The presentation of politics : the place of party publicity, broadcasting and film in British politics, 1918-1939
The Representation of the People Act of 1918 and the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 trebled the electorate and created a near universal franchise. Politicians of the two principal inter-war parties - Conservative and Labour - declared their commitment to rational political education as the basis of effective democracy. Yet belief in the continuing ignorance and irrationality of the electorate, in the dishonest propaganda of their opponents and, for the Conservatives, in the threat to democracy posed by socialism, encouraged the use of less than rational propaganda in order to achieve and maintain power. The size of the electorate gave a new emphasis to large scale party propaganda while the party organisations were adapting themselves to the new conditions. The Conservative Party used its financial reserves and anti-socialist support to develop new publicity techniques, particularly in its use of film. The Labour Party attempted to do likewise, but was hindered by financial difficulties and local party independence, as its experience with film publicity demonstrated. The new media of broadcasting and film were seen to have considerable implications for democracy. At the BBC John Reith and his senior staff believed broadcasting to be democracy's perfecting element, and attempted to develop what they saw as an impartial and rational means of universal political communication and education. The political parties and the government of the day, however, recognised the power and dangers of the medium, and party jealousy and disagreement, together with government pressure, reinforced internal factors acting against the successful prosecution of this aim. In particular certain of the BBC's ideals and objectives were mutually incompatible. Thus it proved less than easy to reconcile the objective of impartial and comprehensive foreign affairs coverage with a conscious promotion of international amity. Moreover the BBC's very commitment to democracy could militate against effective political education, especially at a time when the concept of democracy was being questioned and totalitarian alternatives offered abroad. In the film industry the cinema newsreels were the most important contribution to political communication and the provision of news. Their editors proclaimed both their impartiality and, in some cases, a serious intent. Yet coverage of domestic politics was limited and overwhelmingly concerned with government activities. The considerable attention given to the newsreels by the Conservative Party and the National Government complemented existing editorial predilections, and the consequence was a less than independent or impartial stance. Thus despite the valuable contribution which both radio and film made to political information and education, their use as democratic integrators in response to the totalitarian challenge was actually to prove in some degree inimical to the rationalist and educative element of the democratic ideal. This thesis considers the aims and efforts of those responsible for the new methods of political presentation. It touches on the question of the actual impact of these methods, but does not attempt a detailed evaluation. Using new material from the papers of the Conservative and Labour parties, the BBC, Foreign Office News Department and individual politicians, in addition to film viewing and interviews with those involved, its intention is both to explore new fields and to shed fresh light on old ones.