A last-minute decision by the BBC saw an episode of topical comedy panel show Have I Got News For You – featuring regular team captains Ian Hislop and Paul Merton – pulled from the BBC1 schedule on Friday 10th May because it risked flouting broadcasting guidelines around the forthcoming European elections.
But what exactly was the issue? What are the broadcasting rules? How was Change UK party leader Heidi Allen involved? And why did the guidelines not apply to appearances from other European parliamentary candidates such as Nigel Farage?
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Why was Friday’s episode of Have I Got News For You pulled from BBC1?
Have I Got News For You was pulled from the schedule and replaced with an episode of a less topical comedy panel show – Would I Lie To You? – because the BBC feared it contravened guidelines around balanced representation ahead of the European Parliament elections, due to the inclusion of Heidi Allen, the acting leader of new political party Change UK.
Why wasn’t Heidi Allen allowed to appear on Have I Got News For You?
Under Ofcom guidelines and the BBC’s own rules around election periods, the broadcaster is obliged to provide a balanced spread of political views when party representatives appear on programmes.
Ofcom rules state: “Due weight must be given to the coverage of parties and independent candidates during the election period. In determining the appropriate level of coverage to be given to parties and independent candidates broadcasters must take into account evidence of past electoral support and/or current support. Broadcasters must also consider giving appropriate coverage to parties and independent candidates with significant views and perspectives.”
Because Allen represented only one part of the political spectrum, and her views were not balanced by the appearance on the show of other opposing politicians, the BBC took the view that the programme should not be broadcast.
When was the show recorded and why did the BBC decide to pull it so late?
The episode of Have I Got News For You hosted by Jo Brand, and due to air at 9pm on Friday 10th May, was recorded the day before on Thursday 9th.
Hat Trick Productions, which makes the show, said on Friday that it had been told of the decision “late this afternoon”.
With tongue firmly in cheek, the company added in a statement “To be fair, you can forgive the BBC Editorial Policy Unit for having overlooked that fact [that Heidi Allen was on the panel] until now (including when they came along to the recording last night).”
In the interests of absolute clarity, a BBC spokesperson told RadioTimes.com “it is untrue that anyone from editorial policy attends the recording – we have a lawyer there to check for issues such as defamation or contempt”.
What did the BBC say about the decision to pull Have I Got News For You?
The BBC said it was “inappropriate to feature political party leaders” during an election period.
“The BBC has specific editorial guidelines that apply during election periods,” it said in a statement.
“Because of this it would be inappropriate to feature political party leaders on entertainment programmes during this short election period, which does not allow for equal representation to be achieved.”
What did Heidi Allen say about the decision?
The acting leader of new political party Change UK – The Independent Group said she was puzzled by the decision and asked for an explanation.
What have I done……?! pic.twitter.com/7AtrUf25gG— Heidi Allen (@heidiallen75) May 9, 2019
She also referenced Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage’s recent appearance on BBC1’s Question Time.
“Maybe I’m just not as funny as Nigel Farage,” she tweeted, adding “An explanation would be appreciated, not least to acknowledge the hard work of the entire crew who worked diligently to put the show together.”
Maybe I'm just not as funny as Nigel Farage eh #hignfy @haveigotnews !? He's so funny, he seems to be on the BBC all the time! An explanation would be appreciated, not least to acknowledge the hard work of the entire crew who worked diligently to put the show together. https://t.co/lV6ZDa90qr— Heidi Allen (@heidiallen75) May 10, 2019
What did Have I Got News For You say about the decision?
Have I Got News For You used its Twitter account to apologise for the late decision and – as you might expect from a political satire show – squeezed in a few jokes along the way.
When are the European elections and how long does the ‘notice’ period extend?
The European Parliament elections are due to take place in the UK on 23rd May.
According to Ofcom guidelines, impartiality rules around the elections are in force during a notice period that begins 25 days before the election and ends when the polls close.
“For European parliamentary elections, it is the last date for publication of the notice of election, which is 25 days before the election. In all cases the period ends with the close of the poll.
Why was Nigel Farage allowed to appear on Question Time – and Have I Got News For You?
Many people – including Heidi Allen herself and the Have I Got News For You team – have questioned why the BBC allowed Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage to appear on Thursday’s Question Time, just one day before Have I Got News For You was pulled for featuring Allen.
‘Have I Got News For You’ forced by BBC executives to drop its programme today because they were featuring the wrong party leader. Only Farage is allowed on the BBC. Everyone else constitutes bias!— Andrew Adonis (@Andrew_Adonis) May 11, 2019
However, under BBC/Ofcom rules, Farage’s inclusion was allowed because he appeared alongside other politicians, including the Conservatives’ Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd, Labour’s Shadow Economic Minister Jonathan Reynolds and Change UK MP Anna Soubry, thus fulfilling the impartiality criteria.
Perhaps more striking in the context of this current row, is the fact that in 2014, around a month prior to the last European Parliament elections, Farage appeared on an episode of – you guessed it – Have I Got News For You.
Why was that shown when Heidi Allen’s episode was pulled? Well, the exact date of the broadcast is not clear but it seems it must have fallen just outside the 25 day period prior to the elections during which the impartiality rules apply.
Will the episode of Have I Got News For You featuring Heidi Allen ever be shown?
Quite possibly. The BBC said in a statement: “We will look to broadcast this episode at a later date.”