Wednesday, 11 February 2015

BBC says no Party Election Broadcast for Mebyon Kernow

It is with great sadness - but not a great deal of surprise - that I have been informed by the BBC Trust that they will not be allowing MK to have a Party Election Broadcast at the forthcoming General Election.

The Trust has chosen not to change its existing guidelines that, to get a PEB, Mebyon Kernow would need to stand in one-sixth of the seats in “England.”

In its representation, Mebyon Kernow rightly pointed out:

“We consider this recommendation, which would deny Mebyon Kernow airtime, is both absurd and undemocratic. How can it be fair that MK, a Cornish political party, would need to stand in all six seats within the historic nation of Cornwall, as well as a further 83 seats outside of Cornwall, in order to be allowed a broadcast?

“We believe it is wrong to exclude a political party from being allowed a PEB when it is standing in all constituencies reasonably available to it. By contrast, the recommendation would mean that political parties in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales would only have to stand in three, ten and seven seats respectively. This has meant that, over recent elections, a host of political parties – including the Christian Party (Wales), Scottish Green Party, Scottish Socialist Party and the Scottish Trade Union and Socialist Coalition – have all been allocated airtime.”

The decision of the BBC Trust was as follows:

The Committee considered whether, in light of the relevant information before them, including the responses received in the course of the consultation, the comments of the Executive, and confidential and privileged legal advice, the draft Allocation Criteria needed to be amended to allow for regional broadcasts generally, or specifically to allow Mebyon Kernow to have access to a PEB. The Committee's conclusions on the specific issues raised by this question were as follows.

The Committee recognised that, given that the broadcasting region and the hypothetical electoral region do not match, there would be substantial “overspill”, i.e. that voters outside the areas where Mebyon Kernow candidates are standing would receive any regional PEBs, including from parties for whom they could not vote, and this would risk discrediting PEBs, creating viewer and listener indifference, and inducing “PEB fatigue”. They also recognised that where there is no match there is the risk that viewers and listeners within the regional electoral area would not be within the broadcast area in which the regional PEB could be received. It was noted that Cornwall is much smaller than the relevant BBC television broadcasting region (the South West), and applying the threshold criterion to the South West would still not qualify Mebyon Kernow for a PEB. The Committee also took into account, in considering whether the criterion should be amended, the information available about the level of electoral support for Mebyon Kernow, which it did not consider to be substantial (as substantial electoral support might, in theory, suggest it should qualify for a PEB if the one-sixth threshold criterion were removed).

The Committee noted that BBC One HD and BBC Two do not broadcast on a regional basis. Only BBC One in standard definition broadcasts on a regional basis. Therefore, if there were to be regional PEBs, viewers of BBC One HD and BBC Two would receive the national PEBs but not the regional ones of relevance to them.

Further, they noted that, if there were regional PEBs, national parties might feel it necessary to produce both national and regional PEBs (e.g. to meet the arguments of regional parties), and that that could cause practical (e.g. resource) difficulties for national parties, some of which might feel disadvantaged as a result, in particular smaller parties.

The Committee observed that there would be difficulties for broadcasters in identifying and defining hypothetical regional electoral areas. From this perspective, the cases of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were materially different from that of an English region, given the recognised boundaries of those nations and their constitutionally separate identities.

The Committee considered the possibility that regional PEBs could be carried on appropriate local radio stations. They recognised that in some areas the transmission areas of local radio might more accurately match hypothetical regional electoral areas and that this might counter the objections (see above) that some viewers or listeners might receive PEBs not intended for them, and vice versa. However, they also acknowledged that several difficulties remained, including—

- while the match between electoral areas and local radio transmission areas might be good in some areas, that was not the case in all parts of England or the UK;
- it might be argued as wrong in principle for regional PEBs to be carried on local radio and not on television (but broadcasting on television poses the problems referred to above);
- there would be questions as to how the BBC would satisfy its impartiality obligations in its services if local radio stations carried only regional, and not national, PEBs.
- national parties might feel the need to produce local radio PEBs, causing practical difficulties and raising the risk that they would feel disadvantaged if they were practically unable to do so (see above).

The Committee considered the terms of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, noting that the UK Government had recently recognised “the Cornish people” (not Mebyon Kernow itself) as a national minority. The Committee did not consider that the draft criteria placed the UK in breach of any obligations in the Convention, and that the Convention should not alter their conclusion that (for the reasons stated) the criteria were rational and justifiable.

The Committee also took account of the fact that PEBs are not the only medium by which political parties can put their views across to voters. For example, the BBC's 2015 Election Guidelines (which remain open for consultation until 11 February 20152) provide in relation to smaller parties that parties standing in less than one-sixth of the seats in an area but running serious campaigns are to receive coverage in English regions, on local radio and online. In addition it is of course open to regional parties to make use of the internet, and in particular, social media.

As well as having regard to the views expressed by the Electoral Commission in responding to the Trust consultation, the Committee also had regard to the views of the Electoral Commission in its report Standing for Election, published in January 2015, which concluded that the UK-wide criteria for PEBs are working well and did not suggest any need for immediate change. However the Electoral Commission also stated:

“We also appreciate the clear problems expressed by the broadcasters in making provision for separate PEBs in different English regions, including for Mayoral elections, outside London. However, this also presents the risk of smaller parties or independent candidates that command significant support in a particular area being disadvantaged. Whilst we agree that provision for PEBs on this basis is not practicable at this stage, broadcasters should keep under review technological developments that may make such provision more feasible in the future.”

The Committee agreed the technological developments should be kept under review.

The Committee decided in light of the relevant information before it that the draft Allocation Criteria should not be amended to allow for regional broadcasts generally, or specifically in Cornwall.

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