Book Review: The Influence of Television

Television and the Political Image by Joseph Trenaman and Denis McQuail, Methuen, 30s.

During the last few years, a new word has crept into the English language. Psephology is the name given to the business of putting voters under the microscope and probing their innermost electoral reflexes. Where once people simply voted at election time, now every cross must be checked and analysed.

We might have expected that television would come into this. No self-respecting psephologist can ignore a communication medium which four-fifths of the population have access to. 1955 was the first television election, although at that time sound broadcasting was still dominant. 1959 was different; apart from the enormous increase in the number of T.V. sets, both channels broke with past practice by putting out such programmes as the B.B.C.s “Hustings” and Granada’s “Election Marathon”.

What were the effects of this? Did, for example, any votes change sides because of the parties’ broadcasts on T.V? Did television affect attendance at political meetings, the number of party workers and so on? A Research Unit at Leeds University (working on a Granada grant) tried to find answers to these, and other, questions. They closely studied the campaign on television and at the same time sampled political opinion among the voters in the two Yorkshire constituencies of Pudsey and West Leeds. Television and the Political Image reports their findings.

The authors conclude that television had little effect on the outcome of the 1959 election. Partisan programmes were not as well received as those which hid their propaganda under an informative camouflage. The professional slickness of the Labour Party programmes, which so irked the newspaper reviewers, was not generally resented. Whatever knowledge the viewers had on the issues of the campaign tended to increase as a result of their watching television.

The specific validity of such conclusions may be open to argument. But the overall picture of the voter which emerges from them seems fairly accurate: somebody who is mostly bored with politics and who, when an election stirs him to vote, does so in accordance with his hitherto sleeping prejudices.

Television and the Political Image is not light reading, and it is loaded with statistical tables and graphs which demand close study. Doubtless, we shall see many more such works, for if the power-conscious parties can find out why the working class vote as they do, they are a long way towards winning an election. If Trenaman and McQuail are any guide, Labour’s problem in 1959 was to convince everybody that their promises were not rash bribery. The Tories, it seems, must still work hard to persuade us that they really care about the aged and the needy.

This is a dirty game. And the psephologist, busily adding up his figures to discover the reasons for the working class preferring one type of capitalist subjection to another, does not make it any cleaner.


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