Protecting the political crown jewels

The ’analogue-only’ electorate has been overlooked – again.

Neil Moss
Neil Moss – Public Affairs and Media Consultant

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is responsible for broadcasting policy. Its website explains that a ’listed event’ is “one which is generally felt to have special national resonance” and which contains “an element which serves to unite the nation, a shared point on the national calendar, not solely of interest to those who follow the sport in question”. For this reason, such events are protected by law to ensure that they are available to as many viewers as possible, particularly those who cannot afford the extra cost of subscription television

The truth is I rarely watch much sport on television. I’m just not that interested. Although I readily accept that for many viewers The Olympics; Wimbledon finals, FIFA World Cup Finals; The FA Cup; Scottish FA Cup Final (in Scotland); The Grand National; The Derby; The Wimbledon Tennis Finals; Rugby League Challenge Cup and Rugby World Cup Finals et al are the sporting “crown jewels” and should be preserved free-to-air.

The sport I follow, however, is politics and despite the indisputable “special national resonance” of a general election – the Holy Grail for politicos – an election campaign just isn’t listed. Why not?

Broadcasters have moaned during previous campaigns that both party election broadcasts and election news stories are a ’turn off’. May 2010 looks to be different. More than eight million viewers tuned in to watch BNP Leader Nick Griffin on the BBC’s Question Time back in October, representing an audience share of some 52.4 per cent. And according to early overnight figures, an average TV audience of 9.4 million viewers tuned into the UK’s first prime ministerial debate on ITV1 on Thursday – with 9.9 million watching at its peak. That’s higher than the overnight ratings for Matt Smith’s first full outing as Doctor Who!

The commentariat and chatterati have long gushed over the idea of televised leadership or ’Prime Ministerial’ debates – seeing them as the Koh-i-Noor in the crown of the campaign. Pundits of the Right and the Left have looked to the American experience, and declared the debates to be the way forward. We’ve all been assured they’ll re-energise politics. We’ve been told they’ll give the public a ’real choice’…

Certainly, the pundits have declared Clegg to be the outright winner of the first debate. Time will tell whether the public has the appetite to stay with the format, to watch the second and third debates on foreign affairs and the economy, and, importantly, to surface from the sofa and bother to go out and vote.

After all, these debates were cleverly marketed as exciting innovations which are ’vital’ to our civic life and important to an informed citizenship. John Ryley, the head of Sky News, in open letters to the Party Leaders last year declared that “faith in politics and politicians” had been “shaken”, and a debate “…would offer a unique opportunity to re-engage disillusioned voters.” It would be a chance “…to energise an electorate, to reconnect with the millions of people who have been alienated by politics and the way it is so often covered, to achieve something that is truly democratic.”

Now, cynics could say that Sky has lost its own ’impartiality’ on the issue of televised leadership debates. It was a classic example of a broadcaster setting their own agenda and running an aggressive campaign for much of last Autumn both on-air, in the newspapers and via an online petition seeking to bounce Gordon Brown into agreeing to the debates, and threatening to hold the debates anyway and ’empty chair’ him in his absence. Sky is entitled to do this, of course, in a way that ITN and the BBC are not. After all, BSkyB is not a Public Service Broadcaster.

Over the years, I’ve sat in countless industry seminars and watched numerous Parliamentary select committee hearings debating the nature of ’Public Service Broadcasting’. Often when asked, media executives shy away from precise definitions, but if pressed, band around general descriptions or PSB characteristics – ’educational’, ’informative’, ’quality’, ’unique’, ’diversity’ – ’free and universally available’.

But Sky News isn’t universally available. It’s currently available on cable and satellite platforms. How long it stays on Freeview depends on a definitive ’Picnic’ outcome. However, not everyone has access to Digital TV. Only four out of 14 television regions have completed switchover (as at the end of March 2010) – Border, West Country, Wales and Granada, which amounts to 21 per cent of the UK population. According to Digital UK, 23m UK households already have digital TV on their main set – but that means that about 10.5% are still without. This no doubt includes a disproportionate number of senior citizens who rely on ’old media’ television and radio, rather than the Internet for their news.

So how come one of the three debates isn’t on Channel 4 or Five but is being broadcast on a digital channel which a tenth of the population doesn’t yet have access to? This isn’t about querying Adam Boulton’s suitability to anchor the debates, over say Jon Snow’s. Rather, it’s pointing out that a significant proportion of the population – and the electorate – are being denied the chance to view a major national event ’live’.

It’s to Parliament’s shame that the political classes just haven’t considered this – the ’analogue-only’ electorate has been overlooked. So much for a policy of inclusion, where some voters have no choice but to listen to the radio simulcast or to watch delayed, edited ’highlights’, on good old terrestrial news or BBC Newsnight.

Just as Parliament has steered public policy to ensure national sporting events are ’listed’ for the whole nation – so both the DCMS and a future Parliament should secure the ’leadership / Prime Ministerial’ debates as ’listed’ for an informed electorate.

Neil Moss was the BBC Political and Parliamentary Officer from 1998-2008. He works as a Public Affairs and Media Consultant.

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