Originally published on December 8th 2013 on Journalism Now for my MA Journalism.
Into murky waters do Journalists tread…
The Electoral Commission (EC) has recently released a report showing that 11 political parties registered in Great Britain accepted over £7.8 million in donations between 1 July and 30 September 2013. In Gold place, The Conservative and Unionist Party pocketed just under £3.3 million with the Labour Party picking up silver to the value of just over £3.1 million. The Liberal Democrats settled for Bronze in the form of fractionally under £800,000.
Shining a light on such fiscal findings falls within a journalist’s remit. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that, to the year ending June 30th 2011, fifty City of London donors paid over £50,000 to the Conservative Party, a donation that would gain the individual a face to face meeting with the Prime Minister.
The complex and often clandestine, financial relationships that exist between lobbyists and political parties have become the source of media scrutiny and political discourse. Looming large on this horizon is the, already criticised, Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill 2013-14 which:
introduces a statutory register of consultant lobbyists and establishes a Registrar to enforce the registration requirements
regulates more closely election campaign spending by those not standing for election or registered as political parties
strengthens the legal requirements placed on trade unions in relation to their obligation to keep their list of members up to date.
The reasons behind donations to political parties are often examined and questioned by public and journalists alike. There is a real concern that such donations can procure an individual or company access to the political system, which if for reasons of self-interest (such as individual financial gain) can be an actual interference in the political and democratic process. Fears, often rightfully exist that the course of political action, such as the framing of legislation, can be undemocratically influenced by unelected individuals, for a price. Whether any ability to influence policy is (tacitly?) guaranteed through party funding, and thus a reason to do so, or a politically unwanted but somewhat natural consequence of opening one’s bulging wallet is open to debate. Party funding is under great scrutiny by journalists and opposing politicians at election time.
THE ELECTORAL COMMISSION
The EC’s objectives are for well-run elections, referendums and electoral registration and transparency in party and election finance, with high levels of compliance. This independent body provides guidance to Independent Returning Officers who run elections in Great Britain, undertakes public awareness work (how to register to vote, how to vote in polls, when polls occur) in the lead up to the democratic process, advises on how to word referendum questions and publishes post-election reports.
THE ROLE OF THE PRESS IN ELECTIONS
During elections, the role of press is to inform the electorate and be a significant part in the democratic process. The Fourth Estate acts as a conduit between the electorate and the political class. The regulatory systems of Ofcom and the BBC Editorial Guidelines explicitly reference the need for broadcasters to remain impartial and accurate. Such rules are particularly vital in elections as politicians and their acolytes, recognising the mass media’s influential power (which they in turn exploit), focus keenly on journalists. The likes of Andy Coulson and Alistair Campbell, if still in their communications roles would, I expect, react quickly to any misquotes or inaccuracies.
THERE’S SOMETHING IN THE WATER
There are several dangers lurking beneath the surface of these electoral waters. They focus on false statements about candidates, managing impartiality (for broadcast journalists only), reporting on opinion polls or exit polls and the libel dangers of publishing/broadcasting defamatory comment, for example, if one candidate calls another a racist. However qualified privilege can be used as a defence to libel, depending on the circumstances of report (e.g. a public meeting).
FALSE STATEMENTS ABOUT CANDIDATES
The Representation of the People Act 1983 makes it a criminal offence to make or publish a false statement of fact about the personal character or conduct of an election candidate, if the purpose of publishing the false statement of fact (rather than comment or opinion) is to affect how many votes he/she will get. Such statements, which if defamatory can lead to a libel action, are banned from the formal notification of an election to its end. That said, there is a potential defence for publishers, namely that they had reasonable grounds for believing the statement, when published, was true (even if turns out not be true). It is though, an offence to publish a false claim that a candidate has withdrawn from an election, if the publisher knows it is not true, and was published to promote another candidate. Such unethical behaviour could result in a fine of up to £5000 or, in the case of company directors, a conviction.
Ofcom’s editorial guidelines on elections and referendums are stated in section 6 of the Broadcasting Code. These apply to broadcasters other than the BBC. The guiding principle is:
To ensure that the special impartiality requirements in the Communications Act 2003 and other legislation relating to broadcasting on elections and referendums, are applied at the time of elections and referendums.
Some selected rules from section 6 which you may wish to consider when consuming media in election time:
6.2 Due weight must be given to the coverage of major parties (currently the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats) during the election period. Broadcasters must also consider giving appropriate coverage to other parties and independent candidates with significant views and perspectives.
6.4 Discussion and analysis of election and referendum issues must finish when the poll opens. (This refers to the opening of actual polling stations. This rule does not apply to any poll conducted entirely by post.)
6.5 Broadcasters may not publish the results of any opinion poll on polling day itself until the election or referendum poll closes. (For European Parliamentary elections, this applies until all polls throughout the European Union have closed.)
6.6 Candidates in UK elections, and representatives of permitted participants in UK referendums, must not act as news presenters, interviewers or presenters of any type of programme during the election period.
6.8 Due impartiality must be strictly maintained in a constituency report or discussion and in an electoral area report or discussion.
For some interesting, electorally related broadcasting coverage and subsequent Ofcom complaint rulings; http://consumers.ofcom.org.uk/2010/07/ofcom-rules-on-election-complaints/
SECTION 10 OF BBC EDITORIAL GUIDELINES
‘The BBC’s commitment to impartiality and fairness is under intense scrutiny when reporting election campaigns. Political parties are likely to seek to influence editorial decisions.’
‘Programme makers and other content producers should take all complaints seriously and be aware that anything they say may be construed as “BBC policy”. It should be explained to complainants that general complaints or allegations of bias must always be dealt with at a higher level, and the complaint should then be referred accordingly.’
‘We should make, and be able to defend, our editorial decisions on the basis that they are reasonable and carefully reached, with due impartiality. To achieve this 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 smaller parties should also receive some network coverage during the campaign.
•when producing UK-wide output, 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.
The way in which due impartiality is achieved between parties will vary, depending on the format, output and platform. It may be done in a single item, a single programme, a series of programmes or items, or over the course of the campaign as a whole. But programme makers and content producers must take responsibility for achieving due impartiality in their own output and not rely on other BBC content or services to redress any imbalance for them.’
The above illustrates the BBC’s guidelines which are similar to Ofcom’s regarding major and minor parties. For a topical and relevant report which resulted in the BBC Trust rejecting a complaint see http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2012/apr/05/bbc-london-mayor-election-coverage
On this case, if UKIP poll well it is possible that they could become a ‘major party’ and be entitled to the level of coverage Siobhan Benita desired. Also on the subject of UKIP, Chris Huhne’s ministerial resignation, for perverting the course of justice, sparked a by-election in Eastleigh. Whilst the Liberal Democrats won, the by-election was noticeable for the assent of UKIP who campaigned strongly on issues relating to EU migration. By-elections are often seen as a prism for such political debate.
OPINION AND EXIT POLLS
No person shall, in the case of a parliamentary or English/Welsh local government election, publish before the poll is closed–
(a) any statement relating to the way in which voters have voted at the election where that statement is (or might reasonably be taken to be) based on information given by voters after they have voted, or
(b) any forecast (=estimate) as to the result of the election which is (or might reasonably be taken to be) based on information so given.
Such publishing before polls have closed is a criminal offence with a possible £5000 fine or 6 month prison sentence. However it is permissible to publish opinion poll information of voting intentions obtained pre-voting. Also, a publication can report exit poll results and any associated forecast once polling has closed.
FINDING BALANCE ON CHOPPY SEAS
Broadcasters should aim to achieve cumulative balance between parties on a daily basis, facilitated by careful and realistic coverage. In anticipation of political scrutiny of your coverage, it is advised to keep an accurate log of party coverage. The chances of such political questioning could be mitigated by giving everyone a fair shot and resisting any temptation to be influenced by party behemoths. The following article shows how the political classes wish to engage with broadcasters http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/election_2010/8643220.stm However, the mutually beneficial and (perhaps inevitably) mutually destructive relationships between media organisations/ proprietors and politicians can be as complex and secretive as those between politicians and their financers. My piece on codes of practice touched upon such relations which have been firmly examined in the phone hacking scandal. For another report on the relationship between political classes and media organisations within an election context see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-18064730
LOOKING TO THE HORIZON
Familiarising oneself with election procedures and obtaining the ability to judge between election ‘banter’ and false statements, whilst remaining impartial, should enable a journalist to navigate these potentially choppy waters.
http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/broadcasting/broadcast-codes/broadcast-code/elections/ section 6 of Ofcom’s broadcasting code
http://www.bbc.co.uk/editorialguidelines/guidelines/ The BBC’s Editorial Guidelines
http://www.bbc.co.uk/editorialguidelines/page/guidelines-politics-practices-elections/ Section 10: Politics, Public Policy and Polls of The BBC’s Editorial Guidelines
http://consumers.ofcom.org.uk/2010/07/ofcom-rules-on-election-complaints/ Complaints to Ofcom during 2010 General election Campaign