‘Impartiality lies at the heart of public service and is the core of the BBC’s commitment to its audiences. It applies to all our output and services – television, radio, online, and in our international services and commercial magazines. We must be inclusive, considering the broad perspective and ensuring the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected.’
There has been much criticism of the media cover that was given to different parties in the recent local and European Parliament elections. And some of this was definitely justified (see below).
The BBC has a special role in the media. It is a public service broadcaster paid for by licence-fee payers and taxpayers. So it has to be open to more public scrutiny and it should be open to members of the public making their voices heard.
An activist, working through 38 Degrees got together a petition addressed to the BBC. The petition: BBC NEWS: STOP THIS MEDIA BLACKOUT OF THE GREEN PARTY has been signed by nearly 50 000 people in less than less than 4 weeks.
On 9 June 2014 a small group of supporters of 38 Degrees assembled at BBC Broadcasting House to deliver the petition to some of the senior executives of the Corporation.
We were met by quite a number of security staff who informed us that we would not be allowed into the building; more to the point, we would not be allowed onto the property (i.e. the pavement beyond the curb in front of Broadcasting House). At first, they set up some crowd barriers about 1.5 m inside the curb. After a little while, they decided this wasn’t enough, so they put another barrier much closer to the curb.
I asked one of them whether they could get a senior executive or manager to come out and talk to us; he sort of agreed and went away; he came back and said to me that two people were going to come out; a little later, he told another member of our group that nobody was coming out.
We milled around for a little longer. Then a police van arrived. Two officers got out and initially went over to talk to the BBC security staff. I joked with some of the others in our group that surely that wasn’t in response to our protest. At that point I really thought there was some other issue that was the cause for calling the police.
I went over to find out whether they had been called because of us. At this stage, I was not prepared to believe that the BBC would actually call police for a group of no more than 25 peaceful citizens wishing to deliver a petition to the BBC.
To give them their due, the police officers behaved impeccably. They came to talk to us; they asked on our behalf whether two of our group would be allowed in to deliver the petition. Initially that seemed to be agreed by the security people.
When the two members of our group went across, however, it turned out that they were only prepared to accept the petition from them. So the security staff were handed a number of envelopes addressed to individual executives including: TONY HALL, DIRECTOR GENERAL; FRANCESCA UNSWORTH, DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF NEWS AND CURRENT AFFAIRS; AND JAMES HARDING, DIRECTOR OF NEWS AND CURRENT AFFAIRS.
They insisted on the envelopes being opened and checked for – well, your guess is as good as mine, but the letters were taken out of the envelopes and the envelopes were shaken open side down. No, there was no white powder in any of them you may be surprised to read.
If you don’t believe this story, then watch the video. And although my name is incorrect in the video, it is me demonstrating near speechlessness.
After all that, we moved on to the BBC’s Westminster Studio at Millbank; there, two of us were allowed into the building and were allowed to hand over the petition (again, envelopes addressed to specific members of the BBC staff; here: NICK ROBINSON, POLITICAL EDITOR and SUE INGLISH, HEAD OF POLITICAL PROGRAMMES); but whether they actually got them (anymore than the other three at Broadcasting House) is anybody’s guess. So far, the BBC have not covered the incident as far as I know.
So what was the matter with their coverage?
In the run-up to the election, most of the coverage was about UKIP; this might have been good TV because of the frankly outrageous things UKIP was saying, but it supported a UKIP campaign because it kept this party in the focus of public attention far ahead of any of the others.
UKIP does not have an MP; UKIP does not lead any local authority in the UK; and still, it is treated like a ‘major political party’ in line with an Ofcom ruling which bowed to pressure from UKIP.
The fact that the ‘main stream’ parties (the coalition partners and the official opposition in Westminster) got coverage is hardly surprising; but the fact that the Green Party – which has an MP, had (prior to the election) 2 MEPs (it is now 3) and leads at least one local authority and is in opposition in several others) – was not only treated as a minor party but in fact air-brushed out of much of the discussion and reporting is, frankly, unacceptable.
Just a couple of examples:
On Question Time – one of the BBCs flagship political debate shows and over the period from 9 January to 22 May 2014 (i.e. the 18 editions of the programme this year up until the local and European Parliament elections) had the following representation from the different political parties:
During the BBC election broadcast on the night of the European Parliament election count (Sunday 25 May 2014) the first announcement of a Green win was from the South West region; this was a new seat for the Green Party. The announcement came at some point before 2 am (on Monday morning). I know this, because that was when I stopped watching. By then, the Green Party had won the seat in the South West and had held its seat in the South East. The London results were still outstanding. By the time I stopped watching there had been no interview with anyone from the Green Party; not the newly elected MEP, not the leader, not the leader of the party in the South West. By this time, the Liberal Democrats had lost all but one of their seats in all the regions that had been announced by then, and interviews with them were incessant. The discussion with the journalists and commentators in the studio was all about UKIP as if UKIP was the only game in town. In the end, Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, was interviewed at 2.30 am (or so I am told).
On Monday morning, the Today Programme reported on the elections and commented on the parties having taken first, second, third and fifth place but failed to mention the party that had taken fourth place ahead of the Liberal Democrats: yes, you guessed it, that would have been the Green Party.
So, you get the picture.
UKIP’s coverage out of all proportion
So why did the media (and the BBC was no different in this regard than most of the other media) put UKIP centre stage? There are, of course, many reasons for that. But one of the key reasons is a decision by Ofcom to define UKIP as a major party for the purpose of these elections. It did not decide to award this status to any other party. It did so on the basis of three pieces of evidence:
- The results in the European Parliament elections in 1999, 2004, and 2009; the comparison between UKIP and the Green Party in these elections is as follows:
|Party \ Year||1999||2004||2009|
|Green Party||6.3%||2 seats||6.2 %||2 seats||8.6 %||2 seats|
|UKIP||7 %||3 seats||16.2 %||12 seats||16.5 %||13 seats|
And whilst it is clear from these figures that UKIP had a higher percentage than the Green Party it is equally clear that (a) the percentage of support for the Green Party is increasing and (b) that the allocation of seats – even in a system of proportional representation appears to favour UKIP over the Green party; for example, in 2009, the Green Party got 2 seats for 8.6 % and for less than double the proportion of votes UKIP got over 6 times the number of seats.
- The results in the local elections in each year from 2008 to 2013. Of course, the picture with local elections is complicated because it is not the same seats in the same boroughs up for election each year. However, the figures show clearly that in every one of those years (except 2013) the Green vote was higher in terms of seats gained and equal to or higher than UKIP. The following table shows this:
|Year \ Party||Green Party||UKIP|
|2008||2.8 %||17 seats||1.6 %||4 seats|
|2009||4.6 %||17 seats||4.6 %||8 seats|
|2010||3.5 %||13 seats||1.6 %||1 seat|
|2011||3.6 %||79 seats||2.4 %||8 seats|
|2012||4.2 %||26 seats||4.4 %||7 seats|
|2013||3.6 %||22 seats||19.9 %||147 seats|
- An aggregate of opinion polls from October 2012 to January 2014; unfortunately, this does not specify the support for the Green Party as it is lumped under ‘other’. This does suggest that the intention was to look at UKIP in isolation rather than at the picture across the board. It is interesting to see that in that comparison, the Liberal Democrats show a low and reducing support; however, there was no discussion in the decision made by Ofcom as to whether the Liberal Democrats should be removed from the list of major political parties. Given that in 2014 they came behind the Green Party in practically all of the results, this would suggest that in the next assessment of major political parties either the Green Party should be added to the list of major political parties (my preferred option) or the Liberal Democrats should be removed from it.
Finally, an analysis of the actual political weight of the Green Party compared to UKIP shows another very interesting picture:
|House of Commons||1||Nil|
|House of Lords||1||3|
|Lead in a Council||1||Nil|
And whilst there is no argument that UKIP did rather well in the local elections last year and this and in the European Parliament elections this year, at least for the results of the 2014 elections some of the explanation lies in the excessive profile they were given in the media.