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9 February 2011

BBC bans the term “reform” when discussing AV

The term is “too positive” to be used when referring to the AV vote – but not when describing Camero

By Susannah Butter

Tune in to BBC News, online, on television or on the radio and you will hear the word “reform” being used to describe the government’s latest plans. The NHS? Cameron will reform it. The education system? In need of reform.

Cameron even extended his mania for reform, or reform-fest, to his analysis of Egypt, saying that the Egyptians “must go down the path of reform and not repression”. If I had a pound for every time I heard the word “reform” I might not have to worry about the growing cost of living in an unreformed England.

According to the BBC, the government is busy reforming our country. However, one of the biggest changes on the horizon, the AV referendum, is not being described as an electoral reform. This is because a leaked internal BBC memo instructs its staff not to refer to the AV referendum using this word.

A search of the BBC website reveals that until 20 January, the words “electoral reform” were used in relation to the upcoming referendum on AV, but since then have been applied only to Nigeria, where President Goodluck Jonathan has promised electoral reform, and to Jersey’s proposed electoral reform.

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The BBC’s reasoning is that, “the term contains an explicit definition of ‘improvement’ – and was therefore deemed too positive”.

So it’s all right for the BBC to describe what’s being done to the NHS as “reform”, and risk implying that the government’s plans to abolish 151 primary care trusts, causing more than 20,000 health service staff to lose their jobs, will be an improvement. But when describing a referendum that is, by its very nature, a debate on the issue of changing, or re-forming, the electoral system, the BBC must legislate its language.

Clearly the BBC must remain impartial, but this restriction on what words can be used to describe the vote on AV does not seem conducive to useful, or free, or fair debate.