Ofcom and the Union – Mediating Democracy
We’ve become used to being excluded and marginal but after a year-long insistence that we are a central and much-loved part of the UK the treatment of Scotland over the issue of the leaders debate sends a very different message. Today’s convergence-letter from the new unholy alliance of UKIP, Liberals and Labour is an addition to Ofcom’s craven attempts to define who is a ‘major party’ and therefore worthy of the public’s gaze. Today Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage have written in triplicate to David Cameron pleading with him to abide by Ofcoms decrees and exclude other political parties. It’s a sign not just of their own fearfulness but of outsourcing media democracy.
For those of us who experienced the elan of the referendum such shenanigans will seem weird and other-worldly, but such is the stagnant air of Westminster politics that an alliance between these parties to exclude other voices will be shrugged off as nothing to right home about.
If the Yes movement was about opening things up this is clearly about closing things down, shutting down voices and narrowing the scope and terms of debate. It is a sign of the experience and fallout of the referendum failing to percolate down into the sub-stratum of English media bodies. That will probably take about 25 years. We have an election in a few weeks.
As Ian Bell writes on the defining of certain groups as ‘anti-politics’: “In essence it says that anything beyond Labour, Tory and a bit of Lib Dem is not truly political, not serious, and not legitimate.’
Writing (without any apparent irony) the three great leaders write in their joint letter:
“we all accept the independence and impartiality of the broadcasters and have committed to take part in the debates” and, continuing in morbid humor they plead that it would be:
“unacceptable if the political self-interest of one party leader were to deny public opportunity to see leaders debate in public”.
Readers who remember the independence referendum might spare a snigger at the ’empty podium suggestion’. Scotland was full of empty chairs for twelve months as ‘not Unionist’ representatives refused to take part in public debate and hid from view up and down the country. Now they want to fix the media and exclude voices that might threaten them.
As Stewart Hosie MP said today:
Ukip is now part of the Westminster establishment along with Labour and the Lib Dems, and this proves it. It’s quite astounding that Labour are prepared to work with Ukip on a debate format which excludes the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens. Yesterday Labour voted with the Tories on austerity, today they are working with UKIP on debates.
A recent YouGov poll shows that most people across the UK support Nicola Sturgeon being included on the televised leaders debates – we want these debates to happen, and they must include the SNP. The polls show that south of the border, and across the nations and regions of the UK, people rightly recognise the need to have fair representation in the televised debates.
With a larger membership than the Lib Dems and UKIP combined, and more elected MPs than UKIP, the case for including the SNP is unanswerable.The addition of the SNP, Plaid and the Greens with Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett will also rightly show that politics across the UK isn’t just an old boys club.
This is not just about the SNP or Plaid Cymru, it’s about the Green Party who bring to the debate the most urgent political questions of our time. Natalie Bennett is one of the most articulate practical and radical political leaders of our time. You may not have heard of her. She’s one of the voices being sanitised by this process. The Greens at least are a pawn in Cameron’s advisor’s GE2015 game-plan, the SNP are not.
Criteria for Exclusion
Ofcom bases it’s thinking on past (and likely future) General Election performances and presence.
It’s worth remembering that the SNP have six MPs, Stewart Hosie, Angus McNeil, Angus Robertson, Eilidh Whiteford, Michael Weir, Pete Wishart; UKIP have 2 (only of whom was actually elected) whilst the Greens have 1, so, in fact, the SNP have more MPs than either combined.
In terms of political membership – according to Adam Ramsay – the SNP have double UKIP and the Lib Dems combined with 92,000 for SNP, 42,576 for Lib Dems and 41,514 for UKIP. That’s a political party from one nation with a tenth of the population of the whole but holding double the membership. The Greens are on 40, 879 (UK wide).
The old canard that only leaders who could have a chance of leading the country has been washed away. Are we seriously saying that Nick Clegg will be more influential than Alex Salmond by June? The SNP could be involved in a pact with Labour in event of hung parliament and may well be pivotal.
On that basis exclusion is a deliberate and serious distortion of democracy.
Why does this matter? Here’s Ofcom’s rules:
Rule 6.2 of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code (“the Code”) states that due weight must be given to the broadcast coverage of major parties during the election period. Under Ofcom’s Rules on Party Political and Referendum Broadcasts (“”) all major parties must be offered at least two Party Election Broadcasts on Channel 3 services (ITV, STV and UTV), Channel 4, Channel 5, Classic FM, Talksport and Absolute Radio. The Code and PPRB Rules also lay out rules for the treatment of other registered parties. Ofcom has strict rules in place for broadcasters to ensure fair coverage during the run up to the General Election. Broadcasters must ensure that all coverage, including any possible leadership debates, complies with rules concerning due impartiality and elections, as set out in the Code.
What’s this got to do with Ofcom anyway?
While the regulator doesn’t have a view on TV debates specifically, the Ofcom code that broadcasters have to follow generally—in terms of fairness and impartiality—still applies. And one of these rules says that “Due weight must be given to the coverage of major parties during the election period.”
In that sense it is a cloak of acceptability for the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 to hide behind. ‘We’re impartial we’re just following the guidelines’ they’ll argue as they trundle out three identikit politicians and one raffish rogue in Farage, destined to become the ‘I agree with Nick’ standout in this pre-determined media circus.
What should Plaid and SNP do?
The Factchecker website writes:
“In 2010, both Plaid Cymru and the SNP complained to Ofcom that it was a breach of the code to exclude them from the debates in that year—both failed in their challenge, partly because they were ‘major parties’ in Wales/Scotland only, and the debates were about an all-UK election.
What Ofcom said as that in reviewing the list of ‘major parties’, its “initial view” is that the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats should remain as ‘major parties’ in Great Britain (but not Northern Ireland), and that UKIP should be added to the list for England and Wales (but not Scotland).
It considered the claims of the Green Party, and rejected them. The provisional decision was based on past election results and current polling support. You can read a summary of its reasoning here and the full report here.
Political parties and other “stakeholders” have until 5 February to persuade Ofcom to change its mind.”
It’s not just about media coverage and exposure, it’s about being seen to be a player. This process, being fought-out this week is defining and re-defining the terms of acceptable political discourse.
It is completely unacceptable and we predict, and will lead, a campaign against a media blackout and an Orwellian definition of ‘acceptable politics’ around a coterie of a failed unified political elite.
Guardian Torygraph and YouTube Democracy
Earlier in the week a consortium led by the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and YouTube proposed a Green-including Digital Debate, which is great, but also useless and perpetuates the anglocentric media world that wraps around us like a fog.
A statement from the Guardian read: “In a letter to the leaders of the five parties (sic) – the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the UK Independence party (Ukip) and the Greens – the Digital Debate consortium says it is not bound by Ofcom rules and is therefore free to invite all five parties to take part in its debate.
The letter says: “We write, following the publication by Ofcom of its draft determination on the major parties list, to invite you to take part in an online debate with the party leaders of the five main UK-wide political parties. As we have outlined previously, an online debate can be flexible as to formats and the number of leaders involved. As such, the Digital Debate is ideally suited to host a debate between the leaders of the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Ukip and Green parties.”
So in one week we have two letters both characterised by being hopelessly out of touch and anti-democratic.
So it comes down to the Daily Telegraph and YouTube on one side and UKIP and Red Ed in the other. As Carl Maxim tweeted: “For the sake of fairness, we should have leadership debates featuring empty chairs from all the main parties.”
The reality is that we should reject Ofcom as some kind of honest broker in this process when they are clearly complicit in a political act.