I have today seen the publicity generated by the Green Party regarding fair political coverage on BBC television. It has prompted me to share the letter that I sent to various representatives of the BBC prior to Christmas, including Chairman of the BBC Trust, the BBC Chief Advisor on Politics (Editorial Policy and Standards), as well as representatives of BBC South West and BBC Sunday Politics.
It challenges the manner in which MK was treated during the 2015 General Election. MK has only had one reply so far, which was less than satisfactory (more about that later).
Here is the actual text of the letter, though I have chosen not to include the letter’s four appendices, which are referenced in the text.
UNDER-REPRESENTATION OF MEBYON KERNOW ON BBC TELEVISION
I am writing on behalf of the registered political party Mebyon Kernow – the Party for Cornwall (MK) to formally complain about the BBC’s coverage of the 2015 General Election campaign in Cornwall.
We wish to raise a number of concerns about how MK was not afforded reasonable coverage on the BBC’s televison channels. The content of this letter will address the refusal of the BBC Trust to allow MK a Party Election Broadcast, as well as the extremely limited coverage allowed to MK on state-wide television, state-wide radio, and “south west” regional television.
In addition to this, this formal complaint will seek to address what we consider to be a historic under-representation of Mebyon Kernow – the Party for Cornwall on regional television in the years prior to 2015.
1.0 Dominance of television media in political debates
A BBC feature on 9th May 2015 reported a Panelbase survey of 3,019 people which concluded that television was “by far the most influential media source" in the recent General Election, outscoring newspapers and social media. It stated that 38% of people were influenced by the leaders’ debates, 23% by news coverage on the television and 10% by party political broadcasts.
This is a telling conclusion and shows how the refusal of the BBC to allow meaningful coverage for Mebyon Kernow during the General Election added greatly to the disadvantage suffered by our Party.
2.0 No PEB for MK
Mebyon Kernow has made numerous representations over the last few years to demand the opportunity to have a Party Election Broadcast (PEB) at the General Election. This has included regular communication with the BBC’s Chief Advisor on Politics (Editorial Policy and Standards) and the Broadcasters’ Liaison Group.
Earlier this year, we challenged the “draft criteria” for PEBs for the 2015 General Election as provided by the Liaison Group, which stated that, a “political party would qualify for one PEB” if it stands in a “minimum of one sixth of the seats” in any of the “home nations” of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
In our representation we made the following points:
”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.
”In the 2015 General Election, MK will be standing candidates in all six Cornish seats.
"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.
”It is our view that genuine ‘regional’ or ‘national’ parties, which stand candidates in most (or all) of the seats in a particular region or nation – including Cornwall – should be allowed a PEB.”
In our representation to the BBC Trust for a fair element of television coverage, we offered to meet with members of the BBC Trust but that offer was not taken up by the Trust.
2.1 Response from the BBC Trust
The members of Mebyon Kernow were very disappointed with the decision of the BBC Trust to refuse MK the option of a Party Election Broadcast for the 2015 General Election. The Trust’s letter of 20th February 2015 is attached as Appendix 1.
Having studied the ruling, it was our view that the decision was flawed and should have been revisited. We made a further representation to the BBC, as advised by the BBC Trust consultation, which we asked to be treated as stage 1 of the BBC’s PEBs complaints process.
However, the response from BBC’s Chief Advisor on Politics (Editorial Policy and Standards) was less than helpful. He did not address any of the concerns raised by MK, but responded as follows:
“… my view is that your complaint, technically, is not against the allocation of PEBs, which is the responsibility of the BBC Executive, but against the criteria for allocating broadcasts. These were approved by the BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee at its meeting last month … therefore, it would not be appropriate for me to make any change to the BBC’s proposed allocation of PEBs, which in our view comply with the approved criteria.”
The correspondence from the BBC’s Chief Advisor on Politics (Editorial Policy and Standards) of date 2015 is attached as Appendix 2.
We would wish to repeat the following points, which we made to the BBC following the response from the BBC Trust.
2.1.1 Response from the BBC Trust / “Overspill”
The BBC Trust stated:
“… 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’.”
We did not, and do not, accept the logic of this argument. As long as the BBC and other broadcasters employ the “one-sixth” rule, there will almost certainly always be broadcasts from political parties not standing a full slate of candidates across England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. And this will inevitably mean that some people would be able to view broadcasts “from parties for whom they could not vote.”
It is our view that – as long as the “one-sixth” rule continues to operate – the BBC Trust’s ruling is prejudicial against MK in a manner that is not prejudicial against other political parties.
Indeed, in 2015 there were no candidates in Cornwall from the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition, but a TUSC broadcast was viewable by all residents of Cornwall.
The Trust’s argument on “overspill” is further undermined by the BBC’s decision to broadcast a live election debate on 16th April 2015 which featured the leaders of five opposition parties including Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP and Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru.
How can the BBC claim that it would be inappropriate to allow meaningful coverage of Mebyon Kernow because of “overspill,” but that it is appropriate to allow coverage of Scottish and Welsh political parties across the whole of the United Kingdom?
2.1.2 Response from the BBC Trust / Regional broadcasts
The BBC Trust also stated:
“… 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 could cause practical (e.g. resource) difficulties for national parties, some of which might feel disadvantaged as a result, in particular smaller parties.”
It is our view that this argument is frankly ridiculous. Surely, it is the “regional” party that is disadvantaged by being denied airtime with a PEB. The larger political parties are already afforded a much greater access to the mainstream media than political groups such as MK – and the refusal of the BBC Trust to allow MK the opportunity to have a PEB has greatly added to this disadvantage.
2.1.3 Response from the BBC Trust / Separate areas
The BBC Trust also stated:
“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.”
We do not believe this to be true in the case of Cornwall. Cornwall is a Celtic nation, just like “Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.”
This has recently been reinforced by the decision of the Westminster Government, in April 2014, to recognise the Cornish as a national minority through the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.
2.1.4 Response from the BBC Trust / Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities
The BBC Trust also stated:
“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.”
All national minorities within the United Kingdom such as the Welsh and Scotland are associated with a specific historic territory. This is also the case with the Cornish people. Surely it is unfair that political groups operating in certain territories (eg. Wales and Scotland) are allowed PEBs, but those in Cornwall are not.
Indeed, why are the Cornish the only officially recognised national minority in the United Kingdom discriminated against in this fashion?
2.1.5 Response from the BBC Trust / “Standing for Election”: Electoral Commission
The BBC Trust also included reference to the Electoral Commission’s January 2015 report “Standing for Election,” which concluded that the “UK-wide criteria for PEBs are working well and did not suggest any need for immediate change.” The Trust added:
“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’.”
Our representations have been about fairness in terms of the electoral process. From our perspective, the UK-wide criteria for PEBs is not working well as we are not allowed a PEB even when standing in all seats open to us.
The comment from the Electoral Commission about practical difficulties with regard to regional PEBs is also noted, but it is our view that MK should not be denied appropriate airtime because of administrative problems for the BBC.
2.1.6 Response from the BBC Trust / Other media
The BBC Trust also stated:
“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 … it is of course open to regional parties to make use of the internet, and in particular, social media.”
It is our view that this issue is irrelevant and somewhat disrespectful. All political parties – large and small – can and do use a range of medias. The representation to the BBC Trust is about the fact that MK is being denied fair access to one specific form of promotion.
2.2 The 2015 General Election
In the 2015 General Election, six political parties put forward a full slate of candidates for the six constituencies in Cornwall. Of these, five political parties (the Conservative Party, Green Party, Labour Party, Liberal Democrats and UKIP) were all allowed PEBs, while one (Mebyon Kernow – the Party for Cornwall) was denied access to a PEB.
In a democratic society, it is intrinsically undemocratic that only one political party, standing in all the seats available to it, is denied the opportunity to make its case through a PEB on terrestrial TV.
How can it possibly make sense to rule that, in order to qualify for a PEB, a regionalist party in Cornwall has to stand in far more seats than similar parties in the other constituent parts of the UK? The SNP needs to stand in just ten seats to qualify, Plaid Cymru in seven and the Northern Irish parties only five. Yet, MK in contrast has to stand in 89 seats. This appears even more curious, even bizarre, when we only have six seats in Cornwall in which to stand candidates.
3.0 News coverage on state-wide BBC television /radio / web
Coverage of Mebyon Kernow’s General Election campaign on state-wide BBC television channels, and its associated website, was restricted to the single appearance of MK Party Leader Cllr Dick Cole on the Daily Politics. To our knowledge, MK did not feature on state-wide BBC media at all between the start of April and polling day, and the Party was ignored in a number of news segments about Cornwall during the election period.
3.1 BBC Daily Politics
During the election, the Daily Politics programme featured a series of interviews with representatives of “smaller” political parties across the UK. Dick Cole was interviewed on 30th March 2015 which, to be fair to the Corporation, allowed MK to fairly present its views on a number of issues.
3.2 BBC Newsnight
On Tuesday 5th May 2015, BBC Newsnight broadcast a feature about the St Austell and Newquay constituency. It had been recorded earlier in April and included content relating specifically to Cornish distinctiveness, nationalism and the relative strength of the Liberal Democrats.
The leader of Mebyon Kernow had initially been contacted by the BBC to take part, but was later told that they had decided not to feature any politicians, but a selection of local people. It was implied to Cllr Cole by BBC journalists that MK had been frequently mentioned by those local people interviewed and would be referenced in the actual programme.
However, in spite of the nature of the topic under discussion and the filming of a Gorsedh proclamation in St Austell, MK did not even merit a mention – even though the Conservatives, Lib Dems and UKIP did. And, having been told that no politicians were to be featured within the piece, the film was followed by a discussion with a prominent Liberal Democrat politician about the issues raised in the feature.
3.3 BBC Radio 4
Mebyon Kernow – the Party for Cornwall would acknowledge that the Party did receive fair coverage on Radio Cornwall, but this was not replicated during the General Election from the wider BBC.
For example, the Radio 4 Today programme included two features on Cornwall. The first was titled “Camborne and Redruth: Candidates hope to improve marginal’s future,” which was broadcast on 27th April. The Mebyon Kernow candidate in the constituency was not even mentioned. Likewise, the second feature was titled “Cornwall: Isolation of the South West,” which was broadcast on 1st May. It also focussed on issues around Cornwall’s distinctiveness, but once again declined to even acknowledge the existence of MK.
3.4 BBC online
Through its website, the BBC provided access to all Party Election Broadcasts broadcast on the channel. Even though, MK had produced its own broadcast which was posted on Youtube, this was not referenced in any way on the BBC website.
3.5 The scorecard
Perhaps most telling of all, the BBC’s negative perspective on MK meant that it did not even include Mebyon Kernow in its scorecard which recorded the total number of votes achieved by political parties contesting the General Election. The scorecard is included at Appendix 3.
Other parties on the list included the British National Party (eight candidates), Class War (seven candidates) and the Socialist Labour Party (six candidates) – who all polled less than MK – as well as the regional party Yorkshire First.
We would like to remind the BBC that, last year, our organisation was “featured” in the comedy / mockumentary W1A, which had a storyline about complaints from Mebyon Kernow that “Cornwall and the Cornish are shamefully under-represented on the BBC.”
It seems strange to us that, instead of seeking to ensure fair and reasonable access to television media for our political party, the BBC prefers to follow – in real life – the content of one of its own spoofs.
4.0 News coverage on regional BBC television
While we did not anticipate that Mebyon Kernow would generate significant coverage on state-wide television, but we did hope that there would greater coverage on “regional” television which would offset this to a reasonable degree. Sadly, this more localised coverage was extremely limited.
One political commentator Dr Bernard Deacon (see the 28th April entry on his blog https://psephologyfromtheperiphery.wordpress.com), wrote that, in terms of television coverage, MK was “invisible,” adding, “indeed, anyone relying on the BBC for information might be surprised to discover they’re standing in this election.”
4.1 Coverage on BBC Spotlight
The extent of coverage on BBC Spotlight was much less than what we would consider fair.
The main report on MK’s election campaign featured excerpts from a pre-recorded interview with Party Leader Cllr Dick Cole, which was interspersed with a range of graphic representations. It was much shorter than the “in the spotlight” interviews with representatives of each of the “five largest parties” as described the BBC, and was also dwarfed by the other publicity afforded to these other parties. A very short snippet was also broadcast on 13th April to coincide with the launch of the Mebyon Kernow manifesto.
On 28th April, Spotlight also featured a constituency profile for the Camborne and Redruth constituency. Only four of the six candidates – Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and UKIP – were interviewed.
Politics SW responded to complaints about the exclusion of MK with the following Facebook post: “The BBC's election guidelines base party coverage primarily on previous electoral support. Hence the choice of the four parties featured in this report, which can all demonstrate far greater success in previous elections than MK (or other parties).” Please see sections 4.2, and 5.0 for further comment on this.
4.2 Coverage on BBC Sunday Politics
During the General Election campaign, there were five editions of the Sunday Politics Show, which each featured a South West regional segment. Studio guests included spokespeople from the Conservatives (5), Liberal Democrats (4), Labour (3), UKIP (2) and the Green Party (1).
By contrast, no representatives of Mebyon Kernow were invited to appear on these programmes as a guest, and coverage of MK was restricted to a 19-second segment of a pre-recorded interview which was included as part of a wider feature on devolution.
Political commentator Dr Bernard Deacon did a review of the coverage of the first four of these programmes (28th March; 12th April; 19th April; 26th April) which demonstrated the appalling level of coverage afforded to MK. He produced the following graph which showed the “total coverage (expressed purely in the number of seconds allocated to party spokespersons speaking)” for the four shows.
It should also be noted that Mebyon Kernow was not featured on the fifth programme (3rd May), showing the disparity between MK and the other political parties would be even greater than that shown in the above table.
Dr Deacon also made comments about the programmes broadcast on 12th, 19th and 26th April. For example, he noted that in the programme on 12th April;
“There was a piece on Declan Lloyd, Labour’s candidate in South East Cornwall, one of the youngest standing in the election. Declan had not appeared at a hustings, having gone on holiday with his mum instead … as the hustings was shown it was stated that all the candidates for the other parties, including MK, were there. MK’s candidate Andrew Long was briefly seen although not named. The piece then interviewed three of the candidates about the missing Labour lad – but not Martin Corney of the Greens or Andrew Long. Corney was then mentioned by name but it was a case of seen, but not heard, or named, for Long. His name didn’t even appear on the list of candidates shown at the end of the piece!”
In the programme on the 19th April, he noted:
“A Cornish Assembly and affordable homes were among the topics. Any fair-minded and objective observer might have thought that here at last was a chance for the distinctive voice of MK to be heard on these issues. And yes, here was Dick Cole of MK … being interviewed. But not live in the studio. Instead he was given a generous 19 seconds to camera somewhere near St Dennis.”
The programme on the 26th April covered a recent new story about the Labour candidate for Camborne and Redruth (Michael Foster) launching a verbal attack at MK’s candidate Loveday Jenkin. Mr Deacon noted:
“We again had the spectacle of presenter Martyn Oates refusing to name an MK candidate on air. Loveday Jenkin was transformed into just an anonymous ‘opposing candidate,’ despite being at the receiving end of one of Michael Foster’s alleged anger management problem episodes.”
4.3 BBC Spotlight Election Special
A BBC Spotlight Election Special was broadcast on 29th April. A Question Time style debate, it was filmed at the University of St Mark and St John in Plymouth, and the panel included representatives from the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens and UKIP.
Mebyon Kernow was however denied the opportunity to be represented on the Panel, even though we made numerous representations during the election period. The final letter on this matter received on 9th April from Leo Devine is included as Appendix 4. As you will see, he wrote:
“Unlike the other parties included in the regional TV debate, Mebyon Kernow is not fielding candidates in any other part of the region. As with any programme, we have the editorial discretion to make a judgement about limiting contributions in a way that ensures the best understanding for the whole of the audience. For that reason, the debate panel has been limited to those parties that can demonstrate significant electoral support right across the region and/or the UK.”
As noted previously, this is frankly ridiculous given that the BBC also broadcast a live election debate on 16th April 2015 which featured the leaders of five opposition parties including Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP and Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru.
Mr Devine also stated that the BBC seeks to “ensure that the views of political parties are reported in a balanced and proportionate way,” and stated that “we would also like to film a short recorded statement from you to be included in the programme.”
We acknowledge that a very short segment featuring MK was included within the programme though we consider that this “token” acknowledgement of the existence of Mebyon Kernow could even be deemed counter-productive and did much to emphasise the lack of respect given to MK by broadcasters.
It is the view of MK members that the election coverage on BBC Spotlight, the Sunday Politics and the Election Special was not balanced or proportionate with regard to Mebyon Kernow.
Indeed, we believe that it cannot be denied that the exclusion of MK from regional television seriously undermined our General Election campaign with local voters denied the opportunity to see MK on television, which the BBC itself reported was – “by far the most influential media source" for the General Election.
5.0 Historic under-representation on Sunday Politics
As noted above in section 4.1, BBC SW has stated that the coverage of political parties is based on levels of past support but, it is our view, that MK has suffered significant under-representation on the Sunday Politics Show.
We acknowledge that MK has been featured on the show on a small number of occasions, particularly around the time of the Scottish independence referendum, though most were short pre-recorded segments inserted into reports.
The reality is that the show normally has two or three guests in the studio each week, and sometimes has an additional guest to comment on a specific issue. Between 2009 and 2015, only once did an MK representative feature as a main guest and, from recollection, only two or three times have we been represented in the studio as an extra guest to comment on a specific issue.
In a Cornish context, we consider it frankly unacceptable that, between 2009 and 2013, the show did not once feature a MK representative as a studio guest, though we do acknowledge that an interview was recorded with Cllr Andrew Long to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of MK.
At this time, Mebyon Kernow had more Cornwall Councillors than the Labour Party, Green Party and Ukip – none of whom won any seats at the 2009 unitary authority elections.
[Three MK councillors were elected to Cornwall Council in 2009, a fourth was elected at a by-election in 2011, and two more councillors defected to the Party bringing our number to six.]
Sadly, for Mebyon Kernow, this relative strength was studiously ignored by the BBC.
In order to emphasise the unfairness of the BBC’s approach, we would like to compare coverage given to MK and the Labour Party between 2009 and 2013. It is fair to say that representatives of the Labour Party appeared on the regional element of the Sunday Politics, week in and week out. And yet, during this period, Labour did not have any unitary authority seats until it won a single seat in a by-election in 2010, it had no MPs in Cornwall, it was not represented in the European Parliament and, in the 2009 EU election, polled less votes than MK.
Indeed, the single Labour Cornwall Councillor became a regular guest on the programme immediately following her election, whereas councillors from the larger MK group on the unitary authority were never invited to take part as studio guests.
This under-representation continues and we can confirm that over the last 12 months, no MK guests have been invited to appear on the programme.
6.0 The way forward
We would request that the BBC seriously consider the points raised in this letter, and to meet with representatives of Mebyon Kernow to address how we can be assured of fairer coverage in the future.
We look forward to hearing from you in the near-future.