Sunday, 21 February 2010

Tell No Lies. How the MSM Will Report the Campaign

In this article Bunnco, your man on the spot, reviews the BBC's Election Reporting Guidelines which will be published in the next few days by The BBC Trust and wonders how the current reporting of the Wild West phoney campaign will change after Gordon goes to see Her Majesty.

Over the last 24 hours there’s been a frenzy of media speculation focused upon whether Gordon really did kill the butler in the library with a length of lead pipe. Or not.

Over all it’s been a good week for Labour, which seems to have owned-the-media-space in a co-ordinated campaign kicking-off with the Tears4Piers show last Sunday. The Tories have hardly had a look-in apart from the unfortunate gaffe from Nick Winterton, rather bemusingly characterised as ‘a senior Tory’, about not being able to get on with his confidential paperwork in standard class on the train to Cheshire.

There’s a perception on the main site that the smallest Tory transgression is seized upon where more substantial Labour problems are glossed-over. In my view, the ‘Nothing to see, move along meme’ does make it difficult to disbelieve that there is an institutional media bias against the Tories. I’ll leave it to others to question why this should be.

So, with Labour’s wall-to-wall coverage, we shouldn’t be surprised that the polls have tightened somewhat. And that apparent narrowing of the polls rather proves Mike’s Third Golden Rule, which states [and here I paraphrase] that the more you’re on the gogglebox, the better you do in the polling.

But this is all about to change because in the election period, strict broadcasting rules apply. The BBC’s Guidelines will be formally published in the next few days but the draft rules have been available on the BBCTrust’s website since December.

The Editorial Guidelines set out the standards required of people making programmes and other content for the BBC. They exist to guide content producers in making considered editorial decisions that take into account their responsibilities to the audience, contributors and others...

…The BBC is required by Parliament under the terms of its Charter and Agreement of 2006 to ensure that matters of political controversy and matters of public policy are covered with due impartiality.

Elections are major matters of political controversy and for elections the BBC produces Election Guidelines in addition to and alongside the standards set by the BBC Editorial Guidelines. The Election Guidelines set out the particular standards set by the BBC during the period leading up to and including an election day. They are additional to the standards set by the BBC to ensure that its content is duly impartial.

I downloaded the draft guidelines this morning and I reproduce the elements, which I think many PB readers will find most useful below: The document is 14 pages long so I have highlighted the key passages below. If you want to read the whole document, you’ll have to download it yourself.

These guidelines come into effect from the day on which the Prime Minister offers his resignation to the Queen and the General Election date is announced – this may well be a longer period and before Parliament is dissolved. The guidelines remain in effect until the close of polls.

These Guidelines are intended to offer a framework within which journalists:
• can operate in as free and creative an environment as possible,
• deliver to audiences impartial and independent reporting of the campaign, giving them fair coverage and rigorous scrutiny of the policies and campaigns of all parties.

The BBC is also required, under the terms of its Charter and Agreement of 2006 to ensure that political issues are covered with due accuracy and impartiality. These Election Guidelines… which say we must ensure that:
• news judgements continue to drive editorial decision making in news based programmes.
• news judgements at election time are made within a framework of democratic debate which ensures that due weight is given to hearing the views and examining and challenging the policies of all parties. Significant minor parties should also receive some network coverage during the campaign.
• we 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.

Mandatory issues and referrals
During the Election Period:
• Any programme which does not usually cover political subjects or normally invite politicians to participate must consult the Chief Adviser Politics before finalising any plans to do so.
• All bids for interviews with party leaders must be referred to the Chief Adviser Politics before parties are approached. Offers of such interviews should also be referred before being accepted
• Any proposal to use a contribution from a politician without an opportunity for comment or response from other parties must be referred to a senior editorial figure and the Chief Adviser Politics.
• The BBC will not commission voting intention polls
• Any proposal to commission an opinion poll on politics or any other matter of public policy for any BBC service must be referred to the Chief Adviser Politics for approval.
• There will be no online votes or SMS/text votes attempting to quantify support for a party, a politician or a party political policy issue.
• Any proposal to conduct text voting on any political issue that could have a bearing on any of the elections must be discussed with the Chief Adviser, Politics, as well as being referred to the relevant departmental senior editorial figure and ITACU.
• The BBC will not broadcast or publish numbers of e-mails, texts or other communications received on either side of any issue connected to the campaign.

On Polling day:
• No opinion poll on any issue relating to the election may be published.
• There will be no coverage of any of the election campaigns on any BBC outlet.
• It is a criminal offence to broadcast anything about the way in which people have voted in that election.

Impartiality and Coverage of the Parties
To achieve due impartiality, each bulletin, programme or programme strand, as well as online and interactive services, for each election, must ensure that the parties are covered proportionately over an appropriate period, normally across a week. This means taking into account levels of past and current electoral support.

Due impartiality must be achieved within these categories:
• clips
• interviews/discussions of up to 10 minutes
• longer form programmes

Previous electoral support in equivalent elections is the starting point for making judgements about the proportionate levels of coverage between parties. However, other factors can be taken into account where appropriate, including evidence of variation in levels of support in more recent elections, changed political circumstances (e.g. new parties or party splits) as well as other evidence of current support. The number of candidates a party is standing may also be a factor.

Impartiality in Programmes
Daily news magazine programmes (in the nations, regions and UK wide) should normally achieve proportional and appropriate coverage within the course of each week of the campaign. This means that each strand (e.g. a drive time show on radio) is responsible for reaching its own targets within the week and cannot rely on other outlets at different times of day (e.g. the breakfast show) to do so for it.

Programme strands should avoid individual editions getting badly out of kilter. There may be days when inevitably one party dominates the news agenda, e.g. when party manifestos are launched, but in that case care must be taken to ensure that appropriate coverage is given to other manifesto launches on the relevant days.

The News Channel and television and radio summaries will divide the 24 hour day into blocks and aim to achieve due impartiality across a week’s output in each one. Weekly programmes, or running series within daily sequence programmes, which focus on one party or another, should trail both forward and backwards so that it is clear to the audience that due impartiality is built in over time. In these instances, due impartiality should be achieved over the course of the campaign.

Any programme or content giving coverage to any of the elections must achieve due impartiality overall among parties during the course of the whole campaign. In all elections, the BBC must take care to prevent candidates being given an unfair advantage, for instance, where a candidate’s name is featured through depicting posters or rosettes etc.

Order of Parties
The order in which parties appear in packages or are introduced in discussions should normally be editorially driven. However, programme makers should take care to ensure they vary this order, where appropriate, so that no fixed pattern emerges in the course of the campaign.

The same guidelines as those for programmes will apply to BBC Editorial content on all sites. These will apply to audio and video content as well as text content, e.g. blogs, podcasts and downloads, as well as any social networking which is associated with the BBC, including third party sites.

With user generated content, we must not seek to achieve what might be considered “artificial” impartiality by giving a misleading account of the weight of opinion. All sites prompting debate on the election will be actively hosted and properly moderated to encourage a wide range of views. Sites which do not usually engage in political issues should normally seek advice from the Chief Adviser, Politics, before doing so.

There will be no online votes attempting to quantify support for a party, politician or policy issue during the election period.

News Online will not link to the sites of single candidates, unless there is a very strong editorial justification on news grounds and then only for a limited period (e.g. a big row because major player publishes policy on his/her website which contradicts manifesto on their party’s website).
Any speeches which are carried in full will be selected on news value, while bearing in mind that due impartiality requires that an appropriate range of speeches are carried.

Reporting Polls
During the campaign our reporting of opinion polls should take into account three key factors:
• they are part of the story of the campaign and audiences should, where appropriate, be informed about them;
• context is essential, and we must ensure the accuracy and appropriateness of the language used in reporting them;
• polls can be wrong - there are real dangers in only reporting the most “newsworthy” polls – i.e. those which, on a one-off basis, show dramatic movement.

So, the general rules and guidance about reporting polls need to be scrupulously followed. They are:
• not to lead a news bulletin or programme simply with the results of a voting intention poll;
• not to headline the results of a voting intention poll unless it has prompted a story which itself deserves a headline and reference to the poll’s findings is necessary to make sense of it;
• not to rely on the interpretation given to a poll’s results by the organisation or publication which commissioned it, but to come to our own view by looking at the questions, the results and the trend;
• to report the findings of voting intentions polls in the context of trend. The trend may consist of the results of all major polls over a period or may be limited to the change in a single pollster’s findings. Poll results which defy trends without convincing explanation should be treated with particular scepticism and caution;
• not to use language which gives greater credibility to the polls than they deserve: polls “suggest” but never “prove” or even “show”;
• to report the expected margin of error if the gap between the contenders is within the margin. On television and online, graphics should always show the margin of error;
• to report the organisation which carried out the poll and the organisation or publication which commissioned it;
Take particular care with newspaper reviews. Polls should not be the lead item in a newspaper review and should always be reported with a sentence of context (e.g: “that’s rather out of line with other polls this week”).

Commissioning Polls
The BBC does not commission voting intention opinion polls during election periods. Editorial Guidelines say “any proposal to commission an opinion poll on politics or any other matter of public policy for any BBC service must be referred to the Chief Adviser Politics for approval”.

Care must be taken to ensure that any poll commissioned by the BBC is not used to suggest a BBC view on a particular policy or issue. A poll may be commissioned to help inform the audience’s understanding of a current controversy, but it should not be used to imply BBC intervention in a current controversy.

The Complaints Unit
The BBC will run a co-ordinated fast response unit which will handle any complaints about political bias during the General Election campaign.
The aim of the unit will be to:
• provide a one-stop shop for complaints-handling by the BBC.
• take pressure off individual journalists so they can concentrate on the journalism.
• reduce duplication of effort and cut down on the time BBC staff have to devote to dealing with complaints.
• try to achieve consistency of response.
• build up any picture of the pattern of complaints, especially from individual political parties.

So, what does all this mean for the Campaign itself and the effect on Polling and the Ballot.

1 I think we’re seeing that the Tory lead has been pretty stable over the last few months hovering around the 38-40% mark. Where we’ve seen changes, it’s tended to be as a result of the inter-play between Labour and the LibDems. As the ‘Others’ value has fallen over time, this has boosted the pool that both Labour & Libdems are fishing in.

As the BBC will be required to give more prominence to Nick Clegg when the election is called, we can expect his share to increase, probably at the expense of Labour.

“Others” may stabilise. In NorwichNorth, many Labour voters protested by supporting the minor parties, especially UKIP. Giving the minor parties a fair crack of the whip on the telly might start to crystallise the 40/30/20/10 polling.

As Bob Worcester so wisely said some weeks ago, “It’s the share not the lead.” What this tells me is that if the LibDems start do better in the campaign as a result of a higher media profile, I can see the Tory lead increasing even if they continue to hover at 40% as Labour leaks to the LibDems.

2 We know what happened in the Autumn with YouGov’s daily Conference Polling. It was jumping around all over the place. But when the Tory Conference came to town, the Tories benefited from saturation coverage. Cameron’s been squeezed-out over the last week so it’s not surprising the Tory share has slipped. If the BBC has to give equal coverage to the Tories his visibility and his polling is sure to rise.

3 Gordon Brown is ill-suited to being door-stepped and he’ll be under a lot of scrutiny in a 17 working day campaign. It seems to me that his lexicon is very restricted. “For the many, not the few”; “Schools and Hospitals”; “Hard-working Families” etc. If he keeps repeating these lines and doesn’t develop new ones in the full glare of media scrutiny, the public will quickly suss this out. The ability of Mandleson to carefully hand-craft the message for set-piece occasions will be limited. Seventeen working days is a long time in Politics.

4 Events: Remember the Battle of Jennifer’s Ear? There’ll be more banana skins like that.

5 Blogging: I’m intrigued by the way in which Iain Dale and Guido are breaking stories. Whilst not many people read their blogs in the wider electorate, they can set the narrative. Neither of these two are subject to media rules and it will be interesting to see how the BBC [& Sky] treat new blogosphere stories as they break. I’m surprised the guidelines don’t include a section on the blogosphere and other [non-BBC] electronic media.

6 The Leaders’ Debates. This is the big unknown and even now it’s not clear whether these will actually happen.

7 Reporting of Polling. There’s quite a chapter on this and PB has a role here to assist the BBC and other media outlets in interpreting what’s going on. I really hope that the site doesn’t just degenerate into a series of name-calling or willy-waving threads. This is where we collectively earn our spurs.

But after a week of saturation coverage when the starting gun is fired, I suspect that we’ll be longing for election day, whenever it is. Why? Because the BBC guidelines are quite clear

There will be no coverage of any of the election campaigns on polling day, from 6am until polls close at 10pm on TV, radio or However, online sites will not have to remove archive reports. Coverage will be restricted to factual accounts with nothing which could be construed as influencing the ballots. No opinion poll on any issue relating to politics or the election may be published until after the polls have closed. Whilst the polls are open, it is a criminal offence to broadcast anything about the way in which people have voted in that election.

And the day after that? What are we all going to do with all our time then? After the excitement of the Norwich North by-election last year I told my wife that the aftermath was like having a bereavement in the family. I’m sure it will be the same for some of you too.

Bunnco – Your Man on the Spot


Anonymous said...

Great post bunnco. Keep it up.

Blue rog

jsfl said...

Good stuff Bunnco. Not the most exciting of topics but certainly a worthwhile exercise!

Now we just have to wait until Brown calls it.

Plato said...

Superb post Bunnco - many thanks.

If I were Cameron - I'd get 90% of this as the default for BBC output from Day 1.

Marcia said...

A very ggod read indeed

Anonymous said...


Bunnco, you really do give us good service! This is a very useful article - I'm going to bookmark it for reference.

It'll be interesting to see exactly how much difference the Election period guidelines makes to the output. If it's widely agreed to have made a noticeable difference, I'd say there would be scope for tightening up the normal guidelines.

And that Complaints section should be informative too. Interesting to see how much business it gets.

Morus said...

Excellent precis.

Peter said...

Bunnco great article. The effect of the internet may be stronger than you mention in this article. It's acting as a forum for those who see or perceive bias in the BBC's output. Such people can see that they are not isolated in these views and their feelings increase with numbers - they are no longer fobbed off by the BBC's "well the other side think the opposite". If there is a chnage in Government, then the BBC's employees will be required to be consistent with their reporting/ interviewing/ analysis of the new Government with how they have reported the current Governement.