Danger! Spokespersons making constituency points

Following the broadcasting code workshop, some attendees asked for clarification about the above point which can be found on the slides uploaded to the ‘acts, codes and rules’ page.

One attendee came away with the impression that ‘a candidate can’t talk about what they’d do in the constituency when on the air’.

John Glover at Ofcom responds: Briefly, there are special rules governing constituency reports during election times. If a candidate takes part in coverage about their own constituency, then each of the other candidates from the major parties must be given a chance to take part.

The warning to which you refer relates to a specific sort of circumstance, as outlined below: A government minister or opposition spokesman is perfectly entitled to make a general point about policy (e.g. health/education/immigration etc) in an election report on the national issues. But you need to remember that these people are also candidates standing for election in a specific constituency. If they illustrate a general policy point by making reference to something specifically related to their constituency, you could have a problem (e.g. I think the national policy on hospital closures is terrible – and in my own constituency I’m fighting to save the A and E at the local infirmary where jobs are on the line and the local voters are up in arms). That’s clearly turning a national point into a constituency matter – and the candidate’s major party opponents will need to be invited to respond if a broadcaster chose to run that clip.

If the candidate stuck to general policy, no problem. I’m sure you get the principle.

Another thing you should be careful about is candidates ringing into phone-in programmes to make constituency points. The same issues could apply, so there’s an obvious danger of putting them to air.

A response from a station was: I imagine we will mostly be approached by local prospective councillors. As they are aiming to be elected locally, how can a station avoid this sort of situation aside from ensuring each candidate is invited on?

John responded: The whole purpose of the Code in this area is to ensure fair treatment for all candidates in any electoral area. So, if a candidate is appearing in an item about their local ward in a council election, it is the case that other candidates from (at least) the major parties should be offered a similar opportunity to take part.

The council leader or the leader of another party is perfectly free to make general points about the local council – as are spokesmen/women on particular matters – but as soon as they refer to specific issues affecting their own electoral ward then the rules kick in, I’m afraid. It’s about being fair and impartial.

Broadcasting politics: advice from Ofcom

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.

JG 01/02/10

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.