The political parties UKIP and the BNP had much more coverage than the BBC Trust had decided they should have as individual producers sought extra ratings by featuring those parties. As a result of the extra BBC coverage, UKIP won an additional MEP seat and the BNP won two MEP seats for the first time.
The BBC Trust decided at its 15th April 2009 meeting to give the same coverage to UKIP as it would to the three main traditional parties (Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats) because UKIP had done well in the 2004 EU elections even though by early 2009 it had dropped way back in popularity. However an analysis for the Jury Team by Taylor Nelson Sofres (TNS), the major market research agency, shows that this is not what happened. TNS analysed the total number of items broadcast on Radio 4, BBC1 and BBC2 over the election period 28th April to 6th June 2009. This shows that UKIP was featured 58 times whereas the Conservatives only had 50 and 45 mentions respectively and the Liberal Democrats less than half as much as UKIP with 28 mentions, a complete distortion of the BBC policy of equal treatment for these four parties.
At the same meeting the BBC Trust agreed to give some national coverage to the Green Party but none to the BNP. However subsequently Helen Boaden, Head of BBC News, told her staff to give as much coverage to the BNP as to the Green Party. In fact the BNP got 38 mentions, more than the 33 of the Green Party and the 28 of the Liberal Democrats.
The Jury Team is committed to changing the way that the BBC decides on election coverage which is mainly on the basis of the results in the previous equivalent election. Sir Paul Judge, Founder of the Jury Team, said:
“By using mainly the results of the last election to decide on coverage the BBC stultifies our political system and entrenches the status quo, not living up to the BBC’s Charter requirement of innovation. People are fed up with the existing political parties. People want to vote for ‘none of the above’. In the 2009 EU elections, two thirds of the electorate did not vote. In the last general election in 2005, 40% of the electorate did not vote but the BBC ignored those licence payers in its election coverage. The BBC should be giving much more coverage to new political parties and ideas.”
By mainly basing election coverage decisions on what happened at the previous election the BBC is failing to take into account:
- the increasing volatility of the electorate
- the fact that the largest party at a general election is the Abstainers and the BBC must strive to find candidates and parties who can represent that two-fifths of the electorate
- the latest polling evidence
- the formation of new political parties and movements
“The BBC’s impartiality requires that it treats all candidates the same and should give news coverage to all parties predominantly on the basis of the number of candidates they are putting forward rather than on the basis of previous elections. It is essential that the BBC does give more publicity to new parties in order to help to break the stultifying stranglehold of the current political system.
The BBC must consult widely about their election guidelines as it is quite clear that the decisions made about coverage can affect the result of the election. These decisions must no longer be made in private by the BBC Trust or, even worse, by an individual executive. The BBC also needs better to monitor its election coverage to ascertain what actually happens. It is quite clear from the analysis above by TNS that the coverage policies were not translated into actual coverage. The BBC needs to take its responsibilities for democracy more seriously.”
This need to publicise all strands of opinion on an equal basis was set out in a letter to The Times from David Jordan, BBC Director of Editorial Policy and Standards, who wrote in August 2009:
“Our job is to find the facts, test a wide range of opinion fairly and rigorously and let the audience, armed with the best assessment of the evidence we can provide, make up its own mind.”
The Jury Team is working to persuade the BBC to implement this clear policy in its political coverage.