Television coverage of British party conferences in the 1990s : the symbiotic production of political news
Studies of political communication in the UK have focused primarily on election campaigns and reportage of parliamentary and public policy issues. In these contexts, two or more parties compete for coverage in the news media. However, the main British party conferences present a different context, where one party's activities form the (almost exclusive) focus of the news media's attention for a week, and that party's leadership 'negotiates' coverage in a direct one-to-one relationship. Conference weeks are the key points in the organizational year for each party (irrespective of their internal arrangements), and a critical period for communicating information about the party to voters at large, especially via television news coverage, which forms the focus of this study. The visual and audio impressions generated in the conference hall shape the way in which citizens not involved with that party perceive its organization, membership and policies. This thesis is the first specialized study of how TV news coverage of party conferences is shaped. Source-centred approaches to understanding the production of news focus on the activities of extra-media actors such as party elites in shaping coverage. Media-centred approaches substantially disagree, stressing the media elites' exercise of discretionary power or licensed autonomy in framing news. Party conference coverage reveals the activities of both party and media elites in an exceptionally clear and uncluttered form. Using qualitative interviews with party and media influentials, content analysis of TV news coverage and transcripts, direct observation of conferences and newsrooms, and collateral material from press coverage, historical material and other sources, this study explores the main stages in the production of news. Parties and media organizations both undertake detailed pre-planning for conference week, in the process negotiating key parameters which shape coverage. Journalistic news gathering activities shape the emergence of stories once the conference week begins. The parties have developed specialist teams to handle immediate news management, taking account of media strategies, but coverage can also be affected by internal dissent inside the parties, and by collective and individual responses among TV organizations. The production of conference news is symbiotic at many levels. The one-to-one character of party-media relations in conference weeks demonstrates clearly that broadcasting organisations exert a disciplinary effect upon political parties. Media pressures have fostered a degree of homogenization in parties' internal structures, and a certain standardization in their previously unique organizational cultures and modes of public self-presentation. Party conferences have come to look and sound similar, partly in response to the organizational demands of media professionals and the emergence of media-oriented party cadres. But access to TV news is also an increasingly effective tool for party leaderships to influence the internal debates and power struggles within the parties themselves.