If you have been following British politics over the past few months, you may have noticed the tenor of coverage has changed somewhat. While right up until an election was called following the passing of the Early Parliamentary General Election Act on October 29, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was often presented as a flailing, doddering old Marxist who wants to turn the UK into a sort of colder Venezuela, now he is, perhaps, not? This viral tweet attributed the change to election coverage regulations, which was met by Americans with a resounding “election coverage what?”
“Corbyn always goes from shit to brilliant as soon as the election broadcasting regulations, designed to force neutral coverage by the press, go into effect. It’s quite weird and surely a coincidence” pic.twitter.com/0U5OGVmzXj— free squid (Vote Labour 12/12) (@labour_noutes) November 6, 2019
If you've grown up in the UK, the idea that (at least) some news media is supposed to be “impartial” is just one you sort of take for granted. So attempting to explain why they exist is a bit like trying to explain why we call blue, “blue.” (I mean... we just sort of... do?). Intuitively, it seems strange to me that American media wouldn't have at least some sort of equivalent to these regulations (although, it doesn't actually seem all that strange when I reflect on this statement for more than a couple of seconds). In practice of course the “impartiality” that the BBC, in its capacity as state broadcaster, is supposed to exhibit is deeply contested terrain, but it's nevertheless been one of the defining tenets of its identity, almost since its moment of inception. Meanwhile, Ofcom — the state regulator for the broadcasting, telecommunication and postal industries — enforces certain looser norms of impartiality across all TV and radio.
During election cycles, a beefed-up version of these norms, which are typically more party-political in focus, are enforced by Ofcom instead. The BBC also has its own, more detailed, internal guidelines (see for instance this document governing coverage of the May 2019 local government elections in parts of England and Northern Ireland).
Quite simply, the regulations prohibit broadcasters from explicitly endorsing any particular party or candidate. This also relates to a somewhat more complicated ideal — that of the “due weight” that must be given to the various competing perspectives being put to the voters. As the 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.”
What this means is that broadcasters must, as per Ofcom's own explanatory notes, give an equal focus (for instance, in terms of time) to all of “those parties that have a realistic prospect of forming the UK government following the election in question.” Representation of other parties is then pretty much open to editorial discretion.
The guidelines prohibit British broadcasters from turning their stations into mouthpieces for one particular party or politician.
Of course, in the UK this immediately becomes particularly complex because regionalism is such a strong presence in national electoral politics: the third-largest party in Westminster is the Scottish National Party, which has no prospect of forming the UK government, as it only runs in Scotland — meanwhile, seats in Northern Ireland are contested by various parties that only run there: the region is typically divided between the hard-right Democratic Unionist Party, and Sinn Fein, who never even take up their seats in Westminster as this would mean they'd have to swear an oath of loyalty to the Queen. Meanwhile, the centrist Liberal Democrats — who won only 12 seats in the last general election — like to insist they have a chance of winning the coming election on the basis of their strong performance in the May 2019 European elections; although others would respond to that claim with the argument that the Lib Dems are cynical fantasists and weird liars.
Other guidelines regulate the media activities of electoral candidates — for instance, they are not allowed to act as news presenters or interviewers (Rule 6.6) or be booked to appear on non-political programmes (Rule 6.7) (although they can honor bookings that were made before the election was called). Coverage of particular constituencies must find some way of listing all the candidates standing, giving full names and surnames in addition to party affiliations (Rule 6.10). On polling day itself, all “discussion and analysis of electoral issues” must cease completely on broadcast media (Rule 6.4).
In short: the guidelines prohibit British broadcasters from turning their stations into mouthpieces for one particular party or politician. If a television station spends the whole election having the Home Secretary present a prime time entertainment show about how they’re going to protect everyone from some set of invented criminals, or only covers Lib Dem Skills Wallets instead of Labour plans for a National Education Service, it risks getting fined or losing its licence.
All of this probably sounds like it’s unequivocally a Good Thing: on the surface, it appears to curtail the British media's ability to do things equivalent to wilfully excluding Bernie Sanders from news graphics, or finding ways of making it look like Sanders isn't polling as well in key battleground states as he in fact is — shenanigans beautifully crystallized by The Onion in the phrase “plummeted two points up.”
Indeed, Labour's sudden surge of success in the 2017 general election has at times been attributed to the media, suddenly bound by impartiality regulations, being forced to cover the party and their policies a bit more charitably. Naturally, of course, any equivalent regulations in the US would have to be a lot more sweeping — as America is in a permanent state of Having An Election; no sooner has one president been elected than the primaries to select the next contender(s) must begin. (The FCC does enforce an “Equal-time rule,” although this only pertains to political advertising).
But in practice, it's worth noting, the UK's media impartiality guidelines are really very limited. Most obviously, they only cover the broadcast media that is regulated by Ofcom — newspapers can still say pretty much whatever they like. Hence the previous week has seen front pages claiming, for instance, that Labour's policies will cost each British household £43,000 ($55,200), or declaring in very stark terms that “the vast majority of British Jews consider Jeremy Corbyn to be an anti-semite.” Even BBC impartiality guidelines offer no protection against incompetence, whether genuine or deliberate, as yesterday’s controversy over the BBC airing old footage of Boris Johnson laying a Remembrance Sunday wreath (as opposed to this year’s footage, where he laid a wreath upside down) helps show.
Already, it is becoming clear that the 2019 UK General Election will be fought with fake news, shitposts, and memes.
Moreover, both print and broadcast media are increasingly being eclipsed by — and merged with — social media: just over a hundred thousand people might watch a political interview on a traditional broadcaster live, but if the broadcaster then shares a clip of said interview in a tweet, it could potentially reach an audience of millions. And the regulatory climate when it comes to social media is, of course, even murkier — differing wildly from platform to platform. Twitter has recently banned political ads entirely, but Facebook is happy to allow candidates to buy ads that make false claims (the Tories have already been caught out using doctored videos in their ads this election). Meanwhile, although the BBC's internal impartiality guidelines also encompass their online and social media output, the vast majority of online news makers are not employed by anything even analogous to an organization like the BBC, that might be subject to some sort of internal or external corporate scrutiny.
Already, it is becoming clear that the 2019 UK General Election will be fought with fake news, shitposts, and memes. During the campaign's first week, there was a major controversy after a fake centrist Politics professor named after an IRA hunger striker claimed on twitter that the BBC news producer Rob Burley had shaved and dressed his son Cyril (described as a keen fox-hunter) to look like a “regular working-class youngster” before planting him in the audience of Question Time (a weekly show where politicians and media commentators take questions from the general public) to speak in favor of Brexit and Boris Johnson.There is every reason to believe that Burley remains extremely Not Mad about it. Another viral story, purporting to be by a Daily Mirror reporter named “Wurrance Telephene”, has claimed that video footage exists of Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson gleefully and viciously killing squirrels.
jo swinson: squirrel killer pic.twitter.com/WojCjWMGYh— e. r. dewo (@groovyguyzone) November 2, 2019
This is the new reality, where fake stories have become not only a threat responsible commentators must combat, but also a way that the public are able to satirize the excesses and inadequacies of news coverage from the broadcast and print media establishment. But that doesn't mean that the people paid vast salaries by said Old Media are at all able to understand it. Last week for instance, the BBC's “Brexitcast” podcast saw a number of their flagship reporters display an alarmingly complacent level of ignorance as to what the term “shitposting” means, with the corporation's political editor (a role which is de facto that of Britain's Head Journalist) Laura Kuenssberg describing it thus:
“So political parties or campaign groups make an advert that looks really rubbish and then people share it online saying, 'Oh, I can't believe how s*** this is', and then it gets shared and shared and shared and shared and they go 'ha ha ha, job done'.”
Which is a perfectly good definition of “shitposting” — just so long as everyone has decided to change “shitposting” to mean “when the Tories campaign by posting bad memes.”
What on earth does “impartiality” matter in news coverage, when senior journalists seem so completely unable to adopt an informed stance towards either the medium or the object of their reportage? The New Statesman writer Sarah Manavis has argued (in an otherwise very good and informative article about the cock-up) that despite it, Kuenssberg might still be the best-placed person to “commentate on traditional politics.” But how can we possibly corden the vast amount of human experience which now takes place online off from the “traditional” rest, and still expect to be left with something remotely coherent? “Online” and “Irl” are not separated by an immutable boundary.
Given this, it is perhaps fortunate that “impartiality” isn't necessarily all it's cracked up to be. Perhaps impartiality regulations can help left-wing parties to temporarily get a bit of a break from the usual assholes — although certainly in this election campaign so far, that doesn't really seem to be happening. But impartiality regulations definitely make it difficult for presenters to do things like calls racists, “racist. To this point another way: impartiality might offer some protection against the bad. But it does not yet open anyone up to the recognition of the good — which of course any norm of “balance” can be weaponized against. We need critical, informed journalists delivering the news to the public, but we don't really need these people to be, in the first instance, impartial.
All told, it seems pretty hard to maintain the belief that left-wing parties like Labour under Jeremy Corbyn might do better during election campaigns because of press neutrality. If they do better (and this December, time will tell), it is because once an election is called, people feel they have the opportunity to change something. An election campaign represents a break with the usual cynical slog, where everything feels set in stone for however many years until the next one: a period in which many voters, for various perfectly understandable reasons, will simply turn off. People become mobilized, get engaged, go out campaigning.
What's important, in moments of rupture like these, is not neutrality — but rather something necessarily un-neutral; something irreducibly subjective and opposed to all cautious, dispassionate impartiality. What's important, when people are campaigning to change things for the better, is hope.