Media Law Update (11 March): Reporting Elections

Personal commentary on reporting elections:

Journalistic obligation for accuracy and impartiality is greater than ever at election time. This is because it is through our reporting that, we as journalists, will assist the democratic process to allow voters to make their choices.

The main focus of this week’s blog is to identify the public interest when reporting elections: up to what point is it to the advantage of the public to know certain information? I will also be taking a look at how the rules might apply in common reporting situations.

There are special rules in force that apply to broadcasters. Fair reporting of elections is especially important as (like Lord Bingham said in 2000) the Press is the ‘eyes and ears of the public’ and ‘it is very largely through the media that (the public) will be alerted and informed’. This is never more true than in the case of elections or referendums. It is a journalist’s duty towards the public to provide a balanced  argument of all major parties, as it is the public that will be expected to make choices as citizens – and this is often based on the information we, as journalists, provide.

During the last general election in 2010, police had to investigate allegations of electoral fraud in Halifax after thousands of postal ballots were delivered by hand to polling stations on the day of the count. Electoral fraud is not an uncommon practice here in the UK and it is something journalists should be aware of.

However, the case of Phil Woolas is possibly one of the most famous examples of misconduct during an election. For the first time in 99 years an election court removed an MP from his seat following breaches of electoral law. The Election Court consisting of two High Court judges, ruled that the Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, had misled voters by claiming his LibDem opponent had “wooed” Islamic extremists. The judges decided Woolas knew this to be untrue. The accusation was that Woolas’ team had ‘deliberately tried to stir up religious tension’ in the last days of the campaign.

In the News:

Earlier this year, an article published by Press Gazette, explains how Ed Miliband has appealed to media covering the general election to concentrate on the “issues” at stake and not question the motives of politicians competing for power. Speaking at a dinner for political journalists in Westminster, the Labour leader warned that public “cynicism” about MPs had a corrosive effect on the whole political system.“You will shape this election too,” he said in a direct appeal to journalists.

This plea from Miliband for journalists to consider the content of articles published around the general election re-affirms the media’s key role in informing the public.

To round up:

It is a journalist’s duty towards the public to provide a balanced  argument during election time and broadcasters can publish this ‘balance’ over a period, days or weeks. Programme makers need to maintain a log of party coverage in order to keep on top of this.

Law Notes: Reporting Elections

The relevant law is The Representation of the People’s Act (1983) as amended.

Danger areas for journalists:

  • False statements about candidates.
  • Maintaining impartiality.
  • Reporting opinion polls or exit polls.

Breach of any of these is considered a potential criminal offence.

False Statements

It’s a criminal offence ‘to make or publish a false statement of fact about the personal character of or conduct of an election candidate’. It is also an offence to claim a candidate has withdrawn – if the publisher knows it to be false. False statements will almost certainly be defamatory. But an election will not wait for the legal process to catch up so if a candidate can prove a prima facie (at first sight) case then an injunction can be granted against repeat publication.

Maintaining Impartiality

For broadcasters maintaining impartiality is an absolute requirement and this is contained in BBC and Ofcom codes. In practice this means giving equal time and weight in script to candidates and arguments of the major parties.

  •  Major parties are defined by Ofcom, England, Scotland, Wales and N.Ireland.(England = Con, Lab, LibDem, UKIP; Wales = big three + Plaid Cymru; Scotland = big three + Scottish National Party; N.Ireland = Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Fein, Social Democratic and Labour Party and the Ulster Unionist Party).
  • Minor parties or independent candidates are treated differently: ‘Broadcasters must also consider giving appropriate coverage to other parties and candidates’.

Broadcasters can publish this ‘balance’ over a period, days or weeks. Programme makers need to maintain a log of party coverage.

How to do constituency profiles for radio or TV:

At election time this is one of the most common types of coverage. Journalists love finding and going to marginal or ‘bellwether’ seats. The contest here can point up trends not just in that seat, but regionally or even nationally. Ofcom rules (and fundamental journalistic fairness) dictates that if a journalist interviews one of the major party candidates, they must carry sound bites from the other two (or three in Scotland/Wales) as well. Journalists may mention one or two minor party candidates in script, or feature them in vision if the report is TV.

How to do candidate profiles:

As a journalist, if you want to devote entire reports to individual candidates, or party campaigns in an area, you must make sure you achieve balance over a longer period (e.g. two days or a week of coverage). The advantage here is that editorially you can achieve greater depth of coverage. But it is important to bear in mind that generally speaking in broadcasting, all coverage is helpful to a candidate. So ensure that your tone of coverage is challenging to their ideas, and contrast in script their plans with their rival parties. If a journalist runs a profile of one particular candidate or party, they need to make clear to the audience that they will be running similar profiles (elsewhere in that programme/tomorrow/later that week) of other major candidates or parties. However, it is important to keep in mind that the same audience will often not be tuning in on subsequent days.

Further considerations for programme producers

Strict impartiality rules at election time means journalists must be realistic about commissioning political reports. In Scotland or Wales journalists will need to carry at least four sound bites. That will probably be a minute in itself. Journalists either need to allow a proper duration or not cover the story at all.

Opinion polls and exit polls

Opinion polls are only as accurate as their methodology, and when they were carried out. When judging their news value, journalists need to consider the sample size, how the fieldwork was carried out, and the reputation of the polling company. For example, telephone or internet polls are considered less accurate than face-to-face interviews. Always take note of the pollster’s ‘margin of error’ and relay this information to the audience. Apply context and impartiality. It’s an offence to publish before close of polls any information about how voters have cast their votes, if it’s based on interviews with voters after they have voted, or on organised exit polls.

Reporting on polling day:

Must be confined to the weather (which can be important to a result) size of turnout, and factual reporting of when leading party figures may or may not have voted. Controversial matters, such as the state of the NHS or immigration, must not be reported for fear of influencing the ballot. In recent years stories of voting problems or allegations of voting fraud in the UK have become more common. Cases of fraud can go to court.

Implications:

  • Parties will need to be much more careful with their literature.
  • The wording of how journalists report candidates claims and counter claims is likely to be scrutinised much more closely.
  • Maintaining accurate notes is vital as evidence.
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About brackenstockley

Contributor to the JusticeGap and WINOL. Currently studying journalism at the University of Winchester (Year Three).
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