The 650 | 18th May 2017

The manifestos are out – but don’t expect broadcasters to talk policy

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Cardiff University research shows while coverage of parties and leaders is balanced, policy information is limited

After two weeks of election campaigning, which issues have dominated election coverage? Our research finds BBC and ITV evening bulletins have become more focussed on campaign process compared to coverage of the 2015 election, with policy issues pushed down the agenda.

Whereas 64.8 per cent of BBC news items were about policy at this stage of the 2015 campaign, this has fallen by over 10 per cent to 54 per cent in this campaign. Likewise, ITV reported more substantive issues in the opening part of the last campaign, but its coverage has dropped to 48.5% in 2017.

While the BBC remains the most policy-driven broadcaster, second place might surprise you: Channel 5 is not far behind, having increased its reporting of policy from 37.5 per cent in 2015 to 53.3 per cent in 2017.

The most reported aspect of election coverage is campaign process – accounting for 51 per cent of all television news items – which often centres on the horse race between parties and their electoral strategies, rallies or events. Brexit and the NHS remain the dominant issues of the campaign so far, with social policy areas such as unemployment, welfare, and housing making up a tiny fraction of the news agenda.

Overall, the UK’s main evening bulletins dedicated the same proportion of their news agenda to reporting the 2017 campaign compared to 2015 – approximately 38 per cent of all items – but the prominence of coverage fell on some channels.

The BBC, for instance, led with election coverage for14 days in 2017 compared to 12 in 2015. Channel 4 increased its headline coverage from seven to 11. Given the French Presidential elections and the ongoing shenanigans of the Trump administration in Washington, the UK general election campaign has maintained its prominence on television news.

However, only a few items have specifically lead with clear policy initiatives a political party is championing – in tax, energy and immigration – ahead of election day. Much of the opening week was preoccupied by May’s Brexit relationship with EU officials and the local election results, whereas the focal point in the second week was on Labour’s leaked manifesto.

In this sense, coverage of the two main parties has balanced out, with Labour and Conservatives making up 42.5% and 39.3% of all television news airtime respectively. Overall, they accounted for 81.8% of airtime granted to all parties, despite only making up 67.3% share of votes in the 2015 election.

In other words, there has been precious little airtime for other parties – such as the SNP, Greens, Plaid Cymru and Ukip – to advance their agenda so far in the campaign. With May and Corybn refusing to participate in the ITV leaders’ debate, it opens up the opportunity for Nicola Sturgeon, Tim Farron, Paul Nuttall, Leanne Wood and Caroline Lucas to gain some invaluable national exposure.

In the battle for party leaders’ airtime, once again Labour and Conservative remain dominant. Across all television news bulletins, May made up 41.7 per cent of airtime compared to Corbyn’s 39.2 per cent.

Of course, airtime alone does not necessarily translate into balanced coverage between the two main parties. Clearly, much of Corbyn’s coverage has been about his leadership, since the leaked manifesto raised questions about his credibility and Labour’s party unity. In doing so, many Labour policies received airtime, but much of the focus was less about unpacking their proposals – scrapping tuition fees or renationalising railways – and more about the party’s campaign professionalism.

Without each policy being fully costed or defended after the leak, it also allowed the Conservatives to attack Corbyn’s economic competence, which remains a clear Labour weakness according to opinion polls.

Indeed, the context in which broadcasters explain the parties’ policies is critical to how many viewers will interpret or understand them. After all, polls show many people remain sceptical of Corbyn’s leadership, but largely supportive of Labour’s policy agenda. The challenge for Labour is how far they can effectively communicate these policies before election day and make them appear credible.

Our analysis of television news bulletins shows most election items either have no or just some policy information in them. We found, for example, just 5 per cent of Channel 5 election news items contained detailed coverage of policy issues, compared to just under a quarter of items on Sky and BBC bulletins.

Put another way, many election items may contain passing references to policy issues, but they are not routinely unpacked and explained for viewers. Faced with little policy information, voters may be more swayed by the personalities of leaders than the policies likely to affect them.

With just a few weeks left of the campaign, broadcasters still have a major role to play in informing people about the policies of competing parties and scrutinising the credibility of their proposals.

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.