The local elections in England last week produced two examples of quandaries for broadcasters.
The big story for the BBC and other commentators was the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), led by a curiously charismatic Nigel Farage. UKIP are a right-wing populist party promoting withdrawal from the European Union. In this respect they are related to similar parties in many other EU member countries. UKIP has no seats in the UK Parliament and is unlikely to gain many in 2015. Its main impact is as a ‘protest party’ for voters who feel increasingly disenfranchised by the major political parties. UKIP does have other ‘policies’, some of them favouring extreme solutions to UK problems, but these are rarely discussed.
The BBC (and the other UK-based news broadcasters) are constrained by public service broadcasting remits demanding impartiality and balance. This means they must try to give airtime to each of the major parties in an election campaign. As the number of parties expands this becomes more difficult. UKIP put up hundreds of candidates across the councils polling on May 22 and they couldn’t be ignored. Indeed they polled a significant number of votes and surprisingly won seats on councils where it had seemed very unlikely. The council elections took place on the same day as the European elections in which UKIP were forecast to be the most supported party (but which didn’t count the votes until May 25th). UKIP’s success is certainly a ‘story’ – and a big story. All news organisations must go after the big story.
But UKIP isn’t the only story. The Green Party in the UK has been growing steadily in terms of local councillors elected and it also has one MP in the UK Parliament (UKIP doesn’t as yet have any). The Greens won less seats than UKIP but overall they increased their vote more successfully. During the campaign and during the analysis of the results the Greens were barely mentioned whereas Farage and UKIP were the headline story. ‘Balance’ in this case is a judgement about the ‘news values’ of the story and the factual information available. On this occasion the BBC in particular were criticised for focusing too much on (and giving over too much airtime to) Nigel Farage and UKIP.
This was brought into sharp relief in an aside on BBC Radio 5 Live. A listener contacted the Drivetime programme on May 23rd and asked for more hard information about the poll results (including how the Greens were actually doing). The response was that there was too much information to broadcast and that the listener should go to the BBC website. But there are still many BBC licence fee payers who do not have broadband and cannot access the web – and others who are driving during ‘Drivetime’ (4-7pm). Denying these listeners access to information is unfair. Again this is a question of balancing a remit to provide factual news and a need to find a ‘sexy’ story – the success of UKIP with its appeal to xenophobia and ability to win seats from the main parties. And again some would contend that the BBC got the balance wrong.