The BBC has just published a draft of the internal guidelines for its election coverage. The 14 page document is similar to the guidance at previous elections and includes a set of sensible rules which other media outlets would do well to emulate, including:
There will be no online votes or SMS/text votes attempting to quantify support for a party, a politician or a party political policy issue.
Given the risks of party supporters attempting to pack audience feedback sections, the guidelines also wisely say:
The BBC will not broadcast or publish numbers of e-mails, texts or other communications received on either side of any issue connected to the campaign.
On balance of coverage between the parties, the key criteria is:
Previous electoral support in equivalent elections is the starting point for making judgements about the proportionate levels of coverage between parties.
However, other factors can be taken into account where appropriate, including evidence of variation in levels of support in more recent elections, changed political circumstances (e.g. new parties or party splits) as well as other evidence of current support. The number of candidates a party is standing may also be a factor.
What this does not address head on is that only a minority of seats are now Labour-Conservative contests. The majority either have someone else in first or second, or are three way (or more) contests. Coverage which is dominated by Labour and the Conservatives (which is what the form of words implies) will in fact end up not reflecting the actual contests in the majority of the country.
The expected brevity of reporting is highlighted by the comment that:
Full-length reports (e.g. 3 or 4 minute packages) about specific electoral areas should refer – as a minimum – to an online list of all candidates and parties standing.
When a “full-length” report is only 3 or 4 minutes, this is not going to be an election where we can expect much in the way of in-depth reports from the BBC.
Despite these caveats, the overall tenor of the BBC’s intentions is good – and far better than what is often seen in local newspapers with the idea of “balance” at election time becoming an excuse either to report nothing or only to allow very brief, turgid snippets. Instead, the BBC says:
The intention of these guidelines is to encourage vigorous debate and to give a higher profile to candidates of all parties in general without giving unfair advantage to one candidate or party over another.
The BBC’s draft guidelines also repeat what is now long standing BBC policy of not commissioning opinion polls to ascertain voting intention levels. Although the policy was originally born in large part by doubts over the accuracy of opinion polls and the wisdom of focusing on the horse race nature of politics, it is also now the case that there are so many general voting intention polls (even hitting record levels) that the BBC hardly needs to add to the number.
Freed from the burden which media outlets feel of the need to headline and big up their own polls, the BBC could fill a useful role in reporting polls – and calling out the exaggerated reporting of small shifts as major moves. The guidelines are hopeful on this, saying the BBC’s policy is
to report the findings of voting intentions polls in the context of trend. The trend may consist of the results of all major polls over a period or may be limited to the change in a single pollster’s findings. Poll results which defy trends without convincing explanation should be treated with particular scepticism and caution.
The guidelines cover both the general election and May’s round of local elections. Assuming nothing dramatic happens on the dates for these, the guidelines in their final form will come into force on 29th March.
Here are the full guidelines: