third of the

electorate. While the news of Labour’s landslide started to sink in

across the nation, the BBC experienced an equivalent landslide of

viewers against ITV, by a ratio of about 7:3. The numbers gradually

subsided but even so 5.2 million remained glued to the set at 1.45

in the morning, as Tory after Tory faced the end of their political

careers, and between 1.4 and 6.3 million watched bleary-eyed all the

next day as Blair went to the Palace, then emerged triumphant to

enthusiastic throngs in Downing Street. We can conclude that popular

commentary exaggerated how far the public turned off from the

election, and, although BBC1’s Nine O’clock News suffered more than

most during the first week of the campaign, the pattern after then

was relatively stable. Since, as mentioned earlier, about ten hours

of news and current affairs was available every day throughout the

campaign, and since the horse-race was flat almost throughout, this

represents a remarkable achievement for television broadcasters.

Yet viewing figures may provide a poor indication of interest, since

the size of the audience for news and current affairs is strongly

influenced by the placement of a programme in the schedule. For more

information about viewer’s reactions we can turn to data from the

four-wave panel survey, Television: The Public View with 15,356

viewers conducted before, during and after the campaign by RSL for

the Independent Television Commission. The public were asked to

evaluate a range of factors in television’s coverage of the


As shown in Table 6, the results confirm that the public felt there

was far too much coverage of the general election, as many

television reviewers suggested. Nevertheless a more accurate picture

is more complicated. While a clear majority (60 percent) agreed that

there had been far too much about the campaign on television,

nevertheless a quarter of the public thought that there had been too

little, and few felt that broadcasters had got the balance right.

This pattern may have important implications for future elections as

British broadcasting moves into a more diverse digital media

environment. A multiplicity of channels will make it far easier for

some to tune out from politics, while other political junkies will

be able to watch 24-hour news.

If we turn to coverage by different channels, contrary to the

conventional wisdom, Sky News (with Adam Boulton’s rolling live

campaign) and ITV were most widely criticised for providing too much

coverage, while the public seemed more satisfied by the BBC

scheduling. Despite the decline in coverage of opinion polls noted

earlier, the public still felt that there was far too much attention

to the horse-race on television. Outside pundits were also unpopular

and viewers seemed happier with television’s own correspondents.

Reflecting the government’s unpopularity in the polls, the public

thought there was too much coverage of the Conservative party in

television news, while in contrast a fifth of all viewers would have

liked more about the Labour party, and also the minor parties like

the Greens who rarely featured in the news. As we have seen Europe

received extensive attention in the press, but the public felt that

the amount of news about this topic was excessive, along with the

level of attention given to foreign policy more generally.

Lastly, the public were also asked to evaluate the standards of

television news, whether it met the requirements of public service

broadcasting by being accurate, informative, balanced and

interesting. Here viewers expressed largely positive reaction to

news programmes on British television (see Table 7). Channel 4’s 7

O’Clock News anchored by John Snow came out particularly well from

this evaluation, especially in terms of accuracy and balance,

perhaps because the distinctively longer format allows more

opportunity to present all points of view. The general picture which

emerges from this survey during the campaign confirms once more that

British television news is widely held in high regard for providing

a broadly impartial source of information, across all the major


Conclusions: Evaluating the Coverage

During the 1997 British election many voices expressed disquiet

about media coverage. On the one hand, some observers claimed that

television failed to provide serious, critical and informed debate

about public policy issues35. As we have seen the media agenda was

frequently taken over by a feeding frenzy focussing on sexual and

financial sleaze, and later the high drama of Conservative party

splits over Europe. The obsession with sensationalism may have

obscured debate about many complex issues facing Britain, and

hindered critical scrutiny of many aspects of the new Blair agenda.

On the other hand, other critics argued that, far from providing too

little serious coverage of the election, television, — particularly

the BBC, — provided far too much36. The media was charged with

presenting a saturation diet of politics during the long campaign,

including BBC1’s specially extended 9 O’Clock News, as well as the

extensive campaign supplements in all the broadsheet newspapers, and

this, some suggest, may have contributed towards turned-off voters.

At present we can only speculate about the full effects of the

campaign on voters, which awaits further analysis once the British

Election Campaign Panel study becomes available. What does seem

clear at this point, however, is the effects on parties. Little is

certain in politics, but we can take a fairly safe bet that the

techniques learnt by the Blair team for staying on-message in a more

complex and diverse media environment during the permanent campaign

are going to be emulated by all the other parties. In this regard

the 1997 election did represent a watershed, not just in terms of

the outcome for the fortunes of the political parties, but also for

the process of campaigning in Britain.