The general election 2017 is upon us. But if you tune in to the radio or TV on Thursday 8th June before 10pm, don’t expect to hear anything about any of the parties’ frantic last minute campaigning: broadcasters simply aren’t allowed to talk about any of it until the polls close.
What will happen on election day?
On Thursday 8th June, broadcasters – and all media outlets – will stop reporting on any election campaigns from 12:30am. There will be a weird day of slightly stilted reporting until the restriction ends at 10pm when polls close.
This will apply to TV and radio and print media. It also extends to all news websites, although only to newly-published material: old articles don’t have to be taken down.
Reports will be restricted to factual accounts of what’s going on, and awkward shots of politicians striding into and out of polling stations to cast their ballots.
Under the 1983 Representation of the People Act it is a criminal offence to publish an opinion or exit poll before the polls close at 10pm, or even to publicly broadcast a prediction of the results based on an exit poll.
The point of this is that if exit polls revealed a runaway winner, that might affect voters who still hadn’t cast their ballot – messing with the whole democratic process.
What about Twitter and Facebook?
Social media is tricky when it comes to making rules. Certainly the broadcasters’ official Facebook and Twitter accounts must steer clear of reporting on the campaigns. But individual journalists – particularly broadcasters – must also be careful about what they say on social media. It remains to be seen where the line is drawn on tweeting about the general election 2017.
What special impartiality rules were in place during the campaign?
Specific rules set out by law and by Ofcom kicked in soon after the Prime Minister and parliament called the general election for 8th June.
The intention of these rules is to ensure none of the political parties or candidates get an unfair advantage through partial reporting or a disproportionate amount of screen time. They are also designed to “help secure the integrity of the democratic process”.
Who does this apply to?
These restrictions, spelled out in the Ofcom code, apply to all broadcasters including the BBC, Sky, Channel 4 and ITV. They apply to community radio stations, music channels, and political panel shows alike.
However, these rules actually don’t apply to newspapers – as you’d probably guess by the fact that national papers can actually call on their readers to vote for particular parties.
When does the ‘election period’ begin?
With the announcement of the dissolution of parliament.
After Prime Minister Theresa May announced the snap general election, that announcement took place on 27th April 2017 when an announcement was read on behalf of the Queen in the House of Lords chamber.
The actual dissolution then took place on 3rd May, by which time the rules had already kicked in.
What are the restrictions?
For one thing, broadcast journalists must be wary about pushing their own agenda. The Ofcom Code warns: “It is not acceptable for presenters to use their position to encourage and urge voters to support political parties or candidates.”
Broadcasters do sometimes fall foul of this rule: a DJ at community radio station Resonance FM breached the rules in 2014 by declaring his support for Scottish independence while the polls were open. And TalkSport’s James Whale got into trouble for urging viewers to vote for Ken Livingstone over Boris Johnson in the London mayoral election.
Ofcom adds: “Candidates in UK elections must not act as news presenters, interviewers or presenters of any type of programme during the election period.” So if Nigel Farage had, for example, decided to stand for election yet again, he’d have had to give up his LBC radio show.
Certain rules are also laid down in the 1983 Representation of the People Act, which specifically makes it an offence to intentionally publish a false claim that a candidate has withdrawn from the election in order to promote the election of another candidate.
And then, of course, there’s the thorny question of providing “due weight” to the different political parties and candidates.
What does “due weight” mean?
What it doesn’t mean is that exactly equal time should be given to the Conservative and Labour parties, or that each and every party should get the same amount of time on screen.
Ofcom rule state: “Due weight must be given to the coverage of larger parties during the election period,” but the regulator also accepts that the concept is “flexible”.
It also states that broadcasters should consider giving “appropriate coverage” to minor parties and independent candidates “with significant views and perspectives,” which is good news for smaller parties like Ukip or the Greens or the Women’s Equality Party who only have a shot at a handful of seats.
And when it comes to deciding what level of coverage to give the different candidates, broadcasters can make a judgement call based on “any measurable and objective evidence of the likely level of electoral support for particular candidates.” Essentially, if you are doing very badly in the polls, you may be entitled to less coverage.
On a constituency level, if a candidate takes part in an item about their area, each of the candidates of the “larger parties” must be offered the opportunity to take part in the broadcast, as must any smaller parties or independent candidates with a good degree of local support. If they refuse to take part, the bulletin can be aired anyway – but the offer MUST be made.
What are the rules about leaders’ debates?
There is no obligation on broadcasters to transmit leaders’ or candidates’ debates, but in recent elections the BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4 have all adopted the practice. There is no rule about what editorial format these programmes should take, but they must preserve “due impartiality”.
When it comes to election programming, the broadcasters are allowed to focus on the larger parties that have a realistic shot at forming a Government.
They must ensure that they give “adequate coverage” to the larger parties in the election, either in the same programme or in linked programming. But if a politician (say, Theresa May) turns down an invitation to a leaders’ debate and it goes ahead without her, that’s not something the broadcaster will be held accountable for.
The general election will take place on Thursday 8th June, with polls closing at 10pm