Six months on, what’s the verdict on TV news coverage of the election?
TV news coverage of this year’s general election has been analysed in detail by Stephen Cushion and Richard Sambrook and their team at Cardiff University. Post-campaign interviews were also carried out with heads of news and senior editors from the UK’s major broadcasters. Six months on, we asked Stephen Cushion to reflect on what they found — and what they’d like to see broadcasters do differently next time.
The 2015 General election will be remembered most for the result — a Conservative majority — which few had predicted.
But in the run up to the election, how was the campaign covered? From our study of the UK’s evening TV news bulletins we raise six debating points about the focus of coverage and how the next election could be reported.
The horse-race dominated coverage
All broadcasters spent more time on the process of politics — the game or strategy behind the campaign — than reporting policy issues. While the BBC was the most policy-driven, all broadcasters, particularly towards the end of campaign, prominently reported the prospect of a hung parliament and the closeness of the ‘horse-race’. This point was conceded by head of BBC News, James Harding, who suggested that “coalitionology” informed much broadcast coverage
Since the ideological differences between parties have become wider since Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader, it could be that the 2020 campaign will be more about policy positions. That would represent a major shift in TV news coverage.
Polls distorted campaign
Process-driven stories were fuelled by misleading polls which influenced the nature of the coverage. The polling industry itself is considering why they were so inaccurate, but broadcasters too could reflect on how they covered polls. Many heads of news/senior editors suggested they will be far more suspicious of polls in future campaigns, which might, again, increase a focus on policy.
While it is easy to be clever in hindsight, we analysed every reference to a poll during the campaign and discovered they were very rarely reported with margins of errors or caveats about their reliability. This is important to reflect on because the polls distorted the campaign contest and may have had important political implications. The apparent closeness of the race, for example, heightened the possibility of a Labour Party/Scottish National Party coalition, which might have influenced how people voted. Polls will need to be handled with far more care in future elections.
Exposing policy evasion
Since news about the process of the campaign overshadowed much of the election, there was no sustained focus on policy. Indeed, some of the most important issues according to voters — health, education and immigration — represented a small fraction of airtime on the evening bulletins. The economy was the policy area most reported.
The heads of news/senior editors pointed out in our interviews that broadcasters did attempt to scrutinise policies, such as regularly asking about the Conservative Party for further detail about the £12bn cuts in welfare spending. But the parties were not forthcoming in clarifying their position — or simply evaded answering.
In future elections, could broadcasters draw greater attention to parties’ lack of transparency about specific policy pledges and/or spending commitments?
Many national newspapers enhanced their partisanship compared to previous election campaigns. But did TV news follow their agenda? We examined every policy item and asked whether it was reported by newspapers before being aired on television. Overall, a third of policy items, which translated into approximately two-thirds of airtime across TV news, were previously published in the press.
However, this should not be interpreted as broadcasters slavishly following the agenda of newspapers. Far from it, as broadcasters gave more context and balanced perspectives to policy issues. But there were moments — a front page Daily Telegraph letter from business leaders supporting the Conservative Party, for example, or a personal attack by Michael Fallon in The Times on Ed Miliband’s defence policy — clearly generated by right-wing newspapers that were widely reported on TV news.
Needless to say, all our interviewees were aware of the partisan tactics of newspapers and insisted that their news selection was based on news values. But since news values are far from politically neutral, that raises questions about how broadcasters make impartial judgements in news selection.
Interpreting ‘due impartiality’
Broadly speaking, broadcasters covered the parties according to their ‘major’ or ‘minor’ party status (as measured by Ofcom or advised by the BBC Trust). While all the heads of news/senior editors were committed to maintaining ‘due impartiality’, many editorial decisions were driven by news values rather than quantifying the relative degree of airtime that parties received. For example, Nicola Sturgeon was particularly prominent as a result of her appearances in the TV debates, stories about her in the press and because of the SNP’s electoral prospects and potential to form a coalition.
We thus identified some notable imbalances in how much airtime was given to parties and their respective leaders between broadcasters. However, in an interview with one of Ofcom’s editorial standards team, this was not viewed as broadcasters breaching their impartiality requirements. To quote Ofcom’s guidelines, “due weight is a flexible term and does not mean equal coverage”.
In considering regulation in future elections, this begs the question — how useful is the ‘minor’ or ‘major’ party status during the campaign if broadcasters have such flexibility? Should it be abolished or policed more robustly?
Towards a more independent media agenda?
With the exception of election night and the famous exit poll predicting a Conservative majority, many journalists and commentators suggested the campaign was dull and overly stage-managed by parties. Many heads of news/senior editors agreed that parties sought to closely control how their leaders appeared on TV, but insisted they attempted to ‘de-spin’ campaign events.
We examined every election item that featured journalists ‘on the campaign trail’ and found moments when broadcasters deconstructed the parties’ rallies to different degrees. However, approximately two-thirds of items did not seek to question the spin behind the parties’ campaigns. And yet, what appeared on TV news did not always reflect the reality of a campaign event. This was memorably exposed by Niall Paterson, a Sky News correspondent, who tweeted the wide shot of a Conservative Party event in Cornwall many broadcasters chose not to highlight. It showed the campaign rally was held in a huge barn with closed access to the general public and a relatively small audience of largely Tory activists in attendance.
Could broadcasters in future elections draw greater attention to such highly staged campaign events, for example, or more regularly expose the image so carefully crafted by party spin-doctors? Many heads of news/senior editors agreed more could be done to challenge the increasingly sophisticated machinery of campaigning. But in practice it requires a brave journalist to break from the pack and a strong editorial team to withstand the pressure applied from parties. One approach could be for broadcasters to adopt a more independent agenda from parties, driven by policy issues rather than newsworthy events over the campaign.
The Cardiff TV news election team monitored Channel 5 at 17:00 BST, Channel 4 at 19:00, and BBC, ITV and Sky News at 22:00. While all broadcasters reported the election in other media and programming beyond these nightly bulletins, these remain some of the most watched sources of news in the UK, despite the growing importance of online or social media platforms. The media research was carried out by Richard Thomas, Allaina Kilby, Marina Morani and Sue Bisson.
Originally published at www.bbc.co.uk on November 13, 2015.