The 650 | 25th May 2017

Broadcasters are now talking policy – but the BBC are preoccupied with leadership

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Policy issues overwhelmingly dominated the third week of the election campaign, our latest Cardiff University study of TV news found.  Almost 8 in ten items on the evening bulletins were primarily about policy issues, compared to less than half in the previous two weeks of the campaign.

The enhanced policy focus was largely due to both Conservatives and Labour launching their manifestos. While the BBC remained the most policy-driven – with 89.7 per cent of its election coverage about policy – Channel 5 and ITV were not far behind at 86.4 per cent and 82.4 per cent respectively. About 7 in ten Sky and Channel 4 news items were about policy news – a far higher proportion of issues compared to previous weeks of the campaign.

Most TV election news is reported in pre-edited packages, typically following the main parties on the campaign trail in carefully choreographed rallies or walkabouts. While Theresa May has come under fire for limiting access to journalists at her campaign events, Jeremy Corbyn has led a more open campaign, with huge crowds of people acting as backdrop to his events. How far these images effect voting attentions remains highly questionable, but visually at least Labour appear to be running a ‘popular’ campaign.

As expected, broadcasters broadly balanced Conservative and Labour perspectives.  However, limited time was again granted to the smaller parties, despite ITV’s televised leaders’ debates featuring the Liberal Democrats, Greens, SNP, UKIP and Plaid Cymru. Compared to the 2010 and 2015 election campaigns, leaders’ debates or interviews have barely featured so far on TV news bulletins.

However, it is not only party leaders that play a prominent role in election campaigns. Political editors and correspondents often become a focal point – see the BBC’s Newswatch for example – with their judgements on the day’s campaigning in live two-ways a regular fixture in TV bulletins. But how far do political reporters appear in election coverage?

In the three weeks of the election coverage so far, live two-ways made up between 17 per cent to 22 per cent of airtime across the commercial bulletins. However, just 11 per cent of BBC airtime was spent in live two-ways, perhaps because it is the broadcaster most sensitive about remaining impartial. Two-ways, after all, grant considerable power to reporters – letting them define the day’s campaign – and push broadcast news towards a more opinionated form of journalism. Yet, at their best, two-ways give reporters the licence to cut through the spin of parties and contextualise complex policy debates.

Our analysis of election news shows most reporters use live two-ways to discuss policy issues.  ITV news – in particular Robert Peston – spent 64.8 per cent of airtime considering issues in live two-ways, compared to Sky’s 58.5 per cent, Channel 5’s 45.1 per cent and Channel 4’s 41 per cent. By contrast, just 29.9 per cent of BBC live two-ways were primarily about policy, with the remaining 70.1 per cent of airtime largely focussed on campaign strategy and leadership.

Since reporters have limited time in live two-ways, BBC reporters may be reluctant to enter into policy debates for fear of accusations about bias. But by privileging process over policy coverage, this does not mean reporting is ideologically neutral.

Take, for example, a BBC reporter’s interpretation of Labour’s leaked manifesto:

In the end, Huw, it comes down to faith, which Jeremy Corbyn has in abundance and in public trust, which as of now he presently lacks and needs to build up, if this whole plan is to become a radical plan for government and not simply end up as a sort  of curiosity left over after a failed political experiment on June 8 (BBC, 11 May).

Skating over the policies leaked in the manifesto, the reporter focussed on Corbyn’s leadership credentials and the credibility of his electoral prospects. Likewise, when May launched the party’s manifesto in a Labour heartland, the two-way became less about the policies proposed and more about the Conservative’s strategy to hoover up votes:

 But I think more than anything, this idea of a mainstream politician for the mainstream tells us that she is determined to try to scoop up votes in every    corner of the country, whether that’s taking votes from Labour here in Yorkshire, from the SNP in Scotland, holding off the Lib Dem challenge in the south-west, or appealing to Ukip voters everywhere, she wants to take on all comers, and she wants to suggest that in 2017, the Tories can appeal, well, to just about everyone. (BBC, 18 May)

Compared to Corbyn’s “radical” plans, the Conservatives were viewed as having widespread appeal – reinforcing the image of “stable and strong leadership” May has worked hard to secure.

At face value, both two-ways may appear reasonable professional judgements about the day’s campaigning. But since leadership and party unity may inform voters’ decisions ahead of election day, they promote narratives about electoral credibility that are not necessarily balanced. After all, many of Labour’s policies are broadly popular – not, in fact, that “radical” – but Corbyn’s leadership and party management are viewed more sceptically according to opinion polls.

The same point can apply to coverage of the Conservatives. Before Monday’s night terrorist attack, May’s stable leadership was being widely questioned. But arguably the lens of coverage should have been less about wobbly leadership and more about the policy implications of May’s U-turn on social care.

Given reporters help legitimatise the credibility of party leaders, shining a brighter light on their policy agendas might better serve viewers than focussing on their electoral ambitions or character traits.

The Cardiff University study examined bulletins on Channel 5 at 5pm, Channel 4 at 7pm and at 10pm on BBC, ITV and Sky News. Research by Marina Morani, Harriet Lloyd, Rob Callaghan, Lucy Bennett, Chris Healy and Sophie Puet.