The terrorist attack in Manchester overshadowed the fourth week of election coverage on TV news, our latest Cardiff University study found. A third of all election news focussed on the atrocity – more than any other campaign issue or policy debate.
With official campaigning suspended for several days, not all news about the attack was campaign related but since both the PM and Home Secretary were proposing policy solutions the election loomed large in the background.
Overall, Conservatives received more airtime than any other party – 41.2 per cent share of coverage compared to Labour’s 32.9 per cent – with limited opportunities for other parties to put forward their perspectives. How should we judge the balance of party political perspectives in a highly challenging week for broadcasters?
As Roger Mosey pointed out, there is a fine balance between allowing the ruling government to communicate security measures and letting them campaign about it. Three days after the terrorist attack – from 25 to 28 May – Conservatives still outweighed Labour voices by a small margin (37.5 per cent vs 31.6 per cent). But Corbyn’s speech linking foreign policy and terrorism, and increasing police numbers put Labour policy back in the spotlight.
The battle between May and Corbyn has become a dominant narrative of the campaign, with rival leaders largely peripheral figures. Broadcasters may be responding to polls indicating that Labour and Conservative will account for more votes than any election since 1979. But by limiting the time other parties have to air their views they may be perpetuating a possible return to a two party system that once defined British politics.
Ahead of the 2017 election campaign, Ofcom – who now regulate both BBC and commercial broadcasters – revised its impartiality guidelines, no longer assigning major or minor parties a status. Broadcasters were given greater flexibility to exercise news judgement in campaign coverage. In theory, having the editorial freedom to report the election may sound appropriate and sensible in a fast moving campaign. In practice, however, it does not necessarily lead to parties receiving roughly equal time to air their views if broadcasters follow news events.
So, for example, the Greens launched their manifesto on Monday 22 May – before the terrorist attack later that night – but it received far less airtime than Ukip’s on Thursday May 25 May. Apart from Sky News, all the evening bulletins covered the Greens’ manifesto towards the end of their bulletins but the level of scrutiny towards it was limited. That night news about the Conservatives’ social care U-turn dominated election coverage.
The BBC, for example, gave the Greens just 19 seconds to about talk about their manifesto. Its package drew on vox pops, which were used to discuss the horse race and the possibility of a progressive alliance between left wing parties, repeating the Conservative charge it could lead to a “coalition of chaos”. Channel 4’s vox pops were more creatively used, with members of the public asked to consider the Greens’ policies which most mistook for Labour’s.
Ukip’s manifesto launch was reported much higher up the agenda – behind news about the terrorist attack but the lead election story for most broadcasters. Unlike the Greens’ manifesto, many political correspondents considered Ukip’s launch in their live two-ways – a measure of what they consider to be the most newsworthy part of the day’s campaigning. Channel 4 allowed Paul Nutall more than two minutes to air his views and Ukip politicians close to three minutes overall in that night’s evening bulletin. The Greens were given 39 seconds the night of their manifesto launch – however on May 26 the leaders were interviewed at length in the context of the day’s news events.
The broadcasters’ largely focussed on Ukip plans to introduce tougher measures against Islamic fundamentalism. The allegation that Suzanne Evans – the author of the manifesto – suggested Theresa May was responsible for the terrorist attacks was also a focal point. Ukip was given prominent coverage across all the evening bulletins – about 20 minutes overall on TV news (47.6 per cent share of election coverage) – on the day of its manifesto launch. Not every broadcaster covered the Greens’ launch, by contrast, and when they did it was towards the end of the day’s news and totalled 14 minutes (14.2 per cent share of election coverage).
Since more people voted for UKIP in the 2015 election than the Greens, broadcasters may argue they merited greater focus. However, during this campaign they are only marginally ahead in the polls – and have no MPs, whereas the Greens have Caroline Lucas. But vote share or poll standing do not seem as central to how broadcasters are interpreting impartiality during the election campaign. Above all, news judgements appear to be driven by newsworthy events.
The launch of UKIP’s manifesto appeared to grasp this logic, since it was pitched in response to the terrorist attack. Given its centrality in the news cycle, the party was able to secure precious and prominent airtime. But should newsworthiness so centrally inform the impartiality of party political airtime? After all, it will only encourage parties to campaign according to news values – responding to daily events or attacking their opponents – rather than championing policies in the long term interests of voters. And news values are not politically neutral.
Of course, broadcasters want to engage viewers not bore them with endless policy. But following news events runs the risk of promoting the most media savvy parties rather than informing voters of their democratic choices ahead of election day.
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, Chris Healy, Sophie Puet and Stephanie Frost.