In an election campaign, everyone is on the lookout for political bias on TV. They usually search in vain because journalists prefer a good story to parading their party affiliations. And in any case the regulation by stopwatch during a campaign means there’s little chance to indulge one party over another when on-air time is being closely monitored.
But that doesn’t stop unfairness caused by the herd instincts of journalists seeking headlines; and what seems like a natural hunt for a story to broadcasting insiders can come across very differently when you’re outside the Westminster and London media bubble.
In 2015, the narrative was simple: there was going to be a hung parliament. The polls said it, so it must be true; and the Conservatives had enormous success in getting everyone to froth about the prospects of a Labour-SNP coalition. For day after day, the game was trying to get Ed Miliband or a senior Labour figure to rule out – or tacitly accept – that there might be a coalition with Nicola Sturgeon; and every programme that obsessed about that subject missed a much bigger story. What would happen if the Conservatives won an overall majority? What was their programme for government? Instead there was an awakening immediately after the election in which the nation discovered that the manifesto commitments – including an in-out referendum on Europe – might be for real.
The referendum campaign in 2016 was also plagued by an obsession with process over policy; and, I suspect with hindsight, a belief that Remain would win in the end. We were minutely informed about the manoeuvrings within the Conservative Party – “blue on blue knife-fights” and all – and about the Labour worries that Jeremy Corbyn was making a poor fist of it. There was a much less conspicuous attempt to outline what ‘Leave’ might look like, and many of the network bulletins endlessly recycled the same soundbites about the economy or immigration. The interest in internal Tory politics drove out the diversity of politicians backing Remain.
In 2017, the two big and related narratives were established from the start. First, the election result would be a Tory landslide; and second, Jeremy Corbyn is hopeless and is leading his party to an historic defeat. This means, paradoxically, that Conservative policy this time is being minutely scrutinised – hence the rows about pensioners’ entitlements and social care. By contrast, political correspondents rushed to put Labour’s manifesto launch into a context of 1983 and another lengthy suicide note; and there was an unmistakeable snarky tone in some of the reporting about Corbyn’s activities.
The narrative may yet be proved right. Third time lucky, and all that. But Theresa May was correct to point out at the weekend that she only needs to lose 6 seats to lose her parliamentary majority, and although she exaggerated by saying it would automatically mean Jeremy Corbyn moving into Downing Street, there are questions of interest about what would happen if the Tories did lose seats. Tim Farron, for instance, is taking the position of ‘no coalitions’ and is asking for the Liberal Democrats to be a strong voice in opposition. Is that valid at a time of national need in the Brexit negotiations if the Commons arithmetic gives him unexpected power?
More generally, broadcasters should be mindful of their responsibility to give the electorate a chance to hear the views of the parties straight. The traditional way was to allow us first to know what was in the manifestoes without over-intrusive commentary, and yet there have been times in this campaign when I’ve felt we learn too much too quickly about a correspondent’s view of the agenda. Analysis matters a lot, but it has a place within programmes that is not in the opening script or driven home relentlessly through the main report. That is particularly the warning from 2015 and 2016: what matters very much in the flurry of the campaign may not matter at all when we wake up the morning after polling. Allowing for a range of outcomes is wise, and a democratic duty.