Three-D Issue 33: Is impartiality meaningless?

Gurvinder Aujla-SΩidhu
De Montfort University

Most of us are aware that UK media regulation stipulates the requirement for due impartiality to ensure news, ‘in whatever form, is reported with due accuracy’ and that election rules come into effect when an election is called, that require broadcasters to give ‘due weight’ to the coverage of political parties and independent candidates. These rules enable the audience to be informed and decide whom to support. However, the reporting of the 2019 election has caused my Broadcast Journalism students to question if the broadcasters are being impartial? For many University students this is the first time they can vote in a General Election. So this election is especially significant to those who missed out voting in the 2016 Referendum.

Nicola Sturgen (SNP) and Jo Swinson (Lib Dem) went to the High Court to argue that the first ITV leaders debate only offered the electorate a Leave perspective. Both women demanded the right to debate – and offer the remain point of view – but were denied. A number of students explained they watched the ITV debate because of the intense media reporting of the court challenge – but they were fairly unimpressed by the debate itself. The BBC then admitted it made a “mistake” when the audience laughter was edited out of a clip for BBC Newschannel where Boris Johnston responded to a question about the importance of telling the truth. 46 complaints were made to Ofcom over it.

The media coverage in this election has disproportionately focused upon the debates – who is participating in them, who is being denied a spot, how the audience is ‘balanced’ and who is being replaced by an ice sculpture. Ofcom decided not to investigate a complaint from the Conservatives over Channel 4’s alleged impartiality. Ofcom concluded that the one hour debate in addition to the news programmes, ensured that the Conservative viewpoint upon climate and environmental issues was adequately balanced. Presumably the regulator takes a view that the regular TV viewer watches or listens to media content for the entire day – in order to receive said due-coverage. 

What is not being discussed is the impact of unbalanced and negative coverage of the Labour party, particularly Corbyn. The broadcasters are able to hide behind their defence that they have given equal time or due weight to the opposing parties. But analysis from Loughborough University reveals in a week where anti-Semitism and Islamophobia claims dodged both parties, the Labour Party was still disproportionately framed negatively, particularly in the press. It is not just the only negative coverage of the Labour party verses the more positive coverage of the Conservatives, but in election the lack of coverage of other political points of views. So at a time when the public turns to the media for facts ahead of the General Election it seems being impartial means offering the perspective of two political parties, both of whom also happen support leaving the EU and one just happens to be depicted more negatively than the other.

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