Where would politics and politicians be today without television? The scenario is barely possible to imagine. The two entities veritably feed on one another: broadcasters and networks see getting statesmen and -women on their shows as a big coup, and politicians need a medium to boost their personal profile and hopefully garner more support – even if the genre happens to be the ever-dismaying crud-fest that is reality television.
TV’s influence has also changed politics immeasurably. The process started (where else?) in the United States, on 3 January 1947, when proceedings in Congress were televised for the very first time.
Legislatively, 1947 was quite a productive year in the States. The Taft-Hartley Act restricted union power, outlawing sympathetic striking, secondary picketing and closed shops; the National Security Act put control of the Army, Navy and Air Force under the direction of a united Department of Defense; while the 22nd Amendment guaranteed no future president would be allowed more than two terms of office.
Just over two months after TV viewers first went Live to Congress, as if to mark the occasion, President Truman announced the adoption of the Doctrine that bore his name, whereby he pledged American support for anti-communist movements inside the Soviet bloc – effectively kick-starting the Cold War. In adopting his Doctrine, Truman was advised by Arthur Vandenberg, the Republican senator for Michigan, to go before Congress and ‘scare the hell out of the American people‘. Later, in July Truman announced the second peace-time military draft. It’s a fairly safe bet that Vandenberg’s prediction came to fruition.
There are plenty of examples in which television has impacted on politics in the US in particular. The presidential hopeful Dwight D Eisenhower made full use of TV for his successful 1952 White House bid with a number of inventive adverts, one of which looked and sounded like a Loony Tunes cartoon. The proceedings of Joseph McCarthy’s hearings at the House Committe of Un-American Activities in 1952-4 got nationwide coverage thanks to their being televised, and people at home could see, not only McCarthy for the hectoring fraud that he was, but also his demolition by journalists such as Ed Murrow. On to the 1960s and ’70s, and televised coverage of the Civil Rights campaigns, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate hearings obviously impacted on the country’s political scene, as potential and actual voters could see for themselves a taste of what kinds of things were going on. And it all started with Congress going Live exactly seventy years ago.
Britain inevitably took longer than America for television to catch on: Parliament finally allowed the cameras to enter the building in 1985 (for the House of Lords) and 1989 (for the House of Commons). The first televised speeches for each chamber were given by Conservative politicians: former PM Lord Stockton (1894-1986) for the Lords, and Ian Gow (1938-90) for the Commons.
The question of how harmful or beneficial television has been for politics has been hotly debated for decades. One interesting contribution to the debate was offered in November 1959 by the Massachusetts Senator John F Kennedy. As is well known, JFK definitely benefited from television: the 1960 race was the first to feature televised debates between the Democratic and Republican candidates, and Kennedy was considered by most viewers to have come over better on the small screen. A year before his successful presidential campaign Kennedy outlined his thoughts on the political potential of television in a strikingly prescient article for the TV Guide magazine. He was confident that the power of TV would be beneficial to politics in America:
The searching eye of the television camera scrutinizes the candidates – and the way they are picked. Party leaders are less willing to run roughshod over the voters’ wishes and hand-pick an unknown, unappealing or unpopular in the traditional “smoke-filled room” when millions of voters are watching, comparing and remembering. The slick or bombastic orator, pounding the table and ringing the rafters, is not as welcome in the family living room as he was in the town square or party hail.
Kennedy was also conscientious enough to consider the downsides of the medium:
[P]olitical success on television is not, unfortunately, limited only to those who deserve it. It is a medium which lends itself to manipulation, exploitation and gimmicks. It can be abused by demagogs, by appeals to emotion and prejudice and ignorance.
Political campaigns can be actually taken over by the “public relations” experts, who tell the candidate not only how to use TV but what to say, what to stand for and what “kind of person” to be. Political shows, like quiz shows, can be fixed-and sometimes are.
At the same time, however, Kennedy opined that viewers themselves offered the key to how much hope there was for the medium as far as politics was concerned:
Whether TV improves or worsens our political system, whether it serves the purpose of political education or deception, whether it gives us better or poorer candidates, more intelligent or more prejudiced campaigns-the answers to all this are up to you, the viewing public.
It is in your power to perceive deception, to shut off gimmickry, to reward honesty, to demand legislation where needed. Without your approval, no TV show is worthwhile and no politician can exist.