Stephen Cushion: TV election coverage needs more experts and less squabbling
Political parties need to be held account by experts’ scrutinising their polices – not by vox pops or leaving politicians to argue with each other.
Two weeks into the campaign and so far parties have been subject to little independent scrutiny in TV news reporting of the general election.
Cardiff University analysis of television news bulletins found that while politicians – unsurprisingly – made up the vast majority of actors informing election coverage, few expert sources have been used to challenge the parties about their policies or claims. Instead, a considerable amount of time – between a fifth and almost half of all sources – has been taken up by vox pops, with members of the public largely discussing the personalities of leaders, which way they would vote, or how they ‘feel’ about the latest policy announcement.
As previously argued, vox pops are no substitute for public opinion polls, since they do not convey the complexity of people’s attitudes or understanding of politics. Nor do they represent a way of challenging politicians’ claims because they tend to be emotional responses to issues. Channel 5, for example, spent nearly as much time airing vox pops – 45.3% of all sources – as allowing political parties to convey their message. In allowing voters to emotionally respond – often in very brief soundbites – to questions about May’s leadership or Labour’s electoral prospects, it limits time spent on scrutinising the parties’ policy proposals in any detail.
With the exception of Channel 5, most broadcasters allow the political parties – principally Conservative and Labour – to be the dominant actors in television news coverage, making up about 60% of airtime for election sources. Channel 4, however, is most striking, since over 80% of airtime is left for politicians to air their views. Of course, its longer format allows lengthy one-on-interviews or studio discussions. But when parties debate each other, without any expert counter-point, there is often more heat than light as politicians are left to squabble about their competing positions or trade statistical claims.
Excluding politicians or members of the public, television news bulletins have left between 9.5% and 16.5% of airtime for other types of sources to inform election coverage. But which actors do they turn to make help sense of election issues?
In the limited space afforded to nonpartisan sources or vox pops, most – 11.5% - are drawn from the world of business, such as the Confederation of British Industry and Energy UK. EU officials – namely Michele Garner and Jean Claude Junker – represent 10.5% of sources, offering a counter-balance to the UK government’s position on Brexit.
Joint third are think tanks and journalists, with each making up around one in in ten sources. Clearly, think tanks offer an abundance of specialist knowledge from a range of ideological perspectives, but around half so far in the campaign have come from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS). While a respected think tank and well known at budget time when they scrutinise the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s figures and projections, their dominance arguably limits how the parties’ tax and spend policies are understood and interpreted. There are other think tanks, for example, that could assess specific policy commitments – from scrapping tuition fees or reducing the level of immigration – that may take a different position to the IFS.
The journalistic sources used so far to inform coverage are appearances primarily from Nick Ferrari, the LBC interviewer. His prominence was due to an interview with Labour Shadow Cabinet Minster Diane Abbot, who, under pressure to answer questions about how her party would fund an additional 10,000 police officers, could not credibly explain how much the policy would cost. Ferrari’s tenacious style of interviewing represents how effective journalistic scrutiny can be in holding parties to account when they make spending promises.
However, the interview was newsworthy not because of any forensic dissection of Labour’s proposals, but because Abbot was stumbling and the Conservatives seized on the opportunity to say the party hadn’t got their sum rights. While on-air gaffes clearly make great television drama, news editors have at their disposal many information-rich sources that could be used to more routinely question the parties’ policies, from economists and academics to legal, medical or environmental experts. But so far they have had a limited role to play in holding parties to account.
Since concerns have been raised about a so-called post-truth style of politics shaping election campaigning, with facts intersecting with opinions and emotional appeals, broadcasters may consider drawing on a wider range of actors to help them scrutinise the parties and challenge their claims.
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.