Maggie gets her hands dirty, 20th May 1983, by Roger Bamber

By Alan Sparrow

The Prime Minister's announcement of the date for the election seems to have taken some by surprise, possibly even the Conservative party. Newsrooms drew a collective breath, news editors wondered if this was the event that would put their careers into free fall or boost their trajectory; picture editors thought about their budgets.

Coverage of elections is an expensive business for newspapers and a headache for picture editors. While huge resources are poured into the election, other major news events continue: G7 meetings , DDay80 Celebrations, the Epsom Derby and Glastonbury still have to be covered by news agencies and newspapers alike, stressing work rotas and postponing or cancelling holiday hopes for the staff.

Each party leader will have a “battlebus”, and seats on board are not cheap. A place on the Labour Party bus for the duration of the election will cost news organisations £12,000 a time. The Conservatives are asking for £450 per day, the Liberal Democrats the same. Managing editors wishing to preserve money will want to discourage picture editors from having photographers on each bus leaving the picture editors living with the waing nightmare that they might miss “the” picture of the day.

The competitor in you wants your photographer to be there and for he or she to get a little something that separates your coverage from everyone else. To be there when the political suicide moments on the campaign trail happen. The moments, the images, that people remember such as Gordon Brown sitting in his car after his “bigoted woman” gaff, John Prescott punching a member of the public, and the unscripted moments when members of the public argue with your candidate, as Tony Blair discovered when he was confronted by someone while visiting a hospital. 

Major agencies like the Press Association and Getty have huge resources and are more likely to be at each event, and local agencies attend as the election caravan arrives on their patch.

The value of a photo opportunity shouldn't be underestimated. Press officers work hard at the photo opportunity to secure space in the pages of newspapers and to fill the evening news with images of their candidate, even if they have no new policies to announce.

In 1983 Mrs Thatcher toured the nation in her “superbus”. According to her biographer, Hugo Young, she was obsessed with image and was willing to place herself entirely in the hands of her media advisors.

Communication as time went on, became one of her most pressing ambitions. What she admired above all about Ronald Reagan was his ability to get his message across. She envied that. To emulate it she was willing to try almost anything that the media men came up with. Thatcher admitted that the goal was not just to meet as many people as possible but to secure the best publicity. In her autobiography she said that travelling in the bus was how the best press and television pictures could be achieved. It was the key to the success of the entire 1983 campaign.

The Liberal Democrats’ excruciating daily photo ops, from paddle boarding on Windermere to cycling in Wales to water park slides, have kept Sir Ed Davey in the news and he has occupied far more air time than could have been expected from his policies alone.

But photo ops can sometimes fail. A photo opportunity for Neil Kinnock and his wife Glenys walking along Brighton beach in 1983 made the front page of many papers, but not in the way it had been hoped for - he fell into the sea after losing his balance. And who would have thought that eating a bacon sandwich could create such a political outcome for Ed Miliband?

Rishi Sunak has fallen foul of all these rookie errors in his first week with Exit signs behind while being photographed, then ambushed when talking to the press by a member of the public about parties at Downing Street and the how will he forget the disaster of the visuals of the election announcement, held in the rain in Downing Street, or Drowning Street as one headline had it. Maybe it will all work out in the end…

Photographer Roger Bamber (who died in 2022) worked for the Sun newspaper during the 1983 election, and told the story of his all-time favourite election photograph of Margaret Thatcher. ‘’During her election campaigns Margaret Thatcher always provided her accredited press team with a daily photo opportunity" he said. "On this occasion in Cornwall it backfired. She was telling a TV crew about a Cornish farm’s corn harvest and plunged her hands into a pile of hay without finding out what was underneath… manure.

“I offered it to the Sun, which loyally never used it. But it’s been used a lot since''.

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