Dear BBC…

Dear BBC,

I’d like you to reconsider your decision to ban the use of the word “reform” when your staff are reporting or commenting on the proposed changes to the voting system for the House of Commons (as reported in The Independent last month).

Given that the phrase “electoral reform” has been a widely used term for decades to describe all sorts of different proposals to change the electoral system and given that it has been widely used by proponents on all sides of those exchanges too, I’m surprised that you now are of the view that it isn’t an appropriate phrase for the BBC to use.

But what really baffles me is the continued use of “reform” by the BBC in all sorts of other contexts where the question of whether or not the changes are a good idea is being much debated in political circles and more widely.

Whether it is talking about “syllabus reform” in the UK, “economic reform” in Kazakhstan, “reform” to the political system in Jersey, “economic reform” in Haiti, “reform of the financial services” in Europe, “reform of the Common Agricultural Policy” or many other topics where proposed changes have prominent and vocal opponents, the BBC regularly uses the word “reform”. All of these examples are from stories current on the BBC website and dated as last editied within the last seven days.

My list is not even close to a comprehensive one of the last week alone, nor indeed does it cover such obvious examples as health care reform in the US. Not exactly an uncontroversial issue I hear…

So why single out electoral reform for this special treatment, or is the word reform going to be generally expunged from the BBC’s vocabulary? If the word reform is really going to be removed wholesale from the BBC’s output then, whilst a strange decision, I could at least appreciate the editorial consistency. But unless that is what the BBC is going to do, why single out electoral reform?

Yours etc.

The Yes to Fairer Votes campaign is running an online petition to the BBC on this issue. You can sign it here.

UPDATE: The BBC has now responded.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • “So why single out electoral reform for this special treatment,”

    Because there’s a forthcoming referendum on the issue, so the need for impartiality is far greater than simply discussing changes being made by a government. ‘Reform’ clearly implies that there was something wrong with the previous system. ‘Proposed changes’ is far more appropriate.

    Wikipedia’s definition:
    “Reform means to put or change into an improved form or condition; to amend or improve by change of color or removal of faults or abuses, beneficial change, more specifically, reversion to a pure original state, to repair, restore or to correct.”

    Good call by the BBC.

  • A bit more from wikipedia:
    “The UK government frequently uses the term “reform” to describe changes to public services, such as the National Health Service. However, these changes are not universally accepted as beneficial.”

    Exactly. Why should the BBC pander to political spin? There is an issue here in the (poor) methods of reporting used by our media. “The proposed changes, described by the government as reforms,…” is the way it should be done.

    Why should the BBC continue with using the word ‘reform’ just because it has done so inappropriately in the past? Why is a ‘liberal’ ‘democrat’ party trying to force its opinions on the BBC?

  • toryboysnevergrowup 10th Feb '11 - 11:15am

    I don’t know which is sillier the BBC trying to be prescriptive about the language used by the grown and professional adults they employ (who I presume will probably ignore such missive) or those who organise petitions/letters telling the BBC what to do on the matter.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 10th Feb '11 - 11:18am

    OTOH perhaps it would be possible to understand “electoral reform” in its more generic stance , if a certain party hadn’t been banging on for years trying to give it a very specific and narrow meaning……………………….

  • Topoftheleague 10th Feb '11 - 11:26am

    OED Definition:

    [with object]
    1 make changes in (something, especially an institution or practice) in order to improve it:
    the Bill will reform the tax system.

    The BBC is correct on this.

  • I support the ‘Yes’ campaign but I have to agree with @Steve
    At best AV only marginally improves the current system and many would see that as very debatable and it does not truly ‘Reform’ the voting system at all but merely tinkers with it, only true PR could be classed as real ‘Reform’
    If you seriously think that the BBC’s guidance on this is going to benefit the ‘No’ campaign then I think you under estimate the intelligence of the voters.

    I am often uncomfortable with the tone of the BBC towards the LibDem’s and the Coalition but a strongly suggest that if people keep attacking the BBC then it will ultimately be counter productive, people will start to switch off to the complaints however justified perhaps see it as just ‘toy throwing’.
    Criticism of the media should be kept to a minimum and be appropriate, personally I think this is both unjustified criticism and ill considered.

  • Andy Robinson 10th Feb '11 - 11:37am

    I support AV, but I really don’t understand what all the fuss is with this.

    If the word ‘reform’ does have positive connotations then the BBC is right to avoid using it as it should be neutral in its reporting on the issue. On the other hand, if it doesn’t have positive connotations, then it’s just another bit of editorial policy and won’t have a any effect on the campaign.

    Either way, no harm done.

  • I support the Yes campaign but agree with the BBC on this. Three obvious points (two made by others)

    1. This is a referendum so higher standards apply.
    2. The OED defines reform as being a positive statement.
    3. My US Oxford dictionary(I don’t have an English one to check) also lists re-form as a separate word, meaning ‘form or cause to form again , so the petition is incorrect there too.

  • I see no Iceberg 10th Feb '11 - 1:13pm

    “Reform” is politically an amorphous non-word to cover a multitude of sins.
    It’s no surprise it has negative connotations when Blair and now Cameron use it to mean whatever nutty scheme they dream up to bring in more privatisation by stealth, and/or cuts, like to the welfare system.

  • Scott Walker 10th Feb '11 - 6:51pm

    I hate to be the pedant, but Wikipedia is an encyclopaedia and not a dictionary. Having checked a number of reputable dictionaries the trend seems to be in how the word is used. As a noun it implies improvement, as a verb it is simply to form again. Therefore ‘Lib Dems reform the electoral system’ would mean no allusion to improvement but ‘Lib Dems want Electoral Reform’ might do.
    Not that I think the public will care: Is it a verb or is it a noun? Is it positive or is it neutral? What they should care about is do I want it or don’t I want it? I don’t think it helps people to make that decision when we cloud the matter with political correctness like ‘the proposed changes that the government describes as reforms’. ‘Electoral reforms’ is understood for what it is – so please let plain English prevail. This is the reason I have co-signed the letter.

  • @Scott Walker

    I’m a pedant and this discussion is about the use of the noun: ‘reform’, not the verb: ‘re-form’, which has a hyphen in it. Your argument about political correctness and plain english belongs on the message-boards of the Daily Mail, in my opinion. It is important that the BBC uses precise language and not political spin. As such, ‘electoral reform’ should not be used, especially in the run-up to an election.

  • I take it then we should refer to the Great Reform Act as the Representation of the People Act 1832?

  • Scott Walker 10th Feb '11 - 9:24pm

    I didn’t intend to offend you, if I have. I don’t want to turn this into a debate on punctuation, but there is no convention which says compound verbs must be hyphenated – and mostly, in modern English, they’re not.
    Getting back to the politics: I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one. I don’t believe the use of the word ‘reform’ is political spin in any way, and it astounds me that anyone does.
    As a Lib Dem campaigner and a candidate for the local elections, I knock on doors each and every week (in fact, in the time between writing my first comment and writing this one, canvassing is just what I’ve been doing). When I speak to people who question me on this referendum they freely use phrases like ‘electoral reform’. Nobody I’ve spoken to has ever been offended because of my use of such phrases either. I simply think that talking to people in language to which they have become accustomed, and understand, is the right thing to do.

  • Maggie Crane 28th Apr '13 - 11:33am

    Listening to Nick Clegg on TV this morning it was very hard to see whether it was Clegg or Cameron or Blair, there is no difference between them. Lib Dems are all for putting up horrendous windmills when everyone knows it takes thousands of these monstrosities around our country in order to produce any amount of electricity. Everything the Lib Dems do is against this country and protecting everybody else other than the residents of this country. Now the Lib Dems want to take money from the pensioners, whatever rubbish will they bring up next.

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