Opinion: Unfair and unbalanced – the scandal of print media referendum coverage

Buried amongst the furore caused by #harigate this week was a pretty damning ruling by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) against the Sun and the Daily Mail. The complaint in question was made in relation to the AV referendum nearly two months ago by Electoral Reform Services – the business arm of the Electoral Reform Society (ERS).

The Sun and Mail were asked by the PCC to print letters apologising for some articles run during the AV referendum campaign. The article which ran on page 2 of the Sun and the front page of the Mail quoted George Osborne after he stood up in Parliament to claim that the ERS, one of the major funders of the Yes campaign would benefit financially from a ‘yes’ vote. This story was then re-run by Sky News and the BBC – subsequent rebuttals gave the story legs across a range of national media outlets.

You can be forgiven for not noticing since few journalists like to turn the spotlight on their own profession’s sometimes questionable practices.

Let’s just think about the context in which this fallacious claim was printed:

  • The Chancellor of the Exchequer stands up and makes false claims designed to damage the credibility of the Yes campaign at a point in mid-April when the campaigns were running neck and neck in the polls.
  • Two newspapers with a combined daily circulation of six million reprint these controversial claims several days before the postal vote ballots drop and give no right of reply to the organisation involved.
  • A central plank of the No2AV campaign was the £250 million claim which, as David Blunkett later admitted, was also made up. The Sun and Mail took the lie one stage further, making it appear that not only did AV cost the taxpayer large sums of money but that the Yes campaigners were being made rich out of it. All totally false.
  • Polling day is 5th May yet the Press Complaints Commission takes nearly two months to rule against the papers despite the impact of their false claims potentially affecting the referendum vote of millions of people.
  • Despite the original prominence of the stories on page two of the sun and page . Of the Mail two short letters are the only required retraction.

This case and plenty of others like it in the referendum and the last general election highlight a huge imbalance in election media coverage between broadcast, which has strict balance guidelines and print which has no balance guidelines and near impunity when it comes to what they can print. Not only can print journalists take an angle on a story and decide whether or not the target individual or organisation has a right to reply, they can get away with repeating false or dubious claims safe in the knowledge the PCC will do little or nothing about it.

The PCC is toothless, stuffed full of self interested journalists and so weak it is unable to stop unscrupulous party hacks and biased journalists and editors misleading their readership on serious political issues.

What does this example actually demonstrate? That there was collusion between press and politicians to repeatedly mislead the public over a crucial constitutional issue to secure their own power base through illegitimate means.

Given the immense damage done by stories like these and the apparent impunity of the print press surely it’s time something was done about the ridiculous loopholes in media regulation and the PCC – a toothless, self serving regulatory body that allows journalists to get away with murder.

Andy May managed the regional campaigns staff at Yes to Fairer Votes and is a former Lib Dem party organiser.

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14 Comments

  • It has always fascinated me that the last Labour Government passed a law preventing individuals who are not on the Electoral register contributing to Political Parties, great. However Foreign owners of the media are allowed influence the British electorate, this is known as the ‘Free’ press and may not be questioned or controlled.

  • Didums, get over it, life’s not fair and your complaint helps in what way. You lost end of story; the only thing you can hope to gain from this is an understanding that people especially Tories ain’t nice,

  • A technicality on the grounds that voting machines were mentioned. I wasn’t even aware at the time that voting machines were the basis of the claim. I simply assumed that the added complexity of the AV would lead to ERS benefiting financially since they’re involved in running elections, and as it happened the referendum in question. That gross conflict on interest easily did as much damage to the yes campaign as any claims about the cost of counting machines. People don’t like to feel they’re being stitched up.

  • Old Codger Chris 3rd Jul '11 - 8:43am

    Lies about AV are the least of the harm done by certain sections of the press. While reforming the UK’s ridiculous libel laws, which often prevent the truth being told about the wealthy and powerful, we need affordable remedies against the press, who sometimes destroy the lives of innocent people.

    The PCC is a sick joke and the group which owns the Express / Daily Star is no longer even a member.

    As for AV – it’s a huge pity this rotten system was ever suggested as it was bound to set back the cause of real electoral reform whatever the referendum result.

  • The press in this Country is basically a propoganda machine for free-market extremists in the Conservative Party. It was never going to be fair about giving space to electoral reforms that put the voter above its financial interests. All the waffle in the world cannot undo the reality of the Lib Dems being in a coalition with a party supported by a press that sees social-liberalism as a threat. The Lib Dems are the Tories and the Press’ whipping boy. Not only that it’s become the voters whipping boy.

  • Harry Hayfield 4th Jul '11 - 9:46am

    Of course, we can’t ask for a do over of the referendum in the light of this report (or can we citing new evidence of electoral crimes)?

  • Some depressing comments here: they include one from somebody who apparently hasn’t even read the “made up” costs of voting machines in the leaflet circulated by the ‘No’ campaign to every UK householder. Another person implies that press smears are diminished in importance because they are about AV rather than full PR (yes, that tired old line again); whilst the scatter gun condemnation of all press being an arm of free-market extremists resonates with the observation that “people especially Tories ain’t nice”.

    So what do they want done about it…or should things just go on as they are?

    Andy May is performing a valuable service in bringing the burying of this judgement at least to the attention of LIb Dem Voice readers.
    That , presumably, so many LibDem voters are unconcerned these mass circulation titles will continue to allow themselves to prejudice their readers with lies that to those same readers then becomes their truth escapes the majority of, but thankfully not all, commentators and contributors to this site.

  • >any argument that the referendum was lost because the “no” campaign didn’t play fair is really a confession that people cannot be trusted with representative democracy.

    More like proof that you can fool some of the people (etc).

    Some people will believe whatever lies or scaremongering or propaganda they are fed by whoever shouts the loudest.
    To say that recognising that leads to advocating ditching democracy is just silly.
    The answer is to find a way of shouting louder and more clearly in future.
    Which the ‘yes’ campaign failed to do.

    Maybe when Murdoch dies, his titles won’t have quite so much power?
    But a stronger PCC would be in the interests of all.

  • I had read about the cost of vote counting machines, however wasn’t aware that the accusations of ERS benefiting from AV were based on them and not the undeniable fact that elections would become more complex and expensive to run.

    In a similar vein to jedibeeftrix, I also think that if the electorate were tricked into voting the “wrong” way with only a yes or no question, how on earth would they cope with a preferential voting system? Presumably AV supporters want a bureaucratic and unaccountable agency to assess and strike down electoral claims.

  • @Charles
    No mention has been made of the electorate being tricked into voting either way. I suspect you are not a supporter of electoral reform anyway, but that’s your prerogative.
    Just to illustrate how it works, for your benefit, with these two papers: today you needn’t bother to buy The Sun if you want to read about the Milly Dowler voice mail allegations – there is no mention of it. The Daily Mail has scores of readers online criticizing its decision to almost bury the story in its print edition (get the connection with what Andy May writes?) so it has decided to drop the “Wills and Kate ride the waves” headline as their chosen one, David Cameron, weighs in with a statement about the hacking. But note that it downgraded the story until then.
    By contrast, when someone who is not chosen, like Vince Cable, voices his concerns about Murdoch he’s called “a plonker” by The Sun and “vain and ruthless” by the Mail.
    That’s how it works.

  • Maybe there’s a glimmer of hope that things will have to change for the PCC since this excellent piece was written.http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-14031661

  • what a waste of £80million + of taxpayers money on a referendum on av. you pick one or more,in order of preference. the one with the least votes gets shared with the remaining candicates,and on and on till their is a winner,you HOPE? in australia, the av vote,ended in a draw. as our 1st past the post system is fair and democratic,and used by 60 countries across the world? win or loose,at least your vote never disappeared,to any tom,dick or harry for the farcical av system.

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