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15 November 2019

Broadcasters must take radical steps to challenge campaign spin and enhance understanding

Have we reached a time to abandon the "on the bus reporting"?

By Stephen Cushion

Among the many opinion polls published about the election, one of the most revealing was a survey by Conservative pollster Lord Ashcroft that showed how little people knew about the campaign so far. While so-called campaign gaffes have already become a daily feature of election coverage – from leaders being heckled to them failing to use a mop correctly – in reality they appear to have had no tangible impact on voters. The prominence paid to day-to-day campaign events, in other words, is not cutting through to the public.

This is not to say the parties’ campaigning or media coverage of the election has not had a material effect on voters. Take, for example, the Conservative’s promise to “get Brexit done”. It represents the most effective political messaging since the Leave’s campaign pledge to “take back control”. Endlessly promoted by candidates, on social media and echoed in news reporting, the “get Brexit done” soundbite can be audibly heard in vox pops and focus groups as a rationale for voting Conservative.

Of course, as independent analysts have observed, this core Tory message is also wildly misleading since if the withdrawal agreement passes in the House of Commons post-election there could be years of protracted negotiations with the EU. One focus group study reported that respondents were horrified when told Brexit would not be resolved any time soon if Parliament passed the necessary legislation. What was less clear is whether they changed their political opinion – and party preference – when provided with accurate information about the Brexit process.

Since an informed electorate is widely viewed as representing a healthy democracy, how can public understanding about the election be enhanced in the weeks ahead?

Broadcasters, in particular, have a vital role to play in advancing knowledge because they – unlike parties or the partisan press – are not motivated by persuading people to vote one way or another. They are legally required to impartially and accurately report the election campaign.

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So far we have seen times when broadcasters have excelled in analysing the parties’ election pledges from the typically robust Channel 4 interviews to Hugh Pym’s forensic analysis of health policies on the BBC and Ed Conway’s scrutiny of politicians’ claims on Sky News’s campaign check.

But while there are prominent moments when reporters rigorously interrogate the parties’ policies and assess their credibility, how far do these flashes of good journalistic practice cut through to voters? After all, routine and prominent election news – on, say, the broadcasters’ flagship bulletins – is often focused on that day’s campaigning, where journalists travel together on buses and report set piece campaigning.

How beneficial is this approach to election reporting for the lay voter? How much do we learn when reporters on the campaign trail tell us whether a leader has performed well in a controlled “walk about” with voters or in a rally with limited access to journalistic scrutiny?

The sense of frustration with this from of pack journalism – long critiqued in academic research – was even acknowledged by the BBC’s Simon McCoy live on the BBC News Channel. In a live two way with Alex Forsyth, who was on a campaign bus following Boris Johnson’s party entourage in the South West of England on 14 November, Forsyth told McCoy that Johnson’s campaign plans had changed due to security concerns after protestors arrived at the location he was due to visit. She then reported that:

He did instead go to a high street in Wales, and there he did go into a bakery, he served customers, I’m told, I wasn’t there because I was waiting for where he was meant to turn up originally, but then he did a walkabout in the town centre. I am told by colleagues the response was broadly good. He went into a card shop. So he did do some public facing activity but it wasn’t what was quite planned.

McCoy responded: “So anyone looking at political journalism as a career, you spent the morning at a bakery where nothing happened and you are now on a bus!”

Of course, impartial broadcasters like the BBC are mindful of affording political parties the time and space to explain their policies and respond to questions. But since politicians can often be more misleading than enlightening for audiences, have we reached a time to abandon the “on the bus reporting” in order to focus on raising public understanding?

Buzzfeed’s Mark Di Stefano in effect made this point on Twitter

While broadcasters are investing in more fact checking services – such as the BBC’s Reality Check – than previous election campaigns, perhaps a bolder and more radical step would be to put their analysis at the forefront of coverage. As the parties’ manifestos are soon to be announced, routinely fact checking party political claims at the top of the agenda and repeatedly responding to dubious claims might more effectively counter spin and cut through to voters.