[AMENDED TO REFLECT THAT THE BBC TRUST RATHER THAN OFCOM ADMINISTER THE RULES]
The saga of the TV debates for the General Election has rumbled on over the weekend. The accusations that David Cameron is ‘chickening out’ of the debates have been gaining in volume, and the broadcasters let it be known that they might ’empty chair’ Cameron if he continues to refuse to participate. Then, on Sunday, a story appeared in the Independent that suggested that the real chickens won’t be Cameron but the BBC. According to the Independent, the BBC are trying to avoid confronting Cameron, and are even considering giving him a separate programme if he ducks out of the planned debate.
‘Sources at the BBC’ have told the Independent that:
“…to comply with election and Ofcom rules about impartiality, if it hosts a debate without Mr Cameron, it would feel compelled to let him have his own programme, an in-depth interview or allow an extended party political broadcast. It is believed that the other broadcasters would follow a similar approach as the BBC.”
But can this actually be true? On the face of it, this appears to be the opposite of impartiality – indeed, it appears to be rewarding Cameron for his avoiding the debates. The BBC’s rules on impartiality are derived from the Communications Act 2003 (as amended) and the Broadcasting Act 1996 (as amended) – that is, they are backed up by legislation. They are effectively similar to those rules set out in the Ofcom Broadcasting Code (which can be found online here), though it is the BBC Trust rather than Ofcom who administer the rules. There are two things immediately worthy of note:
- That the words in the act – including the word impartiality – are generally to be interpreted literally; and
- That there is no specific guidance about debates – mainly because debates are not a traditional part of the electoral process in the UK.
Still, it should be possible to work out what the rules mean in this context. The relevant parts of the code are as follows:
5.5 Due impartiality on matters of political or industrial controversy and matters relating to current public policy must be preserved on the part of any person providing a service (listed above). This may be achieved within a programme or over a series of programmes taken as a whole.
Meaning of “series of programmes taken as a whole”:
This means more than one programme in the same service, editorially linked, dealing with the same or related issues within an appropriate period and aimed at a like audience. A series can include, for example, a strand, or two programmes (such as a drama and a debate about the drama) or a ‘cluster’ or ‘season’ of programmes on the same subject.
No precise guidance is given about how to apply this to debates – because, as noted above, there is no guidance specifically about debates. You could, and perhaps the BBC is, interpret the piece about ‘series of programmes taken as a whole’ to mean that another programme would fit the bill, but helpfully there is an extra bit of guidance in the section on elections that seems to establish the principle. This is in Section 6, which applies to elections, though about ‘[c]onstituency coverage and electoral area coverage in election’:
6.9 If a candidate takes part in an item about his/her particular constituency, or electoral area, then candidates of each of the major parties must be offered the opportunity to take part. (However, if they refuse or are unable to participate, the item may nevertheless go ahead.)
So what does this all mean? Well, first of all, it seem entirely clear that the Ofcom Broadcasting Code does not ‘require’ the BBC or other broadcasters to offer Cameron his own programme. As I’ve mentioned twice before, there are no specific rules about debates that would bind them in this way. Indeed, as also shown, the general approach should be the opposite: the rules about specific constituency events should set the principle: if someone refuses or is unable to participate, as long as they have been offered the opportunity (and Cameron has) the debates should nevertheless still go ahead.
Indeed, impartiality should mean that if the BBC does offer Cameron a separate programme, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg (and potentially others) should be able to demand one for themselves. I suspect each of these leaders’ advisers has already worked this out – if they haven’t, they should have!
Personally, I rather dislike the debates – they make our electoral system seem too ‘presidential’, they increase the focus on personality rather than policy, and they end up giving ‘telegenic’ politicians an advantage that may bear little relation to their intelligence, morality etc etc – but if we are to have them, we should be fair about it. If Cameron thinks they’re a bad idea, he should have been honest about that from the start – but he wasn’t.
I’m not sure Cameron is a ‘chicken’ about this – I suspect he’s making precise calculations about risks and benefits – but if the BBC is really trying to suggest that they are bound to give him his own programme, I think they really are being chickens, and that there is certainly not the obligation on them that has been suggested. They should be simple and straightforward: if Cameron wants to be included, include him. if he doesn’t, then go ahead anyway. That’s what the law, and the Ofcom Broadcasting Code, as I see it, requires. The BBC Trust, who follow the same legislation that backs up the Ofcom rules, should follow the same rules.