Written by: John Glover, Senior Content Policy Executive in Ofcom Content and Standards
Whether you love or loathe politics, there’s no hiding place this year. The General Election is no longer lurking on the horizon – it’s already looming large in the foreground. Battle stations are drawn; party machines are ready to rumble; and the voters are preparing for a daily pounding from political propaganda.
If there’s ever a time for community radio to serve its audience and help cut through the fog and confusion, surely it’s when the country’s whole future is up for grabs. And it’s not only national power that’s on the line – in many areas there are local council elections too.
So, why should there be anecdotal evidence emerging that some local radio stations are running scared of covering the elections? What are they afraid of? Surely not the Ofcom Broadcasting Code?
If so, think again – because the Code is actually much easier to work with than some community radio operators seem to think. Sure, there are special rules governing coverage during election periods – but that’s just a reflection of the vital role media can play in making sense of our democratic processes. Take a closer look at the rules, and it soon becomes clear that one simple principle underpins them all – it’s about being fair and impartial. Once that is understood, compliance is actually pretty easy.
Of course, stations of all sizes can sometimes get it wrong – like the ethnic community station so worried about the British National Party it urged all its listeners to vote Labour to keep them out; or the channel which thought it might be okay for one of its presenters to carry on as normal while they fought for a local council seat at the same time; or the station which invited candidates of all parties to take part in an hour-long debate, and thought it could go ahead anyway when all but one of the parties said they couldn’t provide a speaker. Now that would have been an interesting ‘debate’, wouldn’t it? Luckily, someone realised the problem in the nick of time.
All of which brings us neatly back to where we started: these particular scenarios are so clearly not fair and impartial that it’s difficult to understand why they got so far.
So, let’s come at this from a different angle. I’d suggest this golden rule for broadcasters planning an item at election time: think about things from a candidate’s point of view. Then answer this simple question before going ahead: if I were standing for election, would I think the actual output – as transmitted – is fair? If the answer is no, it probably breaches the rules.
That said, there’s no excuse for not reading the relevant bits of the Code yourself. They’re contained in Section Six (http://www.ofcom.org.uk/tv/ifi/codes/bcode/) and they’re really not that tricky. But I’ll summarise a few of the highlights (you can turn to the Code itself for the actual wording):
- Due weight must be given to major parties. In England, that’s Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat. In addition, there’s the SNP for broadcasts in Scotland; and there’s Plaid Cymru in Wales. The major parties in Northern Ireland are DUP; Sinn Fein; SDLP and UUP.
What does this mean? Well, it reflects the fact that our political system has big parties and little parties. The big parties are those that are most likely to end up controlling governments, assemblies and councils. Their views are important and should be duly prominent in any fair coverage. There’s no requirement for all major parties to appear in each and every item – so long as overall coverage is fair and impartial. As we’ve already seen, that probably wouldn’t include an hour-long ‘debate’ with only one participant! Keep asking that question: if I was a candidate in this election, would I think the output is fair?
- Other parties should receive election coverage as appropriate.
What does this mean in practice? Actually, it’s a judgement call for broadcasters. In some areas there might be significant support for UKIP or the Greens or even a well-backed independent candidate. The best people to judge what is fair and impartial in the particular circumstances (and taking account of proper evidence, of course) are the local experts – you!
- If a candidate takes part in an item about their own constituency or council ward, then candidates of each of the major parties must be offered an opportunity to take part.
That’s pretty straightforward – and a refusal by one need not stop the item from going ahead, as long as the offer has been made and the output overall remains fair and impartial (always the same principle). It might, for example, mean summarising the known views of the non-participant.
- Candidates standing for election must not act as presenters or interviewers of any type of programme during the election period.
This is also absolutely clear and unambiguous, so it’s surprising how many radio stations seek Ofcom guidance on this rule – “but she’s only presenting a travel programme”, they say, or “he’s only a sports presenter”. It doesn’t matter. Being on air in whatever capacity gives a candidate a prominence that is denied to their opponents. It’s not fair.
I think that’s enough rules for now – but I do hope I’ve demonstrated how a simple understanding of the underlying principle of fairness and impartiality can help unpick the mystique of those ‘special’ rules governing elections. It would be a great shame if community radio stations steered clear of politics at the very time when they have so much to offer their audiences: the vital local perspective on the big issues of the day.
Finally, if you’re still in doubt, there’s Ofcom’s trump card. If anyone running a community radio station wants guidance on how to apply the rules in a specific instance, just ask us.
Ahead of transmission, we can’t ever promise that your broadcast won’t breach the rules – it’ll depend how it’s handled at the time. And we won’t ever ‘pre-clear’ a programme (it wouldn’t be right for a regulator to start vetting programmes). But, if you need it, we will always help by giving advice on what things you should be thinking about when making your own decisions. That’s what we’re here for. Use us.
A little bit about John Glover who we thank for taking the time to write this article and respond to emailed queries:
I am Senior Content Policy Executive in Ofcom Content and Standards. My particular expertise is in public service broadcasting, especially news, elections, and programmes for the Nations, regions and localities.
I was project manager for a major Ofcom report on the future of broadcast news (New News Future News) and looked after sections on Local Television and Journalism for last year’s Ofcom review of local media.
My previous career was in television news, having worked for ITN and for Central TV and London News Network. I was programme editor of London Tonight (Carlton/LWT) from 1992 to 1998.