Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Making the news

Early in the morning of the 23rd of May this year, I contacted the BBC to raise my concern about its coverage of the local elections in England and Northern Ireland. Now, I'm not a party political person (I tried that at one point and it didn't work out), but I wouldn't have needed my research degree either to identify the bias in this coverage: the Green Party, despite making impressive gains throughout the night, was almost completely ignored. I counted just three mentions of the party before midnight, there were a couple of minutes devoted to their story later on, and there was an interview with leader Natalie Bennett (looking impressively chipper) after 3am, when most viewers would have already gone to their beds. In expressing unhappiness with this situation, I was joined by people from across the political spectrum, and a substantial petition was later presented to BBC headquarters.

Today I finally got a reply from the BBC. It reads as follows:-

Please accept our apologies for the delay in replying. We understand our correspondents appreciate a quick response and we are sorry you had to wait on this occasion.

We are committed to impartial, balanced reporting but we appreciate that not everyone will agree with how we choose to cover a particular story.

In the case you have highlighted we felt it most newsworthy to report on the results of the three 'major' parties and UKIP, who finished second. The Conservatives won the election whilst Labour came third.

As you've pointed out, the Liberal Democrats were sixth, behind the Greens and an independent candidate. However, the fact remains that are [sic] a party in government which came third in the popular vote in the last General Election. Therefore we felt their performance to be both editorially relevant and of interest to our audience. But as explained above, such decisions are judgment calls which we recognise not everyone will agree with.

Let's address the issues this raises one at a time.

Firstly, that apology. It's notable that no reason is given for the delay, though I had been contacted briefly earlier to advise me that investigation would take some time. How long does it take to find out about an existing policy? If the explanation is so obvious, why couldn't it have been provided immediately?

Secondly, that commitment to balance - what exactly does it mean? Running the numbers (votes, percentage growth, comparative positioning, poll comparisons) makes that lack of coverage look distinctly unbalanced. As the letter goes on to explain that newsworthiness, not balance, was the prime consideration, it sees rather disingenuous to mention balance here.

Thirdly, whilst I acknowledge that UKIP did come second, the increase in their share of the vote was lower than that of the Greens and, notably, they had significantly fewer elected representatives in senior positions. If being in government is enough to give the LibDems consideration although they came sixth, ought not being represented in parliament to be a consideration when it comes to balancing coverage of the Greens against that of UKIP?

The most glaring point here, however, is this: that coverage of the Greens was missing right from the start of the programme, when they were several time lumped in with 'others'. At that point, the BBC did not know what the results of the vote would be. They made the decision to run extensive coverage of UKIP's story (actually disproportionate in relation to the major parties, too) and to exclude the Greens before the programme began.

There's another major point at issue here which the BBC's letter does not even try to address. Newsworthiness can sometimes explain not having room to mention something or someone in a short article. But this was a broadcast over six hours long. In that context, there is no need to make hard choices between subjects. There would have been ample room to properly cover the Greens' story and that of UKIP and the major parties.

It's generous of the BBC to explain to me that I may take a different point of view. As a commissioning editor (at Eye For Film and KaleidoScot) I understand the issue of editorial lines. As a sociology graduate, I understand the importance of anticipating bias in one's own work and work one is reviewing. The problem is that the BBC does not, as an organisation, acknowledge any of that. Rather it passes itself off as a neutral arbiter, delivering straight, unbiased facts. That makes slanted coverage like this deeply problematic.

On the night of the elections Natalie Bennett pointed out an interesting fact (which, from what I can determine, seems to bear up): the Greens were getting more new members per minute of airtime than any other party. In other words, there are a lot of people out there who are drawn to their politics once they know it's out there and know what it's about. in a context where overall levels of voting are falling lower and lower, doesn't the BBC owe it to potential voters to let them know what their options are?

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