Party Political Broadcasting Review

A Response from mediawatch-uk to a consultation paper issued by The Electoral Commission on 28 June 2002.

mediawatch-uk believes that Party Political Broadcasts are essential to any democratic information society.

T

elevision and Radio are now primary sources of political information for many citizens and complement newspapers in this regard. In a mature democratic society it is surely a right of every citizen to know what each political party has to say for itself and what policies are being advocated, especially at General and local Elections (6.7). This is essential if informed decisions about casting votes to be confidently made.

mediawatch-uk has some sympathy for the view expressed in the consultation paper that Party Political Broadcasts tend to be avoided or ignored largely because of their content and presentation. It is evident from recent low election turnout figures that these broadcasts have not overcome the problem of 'voter apathy'. However, this is not the fault of the broadcasters. It is a problem for the political parties to overcome rather than a reason for stopping the broadcasts.

mediawatch-uk believes that time for PPBs should be allocated by every licensed television and radio service. It should be part of their broadcasting licence and agreement to make this provision free of charge. This should be a requirement enshrined in law rather than a favour granted at the whim of the regulator or the broadcaster.

Every political party, which meets the prescribed criteria on, for example, the number of candidates, should be entitled to political broadcasts. Because this is a public information service such access to the airwaves should not be dependent upon payment of fees. Broadcasting is a very lucrative enterprise and can well afford such provision, which is clearly in the public interest.

mediawatch-uk is aware that politicians from all parties are selectively interviewed in news and current affairs programmes. However, these tend to feature only in the schedules of public service channels and not in subscription channels that do not specialise in news or current affairs.

We note the observation made in 'The Challenge for Parliament', a Report of the Hansard Society Commission on Parliamentary scrutiny, that "the media has superseded Parliament so that the main arena of British political debate is now the broadcasting studio rather than the Chamber of the House of Commons Television allows politicians to communicate directly with voters much more effectively than anything they say in the Chamber".

In recent years multi-channel television has become a reality which offers a wide choice of channels to subscribers who may opt not to view public service channels where political debate and discussion occurs. Audience fragmentation is a consequence of multi-channel television and this lessens the overall influence and reach of political debate and discussion. To overcome this a 'must carry' rule should be applied, at least, for PPBs (6.5).

There should also be a statutory requirement with regard to scheduling. Clearly it is pointless to allow time if such broadcasts are at the margins when audiences are likely to be the smallest. Each licensed service must be required by the regulator to produce an audience analysis in order to determine when ratings are highest. It is at these times when PPBs should be shown in order to maximise their reach (7.10). When OFCOM becomes fully operational, in 2003, the attitude to PPBs should be part of the Performance Review required under the new Communication Act.

Paid political advertising (4.5) is not allowed within the present regulatory system because only the large wealthy parties can afford such expenditure. On balance it is better to disallow all parties so that the less well off, whose policies may be attractive to voters, are not subject to discrimination owing simply to financial constraint.

We have no objection to PPBs being shown in 'blocks' (6.11). Indeed, this could be an advantage for voters allowing direct comparison of stated policies. This approach to PPBs should complement the existing approach rather than replace it. The provision of information for the electorate should assume a higher priority than the convenience of broadcasting schedulers (7.11).

We have no objection to interactive functions being used in PPBs (6.13). This capability, made possible by digital technology, has proved to be very useful and an added attraction in other applications like sport and news. Such a facility could be used to engage those who apparently have little or no interest in party politics (7.13). The ability to find out more may well be a key factor in reviving interest. Positive messages are essential if voter apathy is to be reversed as are reminders of Election Day and polling hours (6.15).

There should be provision for PPBs related to events, like the budget, or when legislation directly affecting everyone is progressing through Parliament (6.20). The Communications Bill is a prime example where knowledge of it is scant among the general public because the media has focused mainly on the narrow issue of extending overseas opportunities to buy into UK broadcasting ("Murdoch set to buy Channel 5"). The Bill is very much broader in scope and effect than this but the media has largely ignored most of it.

We can see no good reason why the BBC should not be subject to the same statutory requirements as independent television and radio and accordingly the Corporation should be brought within clause 192 of the draft Communications Bill (7.3), (7.4).

15 August 2002

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