The future of television: Their policies 

27 December 2021

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Line drawing by John Farleigh

From the Daily Mirror Spotlight on the Future of Television, published in 1958

“I cannot help repeating … a conversation between two noble Lords. One said, ‘I have regretfully come to the conclusion that I shall have to vote against the Government on this issue.’ When he was asked whether he had a television set, he said no, he had not. Then he was asked what he thought of the programmes he had seen, and he had to admit that he had never actually seen a television programme. He was then asked what he thought of the Government White Paper, and he answered, ‘Well, old boy, I’m afraid I must admit that I have not yet had time to read the White Paper.’”

Earl De La Warr in the Lords debate on television policy, 1953.

Mr. Eric Fletcher, Labour M.P. for East Islington, expressed the optimism of the Parliamentary Labour Party when, in 1953, he asked the Postmaster General for an assurance that commercial television was as dead as the dodo and buried for all time.

Mr. Fletcher is now a director of A.B.C. Television.

Other Labour M.Ps., lacking this philosophical outlook, remain bitterly opposed to commercial television. Some are willing to accept it but with many reservations. Yet others have silently extracted themselves from the blanket endorsement of Lord Amwell: “The Labour Party is to a man and woman opposed to commercial television.”

That is not to say that there is a divergence on the party line, for the party has no line. On neither side of the House is there such a thing as a television policy.

The Television Act was the one feather in the Tory Government’s otherwise undistinguished cap. But the Government has shown little further interest in it. The small band of back-benchers who promoted the bill are still back-benchers. The Tories’ star opponent of the Act, Lord Hailsham, who compared the B.B.C. with Jehovah and the I.T.A. with the golden calf, is now in high party office. The Television Act neither made nor marred political reputations.

Having brought commercial television into being, the Government’s instinct on the further questions that logically arise has been to put them off for another day. In February 1956 the Postmaster-General was asked what he was going to do about the third channel.

He replied that the whole question of a third channel was being deferred for two years. But February 1958 came and went without any announcement of what the Government proposed to do.

The Government’s current theory is that the whole range of broadcasting problems can wait until 1962. That is when the B.B.C.’s present charter ends. The intention is that it will get a short-term charter (as happened from the end of 1951 to June 1952, while the Government were considering the Beveridge Report) taking it to July 1964, the end of the I.T.A.’s present lease of life. In this period there will be “a comprehensive consideration of broadcasting policy”, possibly by another committee. Thus will be preserved for the nation a fine potpourri of the views of bishops, trade unionists. Liberals, Fabians, Scottish Women’s Rural Institutes and other worthies. But it is doubtful whether, at this late date, any other useful purpose would be served.


Theme music for BBC Newsreel (later BBC News & Newsreel), used 1946-1958


On the Labour side of the House, there has been no policy on television since the debates in 1954. It is not certain that Labour had a policy even then. The general theme of Labour’s contributions to the debates was that the B.B.C. monopoly should not be broken, but that if it was to be broken it should be broken by the B.B.C. itself. In other words, that the B.B.C. should be given a second channel and allowed to run two services in peaceful co-existence at a cost in licence fees variously estimated by the B.B.C. at £3 [£86 now, allowing for inflation], by Mr. Herbert Morrison at £3 10s. [£3.50 in decimal, £100 allowing for inflation], and by the then Assistant Postmaster General at sums wavering between £5 and £7 [£143 to £200]. But Labour had no concrete proposals about an alternative channel to put forward, and Mr. Morrison’s contribution to the debate resolved itself into vague threats about modifying or abandoning the scheme if it proved to be unworkable. The Labour Party manifesto in 1955 contained the shortest and most ambiguous paragraph that could decently be put forward: “Television is a growing influence for good or ill. Labour will establish an alternative public television service, free from advertising.”

Since then Labour has been silent on the subject of commercial television, except for an occasional jibe at the advertisers by Mr. Ness Edwards during question-time.

A minority of Labour M.P.s have ideas on television — different, divergent ideas — that may one day be the making of Labour’s television policy. These are examined in the following article.

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The Independent Television Authority, to be sure, has done nothing to encourage either side to set up committees or inquiries to decide its future. The Authority’s view appears to be that the longer both political parties put off a decision, the more favourable an impression they will gain of commercial television as programmes improve. It is certainly true that if Labour had decided its television policy in the days of that unfortunate programme, “People Are Funny,” commercial television would probably be off the air on July 30, 1964.

The reason why no party has any coherent line on television is possibly because the subject is one that attracts eccentric and extremist views. Along with fox-hunting, flogging and women’s rights, television is a rich field for plain-man prejudice, for supposedly urbane wit and for the higher planes of rhetoric. Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn, one of the few Labour M.P.s who has given any thought to the topic at all, observed recently : “Part of the opposition to Commercial TV was really opposition to television itself. Some members of the older generation don’t much like it and think it wrong that there should be too much of it.”

Earnest Bevin and Clement Attlee

Earnest Bevin and Clement Attlee in 1945

The point is well illustrated by a series of cameos which the Evening Standard, for its own tortuous purposes, ran at the beginning of the year under the heading “People Without TV”:—

Lord Attlee has no television set at his home in the Chilterns. Why? ‘Because,’ he tells me, ‘I don’t want it. I don’t like it, and I won’t have it.”

“Mr. R. A. Butler, the Home Secretary, has no television set either at his town house in Smith Square or at his country home at Halstead in Essex. ‘Cabinet Ministers,’ he says, ‘are kept far too busy to watch television.’”

Lord Mancroft, Minister without Portfolio, does not have television at his home in Marylebone. He explains ‘I want my three children to learn to read and write.’”

The Evening Standard might profitably have asked Mr. Gaitskell and Mr. Bevan why they had no TV sets either.

Recently the Labour Party — lagging many months behind the Tories — instituted closed-circuit television at Transport House, purportedly to school politicians in the use of this growing propaganda medium. But it was the hope of more progressive Labour members that this new device would indoctrinate their more reserved colleagues into a more open mind about television.

It is true that many politicians are interested in the future television as a source of political power. The fact that a statesman would have to address a fair-sized political audience every night for 35 years to get the audience he gets on television, the fact the Mr. Harold Macmillan’s last party political broadcast had an audience of over seven million, the fact that sixty per cent, of the total electorate have television sets; these are mouthwatering considerations indeed. And Mr. Morrison, the fervent opponent of commercial television, must have pondered on them when he visited Rochdale during the first by-election campaign to be covered by television. But these considerations do not prevent the politicians from being bigoted, biased or totally uninterested when it comes to considering television as a public service.

Commercial television, in putting out over a hundred interviews with M.P.s and Ministers in its news bulletins last year, must have done something towards encouraging a rational attitude towards television in Parliament. The contractors could do much with the less telegenic politicians by inviting them to the studios, discussing the future of television frankly with them, and inviting not their hostility but their help.


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Before considering some of Labour’s ideas on television it is valuable to review the main objections that were originally made to commercial television and to see whether they will bear examination now that the service is actually under way.

Labour’s main arguments on commercial television were put forward in the original debates by Mr. Herbert Morrison and Mr. Christopher Mayhew. Mr. Mayhew, a brilliant TV performer himself, possibly had the advantage over Mr. Morrison in that he knew something about television.

Summarised, the arguments fall into three categories—reasonable, unreasonable and unanswerable.

1. Reasonable. These were the natural objections born of natural suspicion of a new and untried medium.

(a) The Bill will Americanise British television.

(American material never exceeds 14 per cent, on either channel, and usually works out at about eight hours a week.)

(b) Public opinion does not support it.

(B.B.C. Audience Research figures showed that in the last quarter of 1957, 66 out of every 100 watched commercial television programmes in homes that had a choice.)

(c) It will create a second monopoly.

(So far there are eight separate television contractors. Even for the smaller stations there are still usually a dozen applications from groups not connected with television.)

(d) The advertisers will call the tune.

(The contrary has been the case. The contractors call the tune, and the advertisers often indignantly complain about it.)

(e) There is no need for it because the B.B.C. could start a second programme without advertisements.

(The B.B.C. did not hope to start its second programme, even with limited viewing, until 1957. By that time 60 per cent, of the nation had commercial television.)

(f) The £750,000 [£21.5m] annual grant which the Postmaster-General is empowered to offer (for programme “levelling”) would subsidise the advertisers.

(£100,000 [£3m] has been so far offered and refused. The programme companies can afford to provide serious programmes without any Government grant. They do not need it, they do not want it, and it is best forgotten.)

(g) The Authority will be able to borrow money, which the B.B.C. cannot do.

(The Authority has borrowed half a million [£14m] of the maximum £2 million [£56m] which can be lent to it “to defray initial expenses.” The B.B.C. already has a vast income from the state and now has an agreement with the Postmaster-General that it can ask for “additional sums” if this income is insufficient.)

(h) It will lower public taste.

(But it has not done. In religion, news, politics, current affairs, I.T.V. has led the B.B.C. The tendency on both channels has been that programmes are becoming more and not less serious.)

2. Unreasonable. These were the arguments, some far-fetched, some fatuous, that were introduced into the television debates in a spirit of desperation. They require no answer.

(i) The commercial organisation … will not experiment on its own; it will simply wait until new ideas or performers appear on the B.B.C. and then buy them for its own circuit.”

(j) “The Authority will have to have a big staff … There will be the opening of the letters which complain, ‘Dear Sir, following your advertisement on Sunday evening for soap, my baby has come out in a rash.’ That kind of letter will pour in to the Authority as soon as it starts.”

3. Unanswerable. These were the arguments on points of principle that were raised and re-raised all through the television debates. They cannot be answered, for they are still points of principle.

(k) Commercial television will make money.

(l) Commercial television will carry advertising.

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One evening in the House of Commons there was great excitement among a group of M.P.s because the then Postmaster-General had been seen watching television, an almost unheard-of activity for a person in that office.

On observation, it turned out that he was watching his own filmed appeal to post early for Christmas.

And there lies the key to the final and most dominant objection of them all.

(m) To too many Members of Parliament, television was a thing to be heard about but not seen. They objected to the choice of two programmes because it seemed to them to be even worse than the choice of one programme.


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