Broadcasters should take firm line against Tory bullies

by Bill Emmott | 29.11.2019

Attention and intimidation. Those are the watchwords of modern aggressive political campaigning, as deployed by such as Silvio Berlusconi in Italy over the past two decades, by Donald Trump in 2016, by Vote Leave in the 2016 referendum and now by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.

Stunts like Michael Gove’s attempt to gatecrash the Channel Four leaders debate on climate last nightfall firmly in this pattern. However outrageous the behaviour, the important thing for the campaign is to be talked about. That the real issue was that the Prime Minister had boycotted the debate was thereby sidelined.

Such attention-grabbing disregard for normal rules of behaviour is, of course, to be expected from those who gladly put deceitful claims on the side of their bus during the referendum campaign. But it has also been accompanied by efforts at intimidation of broadcasters.

The letter of complaint sent to Ofcom, the UK’s media and communications regulator, by the Conservative Party’s communications chief about the refusal to admit Gove to the climate debate is a case in point. It was accompanied by a briefing to the Daily Telegraph by unnamed “Tory source” warning that a new Conservative government will be looking hard to broadcasting licences and the status of public broadcasters such as Channel Four.

The threat is outrageous while the complaint is disingenuous. Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code is crystal clear about the responsibilities of broadcasters during elections and referendums: they must show “due impartiality”.

The Guidance Notes published alongside the code make it clear that the format and broadcast of debates between leaders and candidates is up to the broadcasters themselves to decide upon. But they must still employ “due impartiality” in how they handle them.

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    When the chair of Ofcom’s special elections committee responds to the Tory complaint, he should point out this requirement in clear terms. It would surely not be “impartial” to accept non-leaders foisted upon the other leaders at the last minute, as in Gove’s stunt.

    Similarly, we do not know exactly why a date has not yet been set for Boris Johnson’s interview with Andrew Neil, even if many have speculated that Conservative Party HQ is afraid he may be subjected to a forensic, merciless grilling of the sort given to Jeremy Corbyn earlier this week. We have no grounds to take seriously rumours that the Tories have been pressing for Johnson to be interviewed instead by someone else, such as Andrew Marr.

    But in response to the Tories’ prevarication, the BBC, like other broadcasters should and can stand firm. Their responsibility is to show “due impartiality” in the interviews they record and broadcast, which means having all the leaders grilled in clearly equivalent circumstances.

    All parties play fast and loose with the media when they think they can get away with it. Incoming administrations also commonly use threats about financing, licensing or journalistic access to try to coerce journalists to tread carefully and even censor themselves. But during election campaigns, the U.K., like other modern democratic countries, have rules to govern media behaviour, for good reasons of reducing bias and protecting the free flow of good quality information. That makes it even more vital that regulators such as Ofcom enforce and defend those rules vigorously. And that politicians respect those rules too.

    Edited by Hugo Dixon

    Categories: Brexit, UK Politics

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