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12 May 2017updated 04 Aug 2021 8:40pm

The Tories are the big winners in the TV airtime war – and the Greens the biggest losers

Cardiff University research shows the Conservatives got almost half of all coverage - and the Greens just 1.3 per cent. 

By Stephen cushion

With the first week of the election campaign over, who were the big winners in terms of TV coverage? Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the Conservatives who received the most airtime on the BBC News at Ten in the first week of our Cardiff University election campaign study.

While Labour made up 26.4 per cent share of coverage, the Tories accounted for nearly half – 46.9 per cent – of all airtime for parties on television news. The Liberal Democrats and the SNP both received 10.5 per cent share of time, leaving 4.1 per cent for UKIP and just 1.3 per cent for the Greens. Across the other UK national bulletins, the difference in airtime granted to Conservatives and Labour was less striking. On Channel 4 and Sky News, for example, Labour made up 47.6 per cent and 44.1 per cent of airtime given to party sources, while Conservatives received 38.9 per cent and 33.1 per cent respectively.

Of course, the campaign has only just begun, but it would appear the Conservatives have been most successful in conveying their message on the most watched television news bulletin. BBC News at Ten regularly attracts four more million viewers – more than double ITV’s nightly bulletin – and more people tune in than Sky News, Channel 4 and 5 audiences combined.

More than two thirds of Conservative airtime on BBC News was made up by appearances from Theresa May, whereas just over 50 per cent of Labour’s came from Jeremy Corbyn. Since the Tories’ strategy is to focus on “Strong and Stable Leadership”, they appear to be winning the airwar in the opening week of the campaign. Indeed, the public are far more likely to recall the Tory’s campaign slogan compared to Labour’s “for the many, not the few”. With the focus on the leadership of Labour and Conservatives, the other main parties received far less airtime.

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Since UKIP lost over 100 council seats in the local elections, the party’s general election performance was a legitimate story. But while the Greens won six seats and had 40 councillors elected, little airtime was granted to their leaders post-election. Since the Greens made up a fraction of airtime given to parties, for some our findings will support their leader’s claim that “disproportionate coverage” was granted to UKIP after the local elections.

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But how can we judge the relative airtime different parties receive?

The UK’s “due impartiality” guidelines make clear that broadcasters do not have to stop-watch coverage to ensure equal time across the parties. And new Ofcom guidelines – now also responsible for the regulation of BBC news – no longer designate major parties during election campaigns. It is, in short, news judgements that drive editorial decisions.

However, the BBC’s general election guidelines state: “Determining appropriate levels of coverage should take into account levels of past and current electoral support”. By this measure, the Greens may warrant greater coverage if their standing increases in opinion polls as the election draws closer. Needless to say, the airtime parties receive does not guarantee electoral success.

Despite Labour claiming voters may support Corbyn if he receives more airtime, the evidence suggests many remain sceptical about his leadership credentials. Whether that’s down to his personal performance and policy agenda, rather than a hostile press or imbalanced broadcast coverage, remains open to question. As the campaign intensifies and opinion polls continue to point towards a Conservative landslide, broadcasters will come under closer scrutiny.

The focus will not only be about the amount of airtime parties receive, but the context in which parties and leaders are portrayed. After all, all publicity is not necessarily good publicity, as shown by Diane Abbott’s gaffe on LBC radio, Corbyn’s interview with Laura Kuesseburg or the leaking of Labour’s manifesto. But if the dominance of Conservative perspectives continues on television news, it could distort the debate ahead of election day. Since the Tories are currently leading the Brexit negotiations, it may appear reasonable for editors to focus on any spats between government minsters and EU officials.

The first few days of our monitoring centred on speculation about a disastrous meeting the PM had with the President of the European Commission. But since the snap election was ostensibly triggered to allow voters to pick which party they want to handle the UK’s relationship with the EU, broadcasters have a responsibility to impartially report all parties ahead of election day. Of course, the negotiating positions of EU members should be reported if relevant to the campaign, but the prism of coverage should not be through the UK government’s response.

The very point of the UK’s impartiality guidelines is to ensure broadcasters remain balanced and hold parties to account during the campaign. Once the campaign is over, the government of the day will become the focal point. But voters have to elect a government first.

The Cardiff University study examined bulletins on Channel 5 at 5pm, Channel 4 at 7pm and at 10pm on BBC, ITV and Sky News. Research by Marina Morani, Harriet Lloyd, Rob Callaghan, Lucy Bennett and Chris Healy.