Although I don’t like to include politics in this blog, sometimes, as I said back in August, it’s worth raising your head above the parapet for a point of principle. Or putting your money where your mouth is.
You may be aware that there have been some political debates on TV over the last couple of weeks that have created a bit of a fuss. You may also be aware that some political parties feel that they’ve been unfairly excluded from these “Prime Ministerial” debates, since only the three “major” parties’ leaders are present.
Well, I think they’re right. Some parties have been unfairly excluded, and there may be something you can do about it, if you believe that the state broadcaster should be politically neutral during an election campaign.
First of all let’s agree that the line has to be drawn somewhere. It is reasonable to have a TV debate that doesn’t include every independent candidate from every seat throughout the UK, and it’s probably reasonable to exclude political parties that don’t meet some semi-arbitrary threshold in terms of public support.
It won’t surprise you to know that people have already thought about this, and that there are official guidelines as to how political balance should be observed in broadcasting. There are official definitions of which are the “major parties”; and this is where the problems arise. The “Prime Ministerial” debates don’t give all the major parties a fair shake.
Here’s the definition of “major party” from the section of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code December 2009 relating to Elections and Referendums (emphasis mine):
At present in the UK major parties are the Conservative Party, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. In addition, major parties in Scotland and Wales respectively are the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru. The major parties in Northern Ireland are the Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Fein, Social Democratic and Labour Party, and the Ulster Unionist Party.
The BBC Editorial Guidelines on Politics have this to say about Broadcasting during Elections (emphasis in this case is from the original source):
We should make, and be able to defend, our editorial decisions on the basis that they are reasonable and carefully and impartially reached. To achieve this we must ensure that:
- […less directly relevant points snipped here…]
- they are aware of the different political structures in the four nations of the United Kingdom and that they are reflected in the election coverage of each nation. Programmes shown across the UK should also take this into account.
It’s clear to me that in any major programming thread that will be broadcast within Scotland or Wales during an election campaign, the SNP and Plaid Cymru should be represented alongside the three major UK parties, since they are major parties where the broadcast will be seen, and standing in direct opposition to the UK parties. If the SNP and Plaid Cymru don’t receive the same level of media attention, then in the appropriate country a major party is being disadvantaged in comparison with the other three.
The broadcasters and the UK parties argue that the SNP and Plaid Cymru get balance through opportunities to respond to the debates, and through local debates in which all four parties appear. However, this does not give balance in either air time or prominence. Given the continued dominance of the Liberal Democrats in the current debates, it’s clear that this does matter. Though it’s fair to note that the Lib Dems’ poll rise seemed to occur immediately before the first TV debate, it’s unlikely it could have been sustained without a good debate performance.
There’s also a case to be made for the parties standing in Northern Ireland; I don’t make it personally because I’m less familiar with Northern Irish politics, and because the three UK parties are not standing there in opposition to the local major parties. If Northern Irish politicians wanted to make that case, I would support it in principle.
Many argue that the SNP and Plaid Cymru should not receive this level of attention because their leaders are vanishingly likely to become UK Prime Minister, or because they have less support across the UK than (for example) UKIP, who are not treated as a major party. These arguments clearly have a broad appeal, even with Scotland or Wales – according to polling, 59% of Scots think that Alex Salmond should have been included in the debates, with 10% "Don't Know", so 31% accept the arguments that he shouldn't.
However, these arguments are canards. It doesn’t matter whether the people the SNP or Plaid Cymru put forward are likely to be Prime Minister, because the electorate don’t elect Prime Ministers; they elect representatives for their local constituencies. While of course people will want to bear in mind who may become Prime Minister as an indirect result of their vote, it’s not the whole purpose of the election, and to pretend that it is distorts the campaign. It is not grounds for excluding a party from debate.
I have a little more sympathy for the argument that the SNP or Plaid Cymru across the UK have less support than other parties also excluded, but I would say it’s a case for their inclusion rather than excluding the SNP or Plaid Cymru. The SNP and Plaid Cymru each have a significant level of support and stand in every seat within the nations they aim to represent. In fact, at the moment, both are parties of government within those nations, either alone or in coalition; and yet they’re to be excluded from key election coverage because they don’t stand outside those nations? If you say that parties with sufficient support to govern a UK member nation are not worthy of balanced treatment in the context of a UK election, you might as well say that the nations that elected them don’t matter. Dangerous territory.
As for the unwieldiness of a debate including more parties, or the “I can’t vote for them where I live, why should I have to listen to them?” arguments? For the first part, life is complicated, deal with it. For the second part, isn’t it good that you have a chance to better understand your neighbours by hearing their views? And isn’t it good for all of the UK if viewpoints not raised by the three UK parties get raised for public consideration, even if you can’t directly vote for the parties raising them? You can still pressure the politicians that you have, to do more to support those ideas.
So what can you do if, like me, you believe that the impartiality of broadcasting has taken a very damaging knock in this election campaign?
The SNP have consistently opposed their exclusion from the debates, and on Thursday their last course of appeal within the BBC, the BBC Trust, denied their claim for more balanced inclusion, despite the SNP proposing a number of compromises that personally I don’t feel they should have felt obliged to. Not being a cash-rich party, today they have announced the creation of a dedicated appeal fund to collect £50,000 for court proceedings, having exhausted all lesser alternatives.
For those interested in precedent and whether legal action is likely to succeed, you may want to take a look at the case of the Panorama interview with John Major in 1995, which the BBC planned to broadcast unbalanced during a Scottish election campaign. Labour and the Lib Dems opposed the broadcast then and won. I am disappointed that neither they nor the BBC seem to be able to draw the parallels with the current election campaign. (On the basis of history, it’s likely there’s been internal opposition within the BBC in Scotland and Wales, overridden in London. There’s a hint of this in Betsan Powys’ Straight Bat reporting of the BBC Trust decision.)
I believe this is an important point of principle that should be tested in the courts, regardless of political colour, and I’ve made a donation to the BBC Legal Challenge Appeal. If you believe in unbiased election coverage, I would encourage you to consider doing the same. The money needs to be raised by Monday night, in order to lodge papers at the Court of Session first thing on Tuesday.
In the bigger picture, I’m a big fan of the BBC, and I’m not a member of the SNP, nor any party. This time, though, the BBC is in the wrong and something has to be done (ITV and Sky too, but unfortunately the BBC is the most practical and important target). Between the BBC Trust decision on Thursday and the announcement of the appeal fund today, I was considering donating to the SNP’s general funds, but was reluctant to directly support a political party. The appeal fund made my decision much easier.