Policy Papers

The hustings, broadcasters and the future of British democracy

Jon Lawrence |

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Executive Summary

  • Britain has a long and valuable tradition of politicians being expected to account for their actions through face-to-face public interaction, first at the 'hustings' and later at constituency public meetings.
  • In such encounters the public was assertive, irreverent, and sometimes disorderly - these were symbolic interactions premised on the temporary suspension of social hierarchy.
  • Both the hustings and public meetings have long gone and elections now involve only limited face-to-face contact between politicians and voters. Canvassing and 'walkabouts' survive, but neither offers much scope for serious public involvement in politics.
  • The rise of 'mediated politics' - especially through television - has played its part in the slow death of traditional modes of face-to-face politics, but it also offers the only sphere in which meaningful interaction between voters and politicians is likely to take place.
  • Public involvement in political broadcasts has a short and patchy history in Britain, but has demonstrated an ability to put politicians 'on the spot' in ways that media professionals find increasingly difficult.
  • Broadcasters' commitment to facilitating encounters between public and politicians remains uncertain despite the weakening of media paternalism.
  • Edgy and irreverent public intervention in the spirit of the old hustings could be developed that would deliver both dramatic television and serious democratic politics.
  • Public rituals bringing politicians and public together could also be re-invigorated. Candidates could be selected at open public 'primaries', and official nomination hustings could be held in every constituency.
  • Such interventions are the best hope, both for reinvigorating election coverage made sterile by 'spin' and instant rebuttal, and for ensuring that our politicians continue to be held to account for their actions (and inaction).

The tradition of the hustings

Up until 1872, the brutal rituals of the nomination hustings were central to British electioneering. Here politicians were obliged to attend an open-air public meeting of their constituents - including non-electors as well as electors - at which their nomination would be confirmed, they would address the gathered multitude, and then a vote by show-of hands would be held. Although the losing candidate would inevitably demand a formal election confined solely to registered voters, the hustings nonetheless provided an important ritual of political inclusion and democratic levelling. But then British elections have always demanded that the high and the mighty should learn to cultivate both the 'common touch' and a thick skin; heckling, mockery and even low-level violence were central to the theatre of the 'hustings'. That was the point - the hustings existed to allow the masses to have their say and let off steam.

Irreverent heckling and low-level disorder survived at the heart of British electioneering long after the abolition of public nomination. Indeed, heckling came to be seen as a cherished, rough-and-ready means of testing the mettle of would-be MPs. During the later nineteenth century there developed a widespread belief that the public possessed the right, not only to see their would-be political masters in the flesh, but also to interrogate them on questions of policy, and on their personal fitness to govern. This meant that elections now obliged British politicians to submit themselves to intense and often deeply disrespectful public scrutiny not once, at the nomination-day hustings, but daily at open meetings across their constituency.

To this day, elections represent one of the few moments when politicians and public are routinely brought into direct, face-to-face contact with each other. How (and how much) this happens has naturally changed dramatically, but even today politicians routinely meet members of the public in doorstep canvassing, on constituency 'walkabouts' and in broadcasting studios, though rarely now in that classic forum for the heckler: the open public meeting.

After the First World War many politicians began to doubt the utility of meetings as means of mobilising mass support. But whilst these years witnessed a concerted effort to reform the disorderly customs associated with nineteenth-century elections, there was no attempt to break with the tradition that the open meeting represented the centre-piece of electioneering. Despite claims to the contrary, the rapid growth of new communications media such as radio and cinema newsreels in the first half of the twentieth century did little to dent popular participation in electoral politics. But things were very different with the rise of television from the 1950s. Even before the BBC ended its self-imposed moratorium on election news coverage in 1959, commentators had begun to bemoan lacklustre election meetings and poor attendances. Despite Aneurin Bevan's sterling efforts, platform oratory was at a discount in the 1950s - most meetings were sober, rational affairs shaped by a powerful ethos of civic duty rather than popular entertainment. With the advent of televised campaigning in 1959, audiences as well as speakers began to question the continued utility of these increasingly earnest gatherings. And in 1964 it was television which brought into every home the scenes of chaos at Sir Alec Douglas-Home's public election meetings; thereafter politicians of all parties became increasingly wary of the risks involved in holding traditional open meetings. By the mid-1960s, electioneering was already being repackaged for the television age, and interaction with the electorate was increasingly confined to carefully choreographed photo-opportunities timed to catch the broadcast news bulletins. By the 1970s election meetings had become little more than private rallies of the faithful - staged partly to boost the morale of party workers, but mainly as news events for the press and broadcasting media.

However, despite these dramatic changes, the television age did not liberate politicians from the trials of public interrogation. Perhaps most striking was the rise of the television interviewer to take over the mantle of the persistent heckler at public meetings. But the public proper has not been wholly excluded from modern, mediated politics - face-to-face interaction survives in many forms. Public meetings may have all but disappeared, but they have been replaced by new forms of public accountability which are in many respects more onerous for the politician. Well into the twentieth century, most politicians believed that 'accountability' required little more than ensuring that an agent replied to constituents' letters, holding an annual 'meeting of account' in the constituency, and maintaining a high public profile during the election. Today, most not only hold weekly local 'surgeries' (a fascinatingly pathological term which hints at the unequal, cliental relationship at the heart of these exchanges), but they also spend as much time as possible in local publicity stunts and seizing any opportunity to be involved in the plethora of radio phone-ins and studio discussion programmes which involve members of the general public. For politicians anxious to rebuild their reputation for being in touch with the public they have become an invaluable resource - hence their centrality to Blair's so-called 'masochism strategy' in 2005. Blair had always made good use of his strong 'people skills' during elections, but in 2005, with his credibility gravely weakened by the Iraq War, top-up fees and other issues, he threw himself on the public's mercy with unparalleled vigour. Blair's Strategy Adviser Philip Gould described it as 'a deliberate strategy to allow people to have their voices heard, and their frustrations vented'; the aim was 'Reconnection through direct televised contact with the electorate'. But this was also the election in which Blair, the serving prime minister, agreed to be interviewed by 'Little Ant and Dec', two 10-year-old schoolboys specialising in jokes about bottoms and underwear. From the campaign managers' perspective both doubtless showed Blair in a good light; as a 'good sport' who was not too grand to put up with a bit of old fashioned public irreverence - in the form of either blunt questions or smutty humour. Both are indeed valuable tools for puncturing the 'bubble' of professional politics, but if public interrogation ultimately loses out to celebrity vulgarity our democratic culture will certainly be the poorer.

The signs at present are mixed. It is important to remember that public participation does not have deep roots in the traditions of British election broadcasting, and its demotic potential has long been constrained by media paternalism, and by an understandable urge to prioritise entertainment and production values above the need to facilitate democratic accountability (broadcasters may have a public service remit, and their election coverage is subject to legal and customary controls, but they are not, after all, part of the formal representative system). Nevertheless I would argue that broadcasting, and especially television, now embodies the constitutional role that was once the preserve of the nomination hustings, and later the election meeting. It is the most powerful means we have for bringing politicians and public together on something like an equal footing - it allows ordinary voters a chance, not just to 'have their say', but actually to hold their political masters to account.

Public participation in broadcasting

Until 1958, there was no election news coverage on British radio or television. Only the parties' official election broadcasts disturbed the airwaves. The arrival of ITV challenged this cosy arrangement, and in 1959 the public was brought, into televised politics- but only briefly. On the eve of the election of that year Barbara Castle and Selwyn Lloyd received a particularly rough reception from a Granada TV studio audience, who had been encouraged by the producers to act like a real hustings. After this one-off initiative, the parties ensured that live audiences were barred from British election broadcasts for more than a decade. Throughout the 1960s, professional journalists, rather than voters, posed the questions on programmes such as Election Forum - awkward proxies for a public that the parties refused to meet in front the cameras. The parties' united front began to crumble in the late 1960s, but it was only in 1974 that the public began to have any significant role in election programmes. Radio phone-ins proliferated across the country, with both local and national stations experimenting with the format, and on BBC Radio 4, Robin Day chaired the first series of Election Call, where front-rank politicians, including the party leaders, answered listeners' questions live. It is not clear why the parties finally relented on public participation in the 1970s, but it is probably significant that attendance at public meetings had fallen three-fold since 1959, and whilst 'surgery' work had increased to help fill the void, this was of little relevance to electioneering. It seems likely that politicians began to look more favourably on media-facilitated interactions with the public because it was no longer plausible to argue that they merely replicated the real business of electioneering in the constituencies.

Broadcasters may also have had ulterior motives. Belief in the need to increase public participation was real enough, but it was probably no coincidence that broadcasters were simultaneously in retreat on the burning question of 'agenda-setting' that had soured Harold Wilson's relations with the BBC in the 1960s (Wilson had sought to resist the broadcasters' right to raise issues such as immigration and Europe that the parties wished to keep out of the election). By the late 1970s many observers were convinced that broadcasters had retreated to a 'safe', largely reactive, mode of election coverage - agenda-setting was over. At its worst this meant passively transmitting pictures of leaders' walkabouts and photo-ops - at best it meant running hard with whatever appeared to be the 'bull point' story of the day. In this context, public participation appeared an attractive way to ensure that the politicians would not be left in sole charge of the political agenda - through phone-ins and studio debates, voters would now be able to demand that politicians address the awkward issues, such as Europe, the unions and immigration, that politicians would prefer to see buried in the long grass. Politicians were already beginning to learn how to neutralize the pit-falls of the set-piece interview, but the same techniques were less effective when deployed against an ordinary voter 'having their say'. On Granada 500 in 1979, James Callaghan fell into the trap of appearing to bully a young nurse critical of his Government's pay policy. Similarly, in 1983 Thatcher breezed through all her set-piece interviews, but could not do the same when confronted by Mrs Diana Gould's persistent questions about the sinking of the Belgrano on the popular, early evening magazine programme Nationwide. In 1987 the Conservatives sought to protect Thatcher from a repeat performance - Norman Tebbit stood in for her on phone-ins and studio discussions until a late 'wobble' in the polls brought her into the fray in the last week.

By the 1990s, many of the most memorable moments of British electioneering occurred when the public was allowed to crash through the Westminster bubble to impose itself on the campaign. Live audiences finally began to rediscover some of the raucousness that had seen them banned from the political stage three decades earlier. The Granada 500 audience, in particular, gave all three party leaders a hard time in 1992, with each in turn heckled and booed. With the media and party professionals having apparently fought each other to a stand-still in their battle to control the news agenda, it seemed to many that increased public participation was perhaps the best hope of restoring spontaneity and freshness to election broadcasting. Certainly the 1997 election witnessed a step change in both the extent and importance of popular participation programming. But perhaps significantly, 'people power' made fewest inroads into the flagship evening news bulletins - even though these were greatly extended in length. In their ethnographic study of the BBC 9 O'clock News team, Blumler and Gurevitch concluded that the principal impetus for change came from a desire to upset the cosy 'Westminster village' relationship between journalists and politicians, rather than from any broader democratic idealism about empowering voters.

But then public participation in Britain developed within a strongly paternalist vision of public service broadcasting. Producers always seek to retain control of how the public interact with politicians. Understandably, most 'live' phone-in programmes use a short time delay so that obscene, libellous or inflammatory callers can be censored. But more controversially, producers have also played a more active role, vetting callers according to criteria such as 'newsworthiness,' topicality, articulacy and more recently, diversity. A study of the BBC's Election Call in 1997 identified a clear 'media agenda' of issues flagged up for telephonists - callers who raised issues matching this agenda doubled their chance of getting on air. They also found a strong bias towards youth over age. Researchers concluded that, as in the 1970s, the overall ethos was that phone-ins represented 'a rather risky operation, best controlled by the strictest selection of appropriate callers.' Writing in 1998, Jonathan Freedland fumed at Britain's deferential political culture compared with the United States, citing as an example how it neutralized the phone-in format so that 'our programmes are called Question Time and Any Questions, implicitly inviting the public to put questions to those in authority rather than voice their own opinions.' However, arguably the greatest problem was not public deference, but rather the media paternalism which ensured that only 'appropriate' callers got on air, and that when they did so their role was to be 'newsworthy' and 'topical' - i.e. to conform to the media professionals' sense of what the public should care about. Intriguingly, in 2001 researchers at Election Call noted that callers were now asked to 'put their points' to politicians, rather than, as in 1997, to 'put questions'. Callers were also given more opportunity to interact with politicians, making supplementary points and commenting on the answer they had received. It was part of a wider revolution at the BBC epitomized by the popular news and sport station Radio 5 Live, launched in 1994, which pioneered a more demotic (and demonic) style of broadcasting that helped shake up the paternalist spirit of BBC journalism. Texts, emails and mobile phone calls were regularly fed into programming in real-time, creating a more informal, interactive style of broadcasting. However, this approach has proved better at airing a range of disparate voices, than at bringing public and politicians directly into dialogue with one another. In consequence, whilst BBC journalism may be shedding its paternalist ethos, it is not obvious that its new-found populism will do much to enhance political accountability in Britain. On the contrary, at present all the signs are that broadcasters will be content to throw their programmes open to a multiplicity of voices in the name of pluralism and free expression. This is a laudable enough objective in an age when the main parties appear locked in a relentless battle to align themselves with the all-important 'median voter,' but ultimately less valuable than developing formats capable of obliging politicians actually to respond publicly to the specific concerns which ordinary voters' articulate.

Broadcasting and the democratic deficit

The signs are not promising for the future of genuinely interactive political broadcasting. In 2001 Election Call was cut from an hour to 45 minutes, and was moved from BBC1 to BBC2. In 2005, after more than thirty years, it lost its traditional morning radio slot, being shunted to the early afternoon, and it ceased to be broadcast simultaneously on television. Worse, despite the 'masochism strategy,' Blair passed up the chance to appear on the programme, leaving Jack Straw to fill his seat. Instead the 'vox pop' was the format of choice for broadcasters in 2005, with informal street interviews reinforced by programmes in which non-politicians were given the chance to outline issues that should matter in the coming election, while the uncommitted decided how, and as often whether, to vote (Newsnight's 'Student House' was an especially effective example). The main forum for serious political interaction was now the studio question-and-answer programme, with the BBC1's Question Time Leaders' Special and ITV1's Ask the Leader occupying pride of place. Such programmes conform more easily to the rules of television than the phone-in, which has always appeared to be an awkward hybrid in its various translations from radio to television. However, studio audiences are often heavily weighted towards the politically engaged and the articulate, and in any case by definition tend to limit the scope for spontaneous interaction involving the wider public.

Since the 1990s, broadcasters have experimented with techniques pioneered by the party spin doctors, such as focus groups and people-metering (where voters use hand-held dials to register their reaction to a particular message). In theory these offer the prospect of greatly widening public involvement in election broadcasting, although broadcasters have often fallen into the trap of disdainful cynicism - using the meters to expose the hidden arts of 'spin doctors' rather than to explore voters' attitudes about the issues at stake in a campaign. By 2005, both the internet and digital television reached over half the population, but the most democratic communication technology by far is currently the mobile phone, and it is this that seems most likely to deliver real-time viewer interaction between politicians and public in the foreseeable future. Interactive technologies enable the inarticulate as well as the articulate to 'have their say' - although inevitably the range of what can be said with a keypad or a hand-held dial is rather limited, leaving much to the interpretative skills and selection of media professionals. The interaction they offer is also, by its nature, much less immediate and visceral than either traditional forms of face-to-face politics, or live phone-ins and audience participation programmes.

But something radical is surely needed. In 2005, the parties tried harder than ever to insulate their leaders from random encounters with the real public on the campaign trail. From Labour's perspective the excitement generated in 2001 by Sharron Storer's harangue of Blair over health policy outside a Birmingham hospital and Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's punch-up with Craig Evans, a north Wales farm-worker, had been media disasters, though not because either man was damaged by these incidents - if anything the reverse was true. But it is often forgotten that Storer and Evans struck just as Labour launched its election manifesto (on 16/17 May). As Alastair Campbell's diary makes all too clear, months of careful planning went out of the window as the mass media worked themselves into a frenzy over the two incidents.

Consequently, during the 2005 election campaign, chance encounters with the public were kept to an absolute minimum. Public engagements were more elaborately choreographed than ever, and there were reports that Labour bussed crowds of photogenic party activists around the country to ensure a positive, and, above-all safe, reception for their leader. If the 'masochism strategy' demanded that Blair should be seen to be 'beaten up by the public', Labour strategists were determined to make sure that this would happen on their terms - i.e. in a television studio, with media professionals in charge to police the rules of exchange, not on the streets of Birmingham, north Wales or anywhere else.

In this context, we should probably be careful not to overstate the recent reaction against public participation in Britain's mediated politics. Whatever its shortcomings, we need to recognize that broadcasting continues to play three vital roles that enhance our democratic culture. Firstly, it provides voters with unparalleled information about politics, and does so in a form which is both substantially unbiased and deliberately tailored to meet diverse tastes. Secondly, it provides almost the only arena in which members of the public can still gain direct access to politicians during an election. As 2005 demonstrated, when it comes to meaningful political interaction between politicians and public there really is no other show in town anymore. Thirdly, through their 24 hour news coverage they provide members of the public with the chance to hijack the agenda to advertize their grievances - as both Sharron Storer and Craig Evans demonstrated in 2001. However, we need to recognize that, as with 'people metering', or the vetting of studio audiences and phone-in callers, broadcasters play a powerful mediating role here. Protesters can only exploit the 24/7 media culture if their interventions conform to the media professionals' sense of what is both 'newsworthy' and 'legitimate', hence the increasingly striking, visual tactics employed by climate campaigners and 'Father 4 Justice'. Otherwise their efforts will be ignored, much as the lone drunk or streaker who invades a sporting event is now ignored.

As Blair's 'masochism strategy' demonstrated in 2005, politicians are well aware of the political advantages to be gained from the media's ability to bring them face-to-face with real voters. In both 2001 and 2005, Tony Blair gained more from being seen patiently to hear out angry voters, than from countless well-rehearsed engagements and television interviews. The public still wants to see politicians brought down to its level - and elections remain one of the few moments when this routinely happens, despite all the restraints imposed by both the security state and party strategists. But apart from a few random exchanges in the streets, this now happens only when broadcasters play the vital mediating role. We need them to develop programme formats to make them more inclusive and edgier: for instance, ensuring audiences are not packed with party members, feeding viewers' questions (and reactions) into panel programmes via text messaging, and using live video booths and 'Skype' to throw programmes open to the general public. Even more may be possible if we can harness the spirit of outrage and activism that the current expenses scandal has generated. Candidates could be selected at public 'primaries' (as some Conservatives have been since 2005), official nomination hustings could again be held in every constituency, and broadcasters could be encouraged to hold Question Time-style encounters across the country during an election, using new technologies to throw them open to the Facebook generation.

But if broadcasters possess the power to nurture potentially invigorating popular incursions into electoral politics, it is not clear that they possess the will. Politicians are unlikely to try again to block public participation, as they did in the 1960s, but unlike broadcasters they have no reason to demand increased public involvement either. True, politicians benefit from televised coverage of them meeting real voters, but they have no reason to seek more than the semblance of meaningful interaction - if they can be filmed surrounded by crowds of party workers standing in for the public, or appear on television programmes where the questions to be asked have been agreed in advance, then they will do so. They would be mad not to. In turn broadcasters cannot be expected to facilitate the rebirth of a truly activist public just because it would be good for us and our democracy. Even public service broadcasters are first and foremost part of the entertainment business - they will only embrace more ambitious forms of public participation if these can generate strong programmes capable of delivering respectable viewing figures. But broadcasters have much to gain if the irreverent public comes to dominate over dull photo calls and potentially stilted studio debates. Such encounters can breathe new life into overly-managed, ritualized election campaigns which seem incapable of capturing the popular imagination. Broadcasters have the power to rekindle the spirit of the hustings, embedding its irreverent, egalitarian ethos securely in twenty-first century British political culture. We can but hope that they embrace this challenge wholeheartedly; that fear of abandoning professional control will not lead them to make do with diluted forms of popular participation. Further expansion of 'vox pop' coverage will not do. Political interaction must lie at the heart of a healthy democracy, and broadcasting is uniquely placed to help facilitate that interaction between public and politicians. Its challenge is to devise ways that this can be done that will capture the attention of more than just a few hard-bitten politicos. At the old hustings this was done by boorish men throwing cabbage stalks and shouting insults - thankfully, we have moved on since then, but theatre and entertainment must be at the heart of politics if it is to connect.

Discussing the 'masochism strategy' in 2005, a close aide explained that 'Blair .... is groping after a genuine change in the nature of the governing elite and its relationship with the governed' - a refreshingly frank acknowledgment of the gulf between leaders and led. According to the aide, for 'the Kilroy generation' studio encounters represent 'the modern equivalent of Gladstone doing his public meetings - it's what people are used to now. There is no real sense of deference any more.' Of course the old hustings had frequently offered politicians far from deferential encounters, but even so the aide had a point - crowds might shout and scream at Lloyd George or Harold Wilson, but it takes different skills to hold one's own with a powerful statesman in a one-to-one exchange, especially in the media spotlight. It probably is only in post-Thatcherite Britain that the mystique of 'Establishment' power has been sufficiently eroded for this sort of egalitarian exchange to be possible. Indeed, it is only since the 1990s that media paternalism has faded sufficiently for it even to be imaginable. But whether future election coverage will be dominated by gruelling studio encounters between political leaders and irreverent voters, or by schoolboys making jokes about farting and knickers, will largely depend on the priorities of British broadcasters. On this vital question about the future of our democracy it is they, rather than the politicians, who are the masters now. Let us hope that they have the vision to see that a modernised 'hustings' can be both strong television and strong democracy. We have a long and valuable tradition of politicians submitting themselves to rigorous interrogation by the general public, but only broadcasters can now ensure that that tradition survives and flourishes in the twenty-first century.

Further Reading

Jay G. Blumler and Michael Gurevitch, The Crisis of Public Communication (Routledge, 1995).

Michael Cockerell, Live from Number 10: the Inside Story of Prime Ministers and Television (Faber & Faber, 1988).

Stephen Coleman, Election Call: A Democratic Public Forum? (Hansard Society, 1999).

Stephen Coleman and Karen Ross, The Public, Politics and the Spaces Between: Election Call and Democratic Accountability (Hansard Society, 2002).

Jon Lawrence, Electing Our Masters: the Hustings in British Politics from Hogarth to Blair (Oxford University Press, 2009).

John Lloyd, What the Media are Doing to Our Politics (Constable, 2004).

Brian McNair, Journalism and Democracy: An Evaluation of the Political Public Space (Routledge, London, 2000).

Pippa Norris, A Virtuous Circle: Political Communications in Post-Industrial Democracies (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Jeremy Paxman, 'Never mind the scandals - what's it all for?,' James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture, Edinburgh, 2007.

John Street, Mass Media, Politics and Democracy (Palgrave, 2001).


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