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The Sunday Post: The US Goes to the Polls

Andrew Martin

BBC Genome

The prize - the keys to this charming bijou residence...

In the aftermath of Tuesday’s US Presidential Election, Genome looks back at the BBC’s coverage of earlier U.S. polls.  While only Americans can vote in them, uniquely among elections the eyes of the world watch the results.  The United States has a position in the world that makes their affairs everyone’s business, and though it often seems they take little notice of what anyone else thinks they must be at least a little flattered by the attention…

While other foreign elections are featured from time to time, no other but our own domestic polls is given anything like the level of coverage routinely afforded to those of the United States.  The BBC’s coverage has increased over time, in line with our acknowledgement of the US’s influence in the world, but also reflecting the amount of coverage of current affairs generally, and due to the technological advances that enhance the coverage it is possible to give.

While the 1924 election seems to have occasioned no special programmes, beyond the announcement of the result in the BBC news bulletins, from 1928 onwards there were talks about the election process as well as its results.  In 1928, when Herbert Hoover won over Al Smith, there was a preview of the poll by S.K. Ratcliffe, who had previously reported on the Primaries in the summer.

In 1932 Ratcliffe again gave a series of talks on US affairs, under the title Our Neighbours Today and Yesterday, in the run-up to the poll, but there was still no direct reporting of the election.  This election was a landslide for the challenger Franklin D. Roosevelt, promising recovery from the Great Depression through his New Deal.

The election in 1936 was covered by Raymond Swing (also known as Raymond Gram Swing), a prominent American journalist who had been broadcasting on the BBC since 1926.  He contributed several talks direct from New York, as transatlantic broadcasting was now much easier technically.  Other material about the election included Commander Stephen King-Hall’s talk in the For the Schools series History in the Making.

S.K. Ratcliffe, who surveyed the elections of 1928 and 1932 (though it's not clear what he's surveying in this photograph)

In the summer of 1940, while Britain was anticipating invasion and the Battle of Britain was underway, Gram Swing described the selection process of the Republican and Democratic conventions.  The United States did not cancel its elections during the Second World War, unlike Britain, which did not go to the polls between 1935 and 1945.   However, neither on the day of the 1940 presidential election, November 5, nor the day after, were there any special programmes about it on the BBC, although there was coverage the following January 20 of President Roosevelt’s third inauguration.

By 1944, the BBC took an American programme for the series Transatlantic Call People to People made by CBS, to cover election day.  The British public were used to hearing US programmes by this time, through the great number of recorded programmes both on the main BBC channels and the American Forces Network. 

In 1948 the Third Programme, which had started two years before, broadcast The Presidential Election in the U.S.A., in which the BBC’s Washington correspondent Leonard Miall, later a senior figure in the television Talks Department, looked at the forthcoming election.

There having been no real opportunity for it to do so pre-war, television took an interest in the US political process afterwards, with the 1948 election considered in the long-running series News Map, just one day before polling.  Stephen Laird and famed wartime broadcaster Ed Murrow were among those contributing.  While domestic politics on television was a controversial subject at the time, there were fewer qualms about foreign elections.  The 1952 election was covered in much the same way, although by then BBC Television had made its first tentative steps in covering UK General Elections, in 1950 and 1951.  The practical aspects of reporting directly on American elections were far more challenging then of course.

The great Alistair Cooke visits home turf between editions of Letter from America. His broadcasting career began when he succeeded Oliver Baldwin, son of the then prime minister Stanley Baldwin, as the BBC film critic in the 1930s

Alistair Cooke expressed the special relationship between the United States and Britain in the most consistent way;  as an expatriate Englishman who took American citizenship in 1941, he presented his programme Letter from America from 1946 (it was called American Letter until 1949) until shortly before his death in 2004, taking in fourteen electoral campaigns from Truman’s victory in 1948 to George W. Bush’s at the millennium.  Cooke’s elegant prose, his ability to get to the heart of an issue affecting the United States, and in his soothing tones, make it interesting and meaningful for his British audience, turned him into a broadcasting legend.

1956 was a difficult year for Britain, as the Suez crisis showed that the country’s influence in the world was on the wane, a fact that people had been trying to deal with since the Second World War.  There was a little more coverage of the presidential election that year than previously, but with so much else going on at the time (the Hungarian uprising for one) and the relations between Britain and the US being somewhat frosty, it was not the time for overdoing things.  One newcomer was Panorama, which had begun in 1953 as a general magazine programme, but was gradually including more and more political content, with its host Richard Dimblebya reassuring presence.

Prior to the invention of satellite communications, US elections would tend to be reported a little late by television, though radio could already provide direct coverage.  Already by 1960 though there was beginning to be a new and more confident note to the coverage of politics, with programmes like Panorama and Tonight in full swing.  Gradually the amount of programmes about US elections increased.  1960 saw the showing of the famous televised debates between the candidates, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, and there was much greater coverage of the campaign and the results.  The inauguration of Kennedy the following January was also able to be shown fully for the first time on television.

The shadow of the assassination of President Kennedy, only a year before, hung over proceedings in 1964.  The age of the satellite had dawned, with Telstar’s launch in 1962, and at last the other side of the Atlantic could be seen live.  There was also greater ease in sending filmed reports via cheaper international air travel.

In 1968 too, with not only satellite images but with BBC2 now offering news in colour, the impact of US elections was further enhanced.  Coverage of the conventions to choose the candidates, in the programmes Breakfast Special and Morning Special, were an early appearance for breakfast television.  The programmes sound modern, with live links to the conventions in Miami and Chicago, as well as Ian Trethowan, one of the BBC’s top political pundits and a future Director-General, linking in New York for the Republican convention.  Lyndon Johnson having declined to seek re-election in 1968, the Republican Richard Nixon, who had lost in 1960 to Kennedy, was to win the presidency that November, defeating Johnson's vice-president Hubert Humphrey.

Mindful of the vagaries of political life, Vice-President Richard Nixon contemplates a new career while visiting BBC studios to appear in the series Press Conference in 1958

Coverage of US affairs was from now on a major strand in news programmes, with exchanges of film helping to add to whatever the BBC could shoot for itself.  By the 1972 election when Nixon was returned for a second term, the ease of receiving reports quickly and often from the US was no longer surprising.  This meant that the disgrace of Nixon over the Watergate affair was able to be disseminated worldwide as it happened, and the BBC was able to cover it in detail.

Flagship current affairs programmes like Panorama, 24 Hours and Midweek all covered American affairs in the early 1970s, and from the mid-70s to the end of the 1990s US election coverage was fairly comprehensive, given the limitations of airtime on the few channels the BBC had (i.e two on television and four or five on radio).  It started to become commonplace for correspondents to file frequent pieces from the States, and then two-ways with the news presenter became the new fashion.

The contest in 1976 between Gerald Ford, Nixon’s vice-president who succeeded him when he resigned over Watergate, and the eventual winner Jimmy Carter, saw greater coverage than ever – with interest in the United States being particularly highlighted by the bi-centennial of the Declaration of Independence.

The ups and downs of US political life through the late 70s and into the 80s were rarely absent from news bulletins, whatever the concerns at home might have been.  The premiership of Margaret Thatcher in the UK was quickly followed by the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and a new era of the Special Relationship between those two like minds.  

Special Relationship: a Republican president with a showbusiness past and a female British Conservative prime minister - what are the chances of that happening again?

All things transatlantic were heavily featured in the news, with issues such as the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, Olympic boycotts arising from that, the nuclear arms race and the coming of President Gorbachev and Glasnost in the USSR heralding the start of a new era.  The 1990s saw the consequent break-up of the Soviet Union, and the election of Bill Clinton following twelve years of Republican rule in the USA.

With the start of 24 hour news on the BBC in 1997, the coverage of US affairs naturally increased even more, and the amount of time given over to them subsequently shows no sign of diminishing – indeed it seemed to be regarded with more importance than coverage of the European Union, despite the UK’s membership of the latter.  Coverage of United States presidential elections is now expected as part of the political calendar, and the States’ unique position in the world can no longer be seen as incidental to domestic issues, as it might have been in the 1920s.

The presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, each covering two terms, have dominated the 21st century, with a new world order replacing the Cold War.  In terms of covering the United States election process, we are now perhaps at saturation point, with complaints from some viewers and listeners that there may be too much of a good thing.  The rise of on-line reporting has added another facet for the news junkie, and it is now hard to escape from the US election process when it comes round every four years (though of course the election campaigns are notoriously long…)

Britain, as the former colonial power, has always had a fascination with the United States.  The range of programming that concerns the United States and all things American is a huge part of the BBC’s output, given that it has such a large influence of our political life, our economy and our culture.  The past election (the 24th since the BBC was founded) has been fascinating.  As the dust settles, we will have to see what the consequences will be.  But be assured that the British obsession with the USA will continue to be reflected in broadcasting.

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