The communications regulator, Ofcom, receive lots of questions about their role when it comes to TV and radio programmes in the run-up to a general election.
This short guide explains the kind of issues that they might look at, as well as ones that are not within Ofcom’s remit.
You can read Ofcom’s rules for TV and radio content in the Broadcasting Code – which includes some special rules that apply during an election period.
What is an ‘election period’?
Under Ofcom rules, the ‘election period’ for a general election begins when parliament is dissolved and ends at 10pm on election day, when the polls close. So for this general election it began on 6 November and will end at 10pm on 12 December.
What are ‘due impartiality’ and ‘due accuracy’?
The Broadcasting Code includes important rules on due impartiality and due accuracy.
At all times – not just during election periods – news must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality, and broadcasters must also preserve due impartiality in programmes that address ‘matters of political or industrial controversy, and matters relating to current public policy’.
What does that mean? Well, ‘due’ means adequate or appropriate to the subject and nature of the programme, while ‘impartiality’ means not favouring one side over another. So ‘due impartiality’ does not mean an equal division of time has to be given to every view, or that every argument and every facet of every argument has to be represented.
Instead, context is important. Broadcasters’ approach to due impartiality may vary, according to the nature of the subject, the type of programme and channel, the likely expectations of the audience and how the content and approach are signalled to the audience.
What about during an election period?
During an election period, those rules continue to apply. But as well as that, political parties and independent candidates must be given appropriate levels of coverage – or ‘due weight’ – on TV and radio.
To help decide on this, broadcasters should look at the levels of past and current electoral support for parties and candidates. Broadcasters must also consider giving appropriate coverage to parties and independent candidates with significant views and perspectives. To help broadcasters in this area, Ofcom has published a digest of evidence of past electoral support and current support for the various parties.
Who decides who takes part in leaders’ debates?
Ofcom doesn’t determine the line-up or format of any leaders’ debates. These are editorial matters for the broadcasters, who must comply with the rules on due impartiality.
As a post-broadcast regulator, they examine any complaints about these issues after a programme is aired. If they have concerns, Ofcom can investigate and take further action.
What about party election broadcasts?
Broadcasters must allocate party election broadcasts based on current and past levels of electoral support (see above). Parties can complain to Ofcom if they are unhappy about broadcasters’ decisions on this.
Are candidates allowed to present programmes?
Under the rules, people who are standing as candidates in an election must not appear in programmes as presenters or interviewers during an election period.
Candidates can appear on TV and radio to talk about their constituencies but only if the broadcasters have also offered the other main candidates standing the chance to take part.
What happens on election day?
When people are going to the polls on election day, it’s important that everyone can vote on the same information.
So under Ofcom rules, discussion and analysis of election issues must finish when the polling stations open, and not resume until they close. And while people are voting, broadcasters must not publish the results of any opinion polls.
How does Ofcom deal with complaints about election coverage?
During election periods, Ofcom puts together an Election Committee, comprising members of their main Board and specialist Content Board. The committee deals with disputes between broadcasters and political parties about the allocations of party election broadcasts, as well as looking at significant complaints we receive about programmes broadcast during the election period.
Because elections are important, Ofcom run a fast-track process to look at complaints about election coverage. This means they can investigate as quickly as possible if needed. All broadcasters are expected to work quickly with Ofcom during the election period to help deal with complaints.
Under the BBC’s Charter, complaints about BBC programmes are dealt with by the BBC initially, whom Ofcom expect to deal with complaints it receives during elections as quickly as possible. But if somebody is unhappy with how the BBC has dealt with their complaint, they can contact Ofcom about their case and they may examine and rule on it.
What about social media?
Ofcom does not have powers to regulate social media. So, they don’t have any role in the social media activity of people like TV presenters, correspondents, newsreaders or political candidates.
Does Ofcom regulate political adverts?
Under UK law, political adverts on TV and radio are banned, and Ofcom enforces that ban. But the various parties can qualify for party election broadcasts (see above). Ofcom has no role in regulating political advertising on social media, newspapers or websites.
Finally… what’s the difference between Ofcom assessing and investigating?
When Ofcom receive complaints about TV or radio programmes, they often say that they are assessing them before deciding whether to investigate. It’s an important distinction.
Ofcom assess every complaint received – as a matter of course – to see whether it raises potential concerns under Ofcom rules. But there may not be a case to answer. So, assessing is not the same as investigating.
If they do have concerns, they will launch an investigation. When this happens, Ofcom write to the broadcaster. In most cases, they have the opportunity to respond to their concerns before Ofcom reach a ‘preliminary view’ on whether the rules have been broken. Then, once they’ve taken into account any representations from the broadcaster, they reach a final decision and publish it.
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