BBC General Election Coverage, constructive criticism: 3rd May 2017
Letter to a number of named BBC journalists
I am neither a member of any political party nor am I affiliated to one. I am however a voracious consumer of the BBC’s news and current affairs output, both on television and radio, and have been for several decades.
However, I have found the totality of the Corporation’s 2017 General Election coverage thus far to have fallen short of the high standards and impartiality that the BBC is duty bound to provide. I would exempt from this criticism Newsnight, which remains easily the Corporation’s most balanced and trustworthy news and current affairs television programme, and much of the election content on Radio 4’s quartet of daily flagship news programmes.
At General Elections we elect a parliament, not a President, from which a government is formed and a Prime Minister chosen. However, the overwhelming concentration of the BBC’s main 6pm and 10pm television news broadcasts, as well as much BBC News Channel and Five Live output, has been on the party leaders, particularly Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, to the exclusion of almost everything, and everyone, else, including most crucially policy analysis.
Whilst the Representation of the People Act requires giving equal coverage to the main parties, it does not require you to give equal coverage to their leaders, especially when they have little or nothing new to say. We’ve seen Theresa May surrounded by placard-waving supporters, robotically repeating her Strong and Stable Leadership/Coalition of Chaos soundbites ad infinitum. By continuing to use such clips, and for your reporters to continue using these quotes, the BBC is providing the Conservatives with precisely the type of coverage that it wants, resulting in the BBC looking like little more than Lynton Crosby’s very malleable puppet. If a political party is not providing a policy agenda, or just repeating the same one each day, try to set your own agenda around them rather than willingly playing their game.
The BBC is prepared to vox pop members of the public to ask their views of Jeremy Corbyn (which often results in your broadcasting negative coverage of both him and the Labour Party), but you almost never do the same for Theresa May (or any other party leader). Let’s hear people asked what they think of the Conservative’s policy desert, ambiguity over the triple lock pension, or the intense choreography of their campaign (I’m sure that there will be no shortage who are far from complimentary). Or how about not following Mrs May around wherever she goes and instead focusing on other members of her government and party?
The result of the BBC’s current reporting practices is a highly discernible imbalance between its coverage of the Prime Minister and the leaders of other political parties, especially Labour. Coverage of Theresa May is nearly always couched in positive terms, and she is nearly always framed as being tough, resolute (i.e. BBC News at 6pm and 10pm, Tuesday, May 2nd), with stories depicting how she is expecting to win a large majority. In contrast the strong impression given of Jeremy Corbyn is that he is weak and unpopular, battling against a near-wipeout at the polls. Whether that is true is not for the BBC to determine, and neither should your reporting continually reinforce such a perception.
Secondly, speculation about the result of the election (particularly so far ahead of polling day) is not necessary and can only reflect badly on one side and well for another, whilst further embedding a seemingly already established media narrative into voters minds about the inevitability of the result.
One series of reports in particular, broadcast on Tuesday, April 25th on the main BBC evening news (both 6pm and 10pm), was de facto a ten minute party political broadcast for the Conservative Party. Following a report on a confident and fearless Mrs May taking on the Labour Party in its traditional Welsh heartland were vox pops with voters referring to Corbyn as an idiot and a snippet showing him leaving a rally whilst saying to an aid that he was not sure where he was going. This just a day after Laura Kuenssberg had posted a very ill-advised tweet referring to Labour ‘stewing in its own juice’.
There is also the question of proportion. Citing Tuesday, May 2nd again, Dianne Abbott’s very faltering performance on LBC was given relentless coverage throughout the day across the BBC, despite the fact that the Labour Party corrected her statistical errors shortly after the original broadcast. Whilst the interview was deserving of coverage, at least in passing, there was no attempt to explanation of the party’s position on policing nor discuss the merits of their proposals. Reporting of Abbot’s ‘Brainfreeze’ was set against an interview with Theresa May in which the most widely quoted section portrayed the Prime Minister as a heroic defender of the UK’s interests against the EU, ‘a bloody difficult woman’. The disparity between these two reports was striking in their absence of balance when the BBC is absolutely required to provide even-handed, and I would argue, proportionate and measured election coverage.
Finally, a suggestion as regards the matter of General Election television debates; whilst the Prime Minister and later Jeremy Corbyn have ruled out leaders debates, BBC 1 should still hold perhaps three 60-90 minute long policy-themed party debates, potentially as follows:
Brexit and the Economy
Health, Housing and Education
Environment, Devolution and Foreign Policy
Each of the main parties should be asked to provide a senior figure, be that their leader or someone else. If a party refuses to take part, then state this clearly when the programme begins, but go ahead with the debates anyway. What the other channels do is up to them but the absence of long-form debates with or without audience participation and broadcast before 10pm would be a significant oversight not least given the near absence of policy coverage during the Corporation’s main daily news bulletins.
In closing, thank you for taking the time to read this but much more importantly, I urge you to please take on board the points raised in this letter, and provide a balanced, better scrutinised, more policy-focussed and less Presidential type of General Election coverage.
May 3rd 2017