Labour and the media in Britain 1929-1939 : a study of the attitudes of the Labour movement towards the new media, film and radio, and of its attempts to use them for political purposes
The arrival of synchronised sound film in the late 1920's coincided with the introduction of political broadcasting in Britain and a further extension of-the franchise, inaugurating a new political era. The mass communication of information assumed a more potent political form since these new media commanded vast audiences and were now potential channels of mass political persuasion. Widely accepted beliefs as to the vulnerability of the mass population to manipulation were sustained by the experience of the management of public opinion during the Great War. Drawing on this experience, and on the hostility of the press during the 1920's, the leaders of the Labour movement attributed to the cinema immense power to captivate audiences, disarm the critical senses, and exercise a near-hypnotic influence. In the content of newsreels, the workings of the censorship system and the determination of the National Government to prevent a critical voice appearing on cinema screens, Labour leaders identified evidence of collusion between the cinema industry and Labour's political opponents to maintain the status Quo. Similarly, the simultaneous transmission of information into millions of homes across the nation raised the spectre of an all-pervasive instrument of mass control. In view of the techniques of dictatorship used in Europe, radio broadcasting could, in the Labour view, create an homogeneous culture; and the power of the BBC as an institution could prove irresistibly attractive for the establishment of authoritarian government. During those years when cinema and radio were emerging as channels of mass political persuasion the Labour movement was undergoing profound changes. The Labour Party sought to become established within the political elite as the natural alternative Party of office; and the movement's industrial leaders sought full participation in the processes of consultation and decision-making of the State and industry. In this context these media appeared both dangerous and attractive: dangerous in so far as they could inhibit further democratic advance; attractive in so far as they offered opportunities for the movement to publicise its ideals and policies, and contribute to the general political education of the mass electorate. The production of films by the Labour movement arose from this ambivalent perspective: films could be used as a direct counter to the commercial cinema, as means of agitation and propaganda, and as a means of cultivating an authentic 'workers' culture',one which could ultimately exercise an influence on the commercial values of the cinema industry itself. Similarly, the radio, informed by an ethos of public service, and committed to a broad educational role, was seen by Labour leaders as contributing to the further democratic development of the nation. But it was also seen as offering Labour unprecedented opportunities for reaching the mass electorate with its own point of view, particularly during moments of heightened political tension such as general elections. Where therefore film was used by Labour to perform an essentially cadre function, Labour's attempts to use the airwaves for political broadcasting had a more ambitious purpose. Labour's use of these media was never extensive in comparison with the activities of the Conservative Party and the National Government. But Labour film activities, particularly within the left wing of the movement, made an important contribution to Labour politics in the 1930's; and in seeking and gaining access to the microphone the Labour Party not only contributed to the broad political education of the listening public, but consolidated its own position within the two-party system at the expense of the Liberals, and bore some responsibility for the development of political broadcasting as such.