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Gavin Greig [userpic]

Political Impartiality

April 25th, 2010 (04:04 pm)
current location: KY16 8SX

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.


Posted by: silverwhistle (silverwhistle)
Posted at: April 25th, 2010 05:31 pm (UTC)
Smiley Rosa

Yup. The London-centric media have seriously mishandled this; ditto regarding the various parties campaigning here on what are actually devolved issues (for next year's elections).

Posted by: Tomm (hobbitomm)
Posted at: April 25th, 2010 06:13 pm (UTC)

I think a fairer way might have been to block transmission to the Devolved nations of the English debates, and have additional debates with the extra bodies for those nations. The problem, of course, being Sky, who kindly provide all the varieties of BBC, if you look hard enough.

That said, I don't think it reasonable to include them in 'all' of the debates, because as has already been mentioned, the majority of the electorate cannot vote SNP/PC. I guess you could have had the SNP in one debate, PC in another, and the UKIP in another, but then why exclude the Greens (who are more likely to get an MP than UKIP, I think,) or the BNP, or any other number of options.

As a wise man sang, about Candidates Debates, "Every way you look at this you lose."

Posted by: Gavin Greig (ggreig)
Posted at: April 25th, 2010 08:02 pm (UTC)

The problem, of course, being Sky

...and the Internets, of course. I don't think regional censoring can work, which is why I tend more towards global inclusion.

Of course, working within the existing system, the reason that you don't have to include the Greens, UKIP and the BNP is that they're not officially major parties. Simples (which seems to be the new QED).

That opens up a new debate about whether they should be major parties, but the reason I'm particularly incensed by the current situation is basically that we have rules and it doesn't look like they're being followed.

I think your closing quote is most apposite.

Posted by: Toby Atkin-Wright (tobyaw)
Posted at: April 25th, 2010 08:09 pm (UTC)

It isn’t just the broadcast of the debates that matters, but also the surrounding TV news and newspaper coverage of the debate and the associated polls.

There is no escape from a three-party debate being the root of a media explosion of interest in only those three parties.

Posted by: Gavin Greig (ggreig)
Posted at: April 25th, 2010 08:14 pm (UTC)


Posted by: Tomm (hobbitomm)
Posted at: April 25th, 2010 10:35 pm (UTC)

Except for me, they're _not_ major parties. As I say, the Greens are more likely to take a seat in England than the SNP! Hell, even the BNP is!

If Alex Salmond was shoved into debates which are broadcast to me, you'd be giving a non-major party (to me!) a soapbox which you're denying to other non-major parties (also to me!)

Now, granted, in Scotland and Wales the SNP and PC are major parties. However as far as the national election is concerned, those are entirely regional matters, with no special position as far as Westminster is concerned- if anything, they are _less_ legitimate, since a lot of powers for those specialist areas have been devolved to Holyrood/Cardiff. Certainly I don't see them giving Major party status in a national election to a Northern Freedom Party (okay, I made that one up, as far as I'm aware!), or given the regretable strength of the BNP in areas of the North West, them being granted the same thing.

However it's done, it'll upset someone. I have to say, I think my personal favourite would be transmitting the debates only on terrestrial, and giving the devolved nations a different debate as their default. If people there _chose_ to see a different version, that'd be their right, but at least they'd have to make a conscious effort to do so.

Posted by: Gavin Greig (ggreig)
Posted at: April 25th, 2010 11:20 pm (UTC)

However it's done, it'll upset someone.

Absolutely. I think we can all agree on that. [Noise of indignant scuffles, off.]

I understand that it would be frustrating for people outside Scotland, and as I hope I made clear, I'm not opposed to a broader inclusion of parties from the English point of view either. Campaigning to change the rules is OK.

However, within the existing rules, broadcasts are being made to Scotland that exclude one of the major parties here. Not on!

Surely the "Most Good, Least Harm" solution is to accept broadcasting the SNP and Plaid to places where they're less relevant, rather than exclude them from broadcasts where they are relevant? Frustrating though it may be for some people, it's fairer within the existing rules.

The terrestrial argument is sort of reasonable, but I think Sky would have something to say about it, now that they've got their foot in the door. There would also be problems with places like ITV Tyne Tees and Border, who you would think would be good at handling border issues, but in practice seem to have a poor record of broadcasting inappropriate material.

Posted by: silverwhistle (silverwhistle)
Posted at: April 25th, 2010 06:55 pm (UTC)
Smiley Rosa

And there really, really needs to be a devolved parliament or 2 (outside London) for England, to answer the West Lothian Question and address the problem in England of the excessive dominance of London and the SE. For too long, the whole of the UK, and England as a component of it, have been subordinated to the interests of the SE.

Posted by: Tomm (hobbitomm)
Posted at: April 25th, 2010 07:02 pm (UTC)

Totally agree with this, but when the 'Northern Assembly' was put to a vote, it got rejected by the electorate.

Posted by: silverwhistle (silverwhistle)
Posted at: April 25th, 2010 07:04 pm (UTC)
Unicorn Lady

I think there were issues about the way it was presented.
I also think that sometimes things of this kind should be done without a referendum.

Posted by: Gavin Greig (ggreig)
Posted at: April 25th, 2010 08:22 pm (UTC)

If I remember correctly, wasn't the proposal a bit weak and probably rejected on those grounds? Since I believe support was fairly strong for a regional assembly before the details emerged?

Of course, like the 1979 devolution referendum in Scotland which got a majority in favour but not a big enough one, any form of refusal can then be taken as a "No" to any sort of reform, not just the scheme on offer.

Posted by: silverwhistle (silverwhistle)
Posted at: April 25th, 2010 08:31 pm (UTC)
Unicorn Lady

Yup, that's what I recall.
My parents supported it.

Posted by: silverwhistle (silverwhistle)
Posted at: April 25th, 2010 07:05 pm (UTC)

If memory serve, the turn-out was risibly small.

Posted by: Toby Atkin-Wright (tobyaw)
Posted at: April 25th, 2010 07:23 pm (UTC)

With a 47.8% turnout at the referendum in 2004, 78% of voters were against a regional assembly in the north-east of England.

I think its fair to say that there isn’t widespread support for regional assemblies in England.

Posted by: silverwhistle (silverwhistle)
Posted at: April 25th, 2010 07:47 pm (UTC)
Unicorn Lady

So? It is still both necessary, and a good idea.

Posted by: Toby Atkin-Wright (tobyaw)
Posted at: April 25th, 2010 08:05 pm (UTC)

I think there is a growing sentiment in middle England that just wants rid of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and would then be happy to be governed by the Westminster parliament being a purely English parliament.

With the public becoming increasingly disillusioned with politics and politicians, I can’t imagine that there could be an increase in the already low level of support for another level of government.

Why is it necessary? Why is it a good idea?

Posted by: Gavin Greig (ggreig)
Posted at: April 25th, 2010 08:14 pm (UTC)

The South East does seem to have an overbearing effect on other regions of England that might be best balanced out in some way by regional representation; but as you point out, more people may identify with England, for historical reasons and the "layers of government" thing.

I try to watch this question with an open mind. and will be interested to see how it plays out.

Posted by: Tomm (hobbitomm)
Posted at: April 25th, 2010 10:38 pm (UTC)

Actually, I think up here there's a strong association with 'The North'- perhaps call it the Saxon kingdom of Northumbria still going strong?

In some ways, there'd be something to be said for federalising England on a 'Saxon Kingdoms' model!

Posted by: Gavin Greig (ggreig)
Posted at: April 25th, 2010 11:03 pm (UTC)

Interesting idea!

Posted by: Tomm (hobbitomm)
Posted at: April 26th, 2010 09:11 am (UTC)

It's the right sort of size and number of units, I think, except for Kent. But throw Kent and London in together, and you're certainly right.


Posted by: Gavin Greig (ggreig)
Posted at: April 26th, 2010 10:03 am (UTC)

Poor Cornwall looks a bit left out! Though maybe that would please Mebyon Kernow...

Posted by: Tomm (hobbitomm)
Posted at: April 26th, 2010 11:14 am (UTC)

Well, Cornwall wasn't a Saxon kingdom. Still celtic back then. And yes, a Cornish assembly would make a lot of sense.

Posted by: Toby Atkin-Wright (tobyaw)
Posted at: April 26th, 2010 10:36 am (UTC)

There has been a trend in recent decades to remove large urban areas from their surrounding countryside, for political and administrative purposes. This localism helps to match the politics of an area to the council that administers it.

There is a danger that people living in sparsely populated areas, such as Northumberland or Cumbria, would feel disenfranchised if their regional assembly was perceived as being run by and for the benefit of the mass of voters in cities like Newcastle and Manchester.

Posted by: Gavin Greig (ggreig)
Posted at: April 26th, 2010 10:40 am (UTC)

I can identify with that, having grown up in rural Argyll - which was part of Glasgow-dominated Strathclyde.

Edited at 2010-04-26 10:41 am (UTC)

Posted by: Gavin Greig (ggreig)
Posted at: April 25th, 2010 08:08 pm (UTC)

I think England needs some form of devolution, but it's not for me to say what, since I don't live there. The English will have to "decide" what they want and campaign for it, just as Scotland did, and arguably continues to do.

When one solution gets enough support, I'm sure it will happen.

Posted by: silverwhistle (silverwhistle)
Posted at: April 25th, 2010 08:18 pm (UTC)
Smiley Rosa

Well, I spent my first 18 years in the NE (Hull), and my parents moved back 20 years ago. There is definitely a feeling there that everything is run for the benefit of the SE, and I've even heard some say they'd rather join Scotland.

Posted by: Tomm (hobbitomm)
Posted at: April 25th, 2010 10:38 pm (UTC)

Hull's not the Northeast! It's practically Lincolnshire ;)

(runs and hides)

Posted by: Toby Atkin-Wright (tobyaw)
Posted at: April 25th, 2010 07:28 pm (UTC)

While not feeling aligned with the SNP on many of their policies, I support their campaign against the current format of the debates, and was happy to donate to their appeal. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Posted by: Gavin Greig (ggreig)
Posted at: April 25th, 2010 08:17 pm (UTC)

Thanks for letting me know I may have done a good thing!

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