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Saturday, 26 May, 2001, 10:40 GMT 11:40 UK
'Things were so different then'
Tony Benn
Riding high: Tony Benn in the 1950s
Lights, camera, action seems to be the spirit in which elections today are conducted. It's very different from 1951, says Tony Benn, who fought his first general election that year.

There are two "entirely separate" general election campaigns taking place in the UK at the moment according to veteran Labour politician Tony Benn.

"There's the campaign you see on TV every night and then there's the real one, which I'm involved with," he says.

Anthony Eden and Leslie Mitchell
How it used to be: A 1951 live party political broadcast by Anthony Eden
The former MP for Chesterfield, who is retiring from Parliament in order to "take up politics" detects one of the greatest groundswells of political interest and activity since he fought his first general election campaign in 1951.

It is just that the media is failing to report it.

There are stark differences between today's campaign and that of 50 years ago.

Labour scored its biggest ever popular vote in 1951, but Winston Churchill's Conservatives narrowly won the most seats and formed the government.

Mr Benn is one of only two retiring MPs old enough to have fought that campaign, the other being former prime minister Edward Heath.


I am far more optimistic than 50 years ago

Former MP Tony Benn
"There's more interest and energy in politics than in 1951," he says, adding: "I am far more optimistic than 50 years ago. People are becoming more and more active now that the Thatcher years - when everyone was so depressed - have gone.

"But," he adds, "all the political activity is going on outside the system and it is not being reported by the media.

"I have visited 30 constituencies during the campaign and they have all been packed and more enthusiastic than for years... 3,000 people in Chesterfield, 2,000 in Edinburgh... And not one word has been reported by the media."

Reality

Much of the political energy, Mr Benn thinks, comes from the fact that for the first time in history "most of the population are well to the left of the Labour Party".

Meanwhile, he says, broadcasters are being "drip fed by spin doctors on the battle buses. They are missing all the action".

John Humphrys
The BBC's John Humphrys: "What's he playing at?"
The BBC, he says, is particularly at fault. John Humphrys, the agenda-setting BBC radio interviewer, is running his own election campaign, detached from reality, Mr Benn complains.

"John Humphrys has got a stretch limo which he calls his own campaign battle-bus. What's all that about?"

Journalists, he thinks, should get out of their offices and studios and see what is really going on.

Watershed

Media expert Professor Brian Winston of the University of Westminster also emphasises the way in which the importance of TV has grown in each general election since World War II.


You simply don't count as an interviewer if you let a politician get a sentence out without speaking over the top of him

Media professor Brian Winston
In 1951, he says, TV sets were still a rarity, outside broadcasts were major technical undertakings, and interviewers were more deferential. There was no ITV and much tighter laws governed what could be broadcast about politics.

"The coming of ITV in the late 1950s, and with it the new style of more aggressive, badgering interviewing style pioneered by Robin Day was a complete watershed," says Professor Winston.

"These days you simply don't count as an interviewer if you let a politician get a sentence out without speaking over the top of him."

Power struggle

New technology along with changes in the law, freeing TV from the need to give exactly equal airtime to the leader of the opposition and the prime minister, has led to a "massive increase" in the role played by TV.

Michael Foot
Michael Foot, the last of the traditional campaigners
"At the same time," the professor adds, "the more aggressive approach has brought an equal and opposite force into being - spin."

Compared with 1951, he says, elections now are "power struggles" between politicians and broadcasters. The age of the mass political meeting died out with Michael Foot - the last political leader to base his campaign on old-style rallies - after his catastrophic defeat in 1983.

"There are plenty of battlegrounds in this general election," says Professor Winston, "but the TV studios are among the most important".

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