2010 Election: What Does This Mean for Broadcasters?

We heard this morning the news that Gordon Brown has confirmed May 6. as the date of the 2010 general election.

It is now the time of year that TV and radio stations try and focus their attention on politics and the election campaign. However, it is also the time of year when both OfCom and the candidates are watching the broadcasters’ every move, perhaps more than at any other time.

This is because, effectively, the rules all change during the election period. Broadcasters across the UK are being especially careful with regards to their political coverage.

There are legal requirements that ALL broadcasters must abide by during the election period – as the BBC College of Journalism website says:

Political parties are anxious to see that they are fairly represented. They want the BBC to give them the time they would like to argue their case and they work hard to shape and control the daily agenda.

Voters need BBC journalism – which they pay for, incidentally – to help them sift, weigh and compare the arguments and to give them information they can trust and which they need to understand the debate and decide how they’ll vote.

Devolution and the Election
(BBC College of Journalism)

The legal requirements mean that broadcasters must be impartial – in the case of the BBC, they have to be impartial all the time (by law). This means basically, that all parties must be given adequate coverage.

That coverage ranges from the type of stories reported, to how party election broadcasts are run and how people are chosen to appear in TV debates.

  • News broadcasters must make sure they cover the full range of issues – not just the ones the politicians want to talk about.
  • Political advertising is banned in the UK – however you’ve probably seen the (slightly different, to avoid confusion) party election broadcasts which seem to be broadcast on BBC 1 at 1855 for 5 minutes during election periods. Organizations like the BBC are legally required to make sure that all parties are given opportunity for the party election broadcasts.
  • Broadcasters must offer the opportunity to take part in constituency or electoral area reports and discussions, to all candidates within the constituency or electoral area representing parties with significant support (this also applies to independent candidates). That isn’t to say however, that if someone refuses or is unable to take part, that the programme can not go ahead.

This is what the BBC College of Journalism say about impartiality:

Impartiality doesn’t mean boring or safe programmes. There is no rule that you should be so obsessed with impartiality or numerical balance during a campaign that you miss the story.

Simple, practical measures – like having a grid to log all your interviews and bids – will help you plan ahead to make sure that you can both cover stories as they break and keep a proper balance over time.

Campaign Coverage for Radio
(BBC College of Journalism)

You may also like to see the Introducing Impartiality page – bbc.co.uk/journalism/ethics-and-values/impartiality.

Of course, different people may interpret one area of the election rules in different ways: the OfCom Broadcasting Code says:

Due weight must be given to designated organisations in coverage during the referendum period. Broadcasters must also consider giving appropriate coverage to other permitted participants with significant views and perspectives.

Elections and Referendums, Section 6.3
OfCom Broadcasting Code

How do you decide whether you’re giving political parties the right amount of coverage? Well… the accepted version is that you give equal coverage to the 3 main parties, and I have heard it said that coverage of smaller parties should reflect the amount of support they get.

There are a number of other rules mentioned in the OfCom Broadcasting Code, which are particularly interesting:

  • 6.4: Discussion and analysis of election and referendum issues must finish when the poll opens. This refers to the opening of actual polling stations. This rule does not apply to any poll conducted entirely by post.
  • 6.5: Broadcasters may not publish the results of any opinion poll on polling day itself until the election or referendum poll closes.
  • 6.6: Candidates in UK elections, and representatives of permitted participants in UK referendums, must not act as news presenters, interviewers or
    presenters of any type of programme during the election period.

I hope I have highlighted to you some of the key points regarding rules/regulations of election coverage. However, it should be noted that I am no expert on the subject, so don’t take what is written here as final. If you’re in any doubt, check with someone who has more authority on the subject, and make sure to read through the advice and guidelines on both the BBC College of Journalism and OfCom websites.

Fred Hart

Stock Controller and Radio Presenter/Producer

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