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Ofcom and the Union – Mediating Democracy

B7TI9DPIAAE0XI2.jpg largeBy Mike Small

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.

B63SjHgCEAAiu3KFor 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).


Thanks to Adam Ramsay / Open Democracy

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.

Comments (39)

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  1. Geel says:

    Apparently “I’m not a Unionist” is the new slogan though 🙂

  2. Great article once again by Mike it just proves how they perceive us as not even meriting a place on the top shows lets show them lets go for a U.I.D with a majority vote for SNP with these new cuts coming and labour and libdems in bed with ukkip now it’s only going to get worse the lies after lies and seeing us as behind ukkip should be the last straw remember the corporate hammer they smashed us with the unfairness of it all the sudden realisation of no voters that they were duped lets rewrite the wrongs by making all our no voter friends and family see them for what they are we’re second rate now to them it’s only us via communication that can change this via delivering 100%snp victory in the May election this is achievable due to the mounting evidence of lies cheating back stabbing and dishonesty by the lab libdems and torys who are wielding a axe at our services as we speak it’s mobilisation of the nation time to show them we can do it don’t think or feel we can’t our positivity alone will see it happen engage and educate now for a free Scotland free of cuts and free of Westminster rule UDI is the way to dump this lot !

    1. stubetsolais says:

      It’s time to take the gloves off!!

    2. mike walker says:

      You snp and plaid vymru are national parties.They should have no say on who runs GB

      1. Mike Walker; Not when Westminster massages the figures and statistics against Scotland.Syphoning more money to government controlled con constituency’s.

      2. Ken Waldron says:

        From which we might conclude you believe GB doesn’t include Scotland or Wales? Sorry: you can’t have it both ways.

  3. Reblogged this on Bampots Utd and commented:
    Another great read from Bella and Mike a would ask all bampots to start the ball rolling in engaging in the community’s they live that they were duped and can right this wrong via a snp vote in May get along to all grass rot events and make sure you all join the snp online accounts to keep up to date with all the latest info and events take a lead roll in the run up to May remember the wee lassies in the square getting spat on and there flag stole do it for them communication is the key here !
    Energise engage elaborate
    The three e,s to victory !

  4. Optimistic Till I Die says:

    Sure the current setup is undemocratic and unlikely to change but I wonder what the rationale would become if the SNP put up candidates across the UK. The cost would be minimal, especially considering the prizes of either DevoMax or Independence, and Its a cheeky suggestion but, as the YES movement indicated, why should politics always be staid and stuffy

    1. Doug Daniel says:

      Minimal? £500 for your deposit, multiplied by 591 to stand in every extra constituency, that’s almost £300,000 before you’ve even started! Manageable with 93,000 members, but not exactly small change.

    2. Brian Fleming says:

      The SNP would have to change the party’s constitution to do it, and I can’t see that being done before May 7.

  5. S Tilbury says:

    Given that Labour canvassers in London report that they are picking up SNP support, I think the SNP should indeed put up at least one candidate in each country. The media must be played at their own game.

  6. fermerfaefife says:

    the only way this can be sorted is by court challenge / judicial revue – SNP+ Plaid+ greens need to get their act together and start threatening the broadcasters/Ofcom. There is no way that labour and tories should get an EXTRA four or five hours of unchallenged broadcast time – it makes a mockery of all the fairness pish around equal party political broadcasts that may amount to max 1/2 hour during the campaign.
    In this modern era, you cant blackout the main debate due to iplayer and internet, never mind the headlines and tv commentary & news that follow the debate.
    It either includes all the leaders or shouldn’t happen. It affects the democracy in every single constituency.
    Funny how Westminster parliament best and better together one month and democratic deficit the next – they cant have it both ways.

    1. Lee Kindness says:

      Indeed – Judicial Review.

  7. Jean Brown says:

    It will soon be Burns Night. Can’t wait to see Uncle Gordon being piped in as a haggis! And singing, “I vow to thee my country..”.

  8. bringiton says:

    Surely it is becoming clear to all Scots that this is an election to decide England’s government and by default Scotland’s budget for the next 4/5 years.
    We don’t count and never did.

    1. jimnarlene says:

      Nail hit squarely, on the head.

  9. Iain Arnott says:

    Yes, agree that SNP putting up candidates in selected constituencies (or constituency, singular?) outwith Scotland might tick an elegibilty box as far as Ofcom are concerned – in fact I had heard recently – within the last month- of a South of Scotland MSP who had floated the idea of standing in the Berwick Upon Tweed constituency – which does have a degree of credibility, you could argue. Perhaps that is all it would take? (I shudder to think of reaction down South from certain quarters at at widespread ‘incursions by SNP!)

    1. fermerfaefife says:

      Now – there are going to be a tribe of unsuccessful candidates from the SNP selection Hustings – why not set up a dozen or so to fight seats in England – The SNP can brand itself as the progressive left of centre option / anti austerity vote – after all labour , tories and lib dems all signed up for £30 billion cuts yesterday.

      Im sure they could fight under the SNP banner (so SNP get to take part in debates) but brand themselves as possibly “Progressive Alliance” so that after this election in the future there is that option for the electorate to vote outside the main 3 parties.

      Plaid SNP and English Progressives could ally themselves to form a block vote in Westminster – the more of “other” MP’s the more chances of hung parliaments and the stronger Scotlands voice.

  10. Steve Asaneilean says:

    As far as I understand it the LibDems have a federal structure and are made up of multiple smaller parties (unlike Lbaour and Conservative) so they can’t be called a “major party ” either.

    1. macnakamura says:

      Slight amendment ….. hope you do not mind !

      “and are made up of multiple even much smaller, almost imperceptible parties”

  11. Roland Chaplain says:

    SNP (Scotland’s New Politics) candidates should stand elsewhere in the UK. Candidates from the anti-democratic traditional Westminster Parties need to be challenged by those who realise that something transformative has happened in Scotland. We want to share our vision as widely as possible.

  12. Peter Arnott says:

    Now…be fair.We had the choice last year between fucking off or shutting up. I didn’t see “be treated seriously” anywhere on the ballot paper. And we voted for shutting up. So we’d better not get above ourselves and expect to be visible…or audible…till we hold the balance of power, anyway….

  13. Monty says:

    “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”

    Brilliant stuff.

  14. ELAINE FRASER says:


    I had one eye on the Daily Politics this lunch time ( I know …I know… BBC2 ! ) but they had a short piece on ’empty chair’ syndrome with regard to politicians refusing to appear on their programme or frequently cancelling at last minute .

    I remember Bella were monitoring ‘no shows’ from No side during referendum campaign as their preferred tactic for closing down debate.

    Does anyone have details/ stats on this ? I thought I heard Andrew Neil saying something about more on ’empty chair’ in next programme or maybe ‘will return to this at later date ‘. Although to be honest I was , for some reason, only half listening .

    Very very long shot I know but maybe should do their work for them and provide specific examples to try to expose and bring to wider public attention . I don’t think ordinary members of public have any idea of tricks of trade now regularly deployed .

  15. fermerfaefife says:

    Lets say the SNP decide to stand in English seats as “SNP – National Progressive Alliance” to allow English voters a choice and an option to vote for an anti austerity agenda – which seats are most vulnerable ? I would suspect a lib dem seat with labour in 2nd place with thin majority or a labour seat with libdems in 2nd place. The mere presence of an SNP candidate might be enough to alter the outcome ?

  16. Ann Rayner says:

    Agree completely with those suggesting SNp stand in England – how about Berwick, Newcastle and Corby for openers? Possible slogans ‘EVEL’ or ‘Vote SNP for and English Patliament’.

    1. Norwaywalker says:

      …. And perhaps in Bath, to give Rev Stu somebody to vote for.

    2. davidmccann24 says:

      Completely agree more with above. Why should the SNP from the get go, not put its candidates up under the banner of SNP- Scottish National Party- National Progressive Alliance?
      Then put candidates up in as many or few constituencies as it deems appropriate
      That way it ticks all the boxes.

  17. Tarisgal says:

    I have been thinking the same re SNP candidates standing in England (think it’s a BRILLIANT idea!) but hoped someone wiser and more knowledgeable about this would suggest it as I just don’t have the political background of rules etc… I do believe as others have said, that the SNP have to employ the same warfare tactics that the ‘others’ do. I don’t want to go so far as to suggest they wander into the realms of ‘immoral’ as some parties/MSM have. Thankfully I think they are of sounder ethics with enough information and knowledge to not have to go there… But I do believe that they have to fight fire with fire (to the ‘moral’ point)… Okay – if the SNP is seen as ‘regional’ then perhaps it’s time to go up to the next league table… Candidates in the ‘rUK’! Who knows… perhaps they might even win one! Lol! Perhaps even Liverpool would vote for an SNP – (‘National Progressive Alliance’ or something equally suggestive that it would involve and include English voters) candidate, as they seemed quite sympathetic to Alex Salmond and Scotland’s need to feel ‘included’ in British politics… It’s worth a thinking about, at least. At worst they lose a few deposits, at best they HAVE TO be included in nation-wide ‘air time’…

  18. Darien says:

    Standing candidates in England is not on the SNP agenda for the 2015 GE. Unfortunately, neither is independence, even if they achieve a Scots majority of 30+ seats. These SNP MP’s will instead sit in Westminster for the next 5 years taking the unionist shilling, and the insults, arguing in vain for more crumbs. They should find a spine and use their Scots majority as a mandate to declare what the party stands for – independence.

    1. Caw Canny, Caw Canny.Do not de-fib. the weak hearts

  19. A decision made to ghettoise the sweaty socks by an establishment that is contemptuous of us. I guarantee someone from the uncle tam nomenclatura who’s not the full shilling (my money’s on Carmichael [not the brightest bulb on the christmas tree]) is going to offer the bromide that confining us to televised debates broadcast in Scotland, simply means we are “separate but equal”.

    There is a new exclusionary policy bent on creating an apartheid to contain the jocks. Scots are the new black. Ofcom and the beeb, obeying their masters have already told us to sit at the back of the bus.

    I think the decision not to include the SNP in UK-wide debates on the basis that it is a regional party constitutes segregation. After all the three main pro-Union parties are regional too, with no presence in NI. UKIP has zero chance of wining the election, yet they are to be included.

    The pro-Scotland party is then, being excluded simply because it is Scottish, and that is by definition a racist act.

    We can now look to concerted efforts to de-scotify Scotland. Start slowly. Make the nationalist scum carry the Union Flag with them wherever they go – PUT IN ON THE DRIVING LICENCE! Brilliant Cedric! Wizard prang!

    Clearly the lesson to be drawn is we are better apart and independent than a part, as a vassal state, of a Greater England.

    Better to risk the uncertainties of independence than the certainty of becoming a neglected and reviled low-opportunity Celtic backwater of in an indifferent union.

  20. Brian Fleming says:

    becoming? Surely that’s already the case?

  21. liz says:

    Is there any way to extend this ‘alliance’ by having SNP & Plaid Cymru & NI parties under one banner? An alliance of Non-English parties because lets face it the Brit Establishment are taking the piss so why should we?

    On a more serious note does anyone have a knowledge of EU overseeing the political process?

    The other point is Nick Clegg is an establishment stooge and who cares what he thinks.

  22. Hugo says:

    Let’s show these Establishment tubes that with or without a presence in the TV debates that the Scottish people have had enough of their crap, by returning an overwhelming SNP victory in the GE, sending Labour into the doldrums where they belong. Let’s shut Murphy up once and for all, with his new found “patriotism”.
    Bearing in mind that the Yes campaign galvanised Scottish voters, let none of us forget how important it is to once again let our voices be heard.I repeat ,we must mobilise and vote SNP and strip the labour gravy train of as many seats as possible…..we must not let ourselves down.

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