ALBA Fires Off New BBC Salvo
ALBA has returned to Ofcom with new evidence of BBC bias in the election campaign.
In a further complaint to the broadcasting regulator (below) ALBA detail the different criteria to debates and coverage being applied by BBC Wales where the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party were accorded full participation in the debates programme.
ALBA leader Alex Salmond said
“The BBC are an affront to Scottish democracy. There have now been no less than seven opinion polls in this campaign showing an ALBA parliamentary breakthrough. The new evidence from Wales leaves them without a leg to stand on in terms of their biased Scottish coverage. But BBC bosses continue to ban us from the debates.
The BBC also continue to refuse fair coverage on the flimsiest of grounds. Yesterday (Sunday) for example in one of the most important statements of the campaign ALBA women candidates rallied outside the Parliament in the declaration in support of protected sex based rights.
The BBC claimed they couldn’t send a camera a few hundred yards because it was a Bank holiday weekend! They then interviewed Willie Rennie in the same area up a hill on his puff saying precisely zilch.
Of course BBC presenters continue to talk about ALBA, often in disparaging terms. They just don’t allow us on to answer back just as the BBC hierarchy have kept us out of the leaders debates.
In the last few days of the election the ALBA street and community initiatives will gain further ground and the BBC attempt to silence ALBA will fail.
However as our letter to Ofcom makes clear the regulator should step in right now and put the BBC house in order.”
LETTER TO OFCOM
Dear Ms. Rose,
Our clients have considered the terms of the Election Committee’s decision of 28 April. We write to invite the Committee to reconsider that decision and to review matters urgently.
Our clients consider that the evidence of a structural bias within the BBC against them grows stronger as the campaign progresses and reaches its conclusion and further examples have occurred since the Committee’s decision.
The treatment by the BBC of other parties is simply inconsistent with its treatment of our clients. On Thursday of last week, the day after the Committee’s decision, the BBC broadcast the equivalent Leaders Debate as part of its coverage of the elections to the Welsh Senedd. Representatives of the Labour, Conservative, Plaid Cymru, Liberal Democrats and Abolish the Welsh Assembly parties participated in the first hour of that programme and those of Reform UK, the Green Party and UKIP in the second, half-hour part (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-56915347). The Liberals currently have one seat in the Senedd and are averaging around 4% in current polling. The Greens have no seats and are averaging around the same. UKIP support in Wales is so low that it has not even registered on the last two polls. The AWAP is currently predicted to take two seats in the Senedd. Reform UK is averaging 1% in the polls and is predicted to take no seats (for all of which see https://senedd.wales/find-a-member-of-the-senedd and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opinion_polling_for_the_2021_Senedd_election). The two most recent opinion polls in Scotland show our clients on target to take 4% of the regional list vote (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opinion_polling_for_the_2021_Scottish_Parliament_election#Poll_results_2) and two or three seats at Holyrood (https://scotgoespop.blogspot.com/2021/05/sensation-as-new-panelbase-poll-shows.html and https://scotgoespop.blogspot.com/2021/05/drama-as-alba-storm-to-their-best.html).
We set out an extract from the BBC’s 2021 Guidelines, applicable to Wales, in the undernote below, highlighting sections relating to “larger” and “smaller” parties. We would submit that our clients’ polling performance, and the developing political context in Scotland, is such that it would be simply perverse to exclude them from the upcoming BBC Leaders Debate. A decision to do so would be simply illogical, entirely inconsistent with the treatment afforded to other parties elsewhere across the BBC’s output and simply inexplicable other than by animus towards our clients. What other possible explanation can be proffered for such an entirely inconsistent approach? No single example of that animus is going to be conclusive and any single example can be explained away but we would submit that that does not mean that each example can simply be ignored. Some regard must be had to the pattern provided by the totality of each single example. An emblematic example of the BBC’s attitude towards our clients occurred yesterday. A number of our clients’ women candidates met outside the Holyrood Parliament building to publicise our clients’ policies on women’s rights. Our clients spoke in advance to the BBC about coverage of that event. The BBC explained that it would not be able to cover it as it did not have a camera in the area yet it managed, our clients later noted, to give coverage, in the same location, of the Liberals’ Willie Rennie. We would submit that the behaviour of the BBC shows quite clearly that it is ignoring, and suggests that without intervention it will continue to ignore, the very clear exhortation in the Committee’s decision that it (the BBC) must, in short, keep matters under review to ensure that in determining the level and nature of the coverage which it gives our clients it gives proper weight and consideration to the developing political context in Scotland.
In addition to the matters outlined above, however, our clients are dissatisfied with certain aspects of the decision itself. They have obtained the opinion of Counsel on matters. Our clients (and we) were surprised that the BBC, having decided not to take up the Committee’s invitation to be present at the substantive hearing, and to make oral representations at the same time and in the same forum as our clients, were nevertheless provided with details of Mr. Salmond’s extemporaneous submission and given a chance to comment, extensively, on it and to submit further material to the Committee. Over and above that, Counsel’s advice is that the Committee’s decision is in error and susceptible to judicial review. His view is that the terms of paragraphs 3.20 and 3.21 are clearly erroneous and that the terms of the latter are self-contradictory. The 2017 changes expressly abandoned not just the list of larger parties but the whole concept of larger parties and the whole concept of having a list of them. The BBC in its own submissions supported that abandonment of these concepts. None of that makes any sense if the point was, as the second sentence of paragraph 3.21 asserts, simply to allow broadcasters to come up with their own definitions of "larger parties" and make their own lists of them. If that had been the intention or purpose, there would have been no mention of concept, rather than the constant repetition of it which in fact features as part of the 2017 document. All that would have been needed was a simple statement that Ofcom would no longer be deciding who the "larger parties" were or providing a list of them and that it would be up to individual broadcasters to do so if they wanted to continue to use the concept.
It may be true, as asserted at paragraph 3.21, that the BBC using concepts which have been specifically discontinued by Ofcom (supported by the BBC) does not in itself contradict the Code, although in Counsel’s view even that is arguable. What is undoubtedly true, in his opinion, is that in the specific case of the Alba Party the use of those discontinued and disapproved concepts by the BBC has caused a view to be taken of the appropriate coverage to be given which would not have been taken had those disapproved concepts not been applied. Counsel does not accept that the approach taken by the BBC can be separated from what is required directly by the Code as easily as the Committee decision asserts. In fact, in his view, it cannot be separated at all. His view is that this flawed approach taints the whole Committee process and makes the outcome of it unfair.
Counsel also believes that Ofcom should not have gone back to the BBC after Mr. Salmond’s oral submission as the BBC had already indicated that their participation in the process was concluded. He also points out that Ofcom selected a day at random and then based little or nothing in its decision on what actually happened on that day. The selection of a random day was a method of approaching things proposed by Ofcom and yet the results produced were then ignored or explained away as unrepresentative. This is completely illogical. To ignore the fact that our clients did not feature at all on this random day in effect breaches the process which the Committee itself prescribed, negates its whole point and fails to recognise that the coverage on this random day in fact wholly vindicates our clients’ basic argument that they are unfairly treated by use of the disapproved concepts of “larger” and “smaller” parties rather direct application of the present Ofcom Code.
Counsel feels that the BBC’s admission of the AWAP, a party which he feels is comparable by analogy to our clients, into the equivalent debate in Wales is significant. Appendix 3 of the BBC guidance says in terms that AWAP can be given coverage "proportionate" to the four "larger parties" in Wales under certain circumstances but the BBC has failed to take a similar view of Alba. As a result, Counsel feels that even in terms of their own flawed guidance the BBC has acted inconsistently.
As we say, in light of all this, our clients are dissatisfied at the BBC’s continuing decision to exclude them from the upcoming Leaders Debate and we would ask that the Committee urgently reconsiders matters in light of the new material which we present and of the submissions made in this letter. Failing that, we will require to take our clients’ urgent instructions o the options for judicial review which Counsel advises are open to them.
Appendix 3 Wales
The election period in Wales begins at 00.01 on Monday 29th March.
This Appendix applies to content intended for broadcast in Wales (including UK-wide and online material) when there is any coverage of the Welsh Assembly elections: as a whole, of an individual constituency or region, or a group of constituencies or regions.
Appropriate network news programmes* (UK-wide) should have regard to the importance of the Senedd – the Welsh Parliament election particularly to their audience in Wales in relation to the other elections taking place at the same time.
*see Appendix 7
A3.2 Larger Parties in Wales
Bearing in mind the election results for the Welsh Assembly in 2016 (and 2011) and shifts in electoral support at subsequent all-Wales elections, as well as changes in representation and in the make-up of some parties, the following parties should receive broadly similar levels of coverage:
Labour, Plaid Cymru, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.
Content producers should have regard to which policy areas are devolved and which are in the domain of the Senedd – the Welsh Parliament and, therefore, directly at issue in this election.
A3.3 Smaller Parties in Wales
In deciding what coverage is appropriate for each of the Smaller Parties, we should bear in mind how the electorate voted in the 2016 and 2011 elections and at subsequent different elections, and should also take note of current evidence, such as a consistent trend in opinion polls, as well as candidacy and current representation.
Bearing in mind these factors, UKIP, the Brexit Party and the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party may receive some coverage proportionate to the larger parties.
In addition, there may be circumstances – for example, in the potential context of “coalition-building” – which mean that it is editorially appropriate for any one or more Smaller Party to receive additional coverage. Other changes in relevant political circumstances since 2011 may also be taken into account.
Any other party that is standing in at least one-sixth of the total seats up for election in Wales (ie ten constituency seats) or fielding at least 4 candidates in all 5 regional lists should have, as a minimum, the launch of their manifestos covered by Wales Today and Newyddion on television and Radio Wales Breakfast with Claire Summers and Post Cyntaf on radio as well as online.
If other programmes choose to cover a smaller party they must be consistent and treat all other parties reaching this threshold in a proportionate way.
The principles applied to coverage of the Smaller Parties at a Wales-wide level should also be applied in any programme items which are based on a particular region and use list candidates. The relative strengths of the parties will vary from region to region and again advice can be sought from the Chief Adviser, Politics, who will be working with BBC Wales to help reach this judgement.
The audience will be referred, as appropriate, to the full list of parties standing on BBC News Online Wales and BBC Cymru Fyw.
All constituency or regional reports will refer to the online list, where all Independent candidates will be included. This reference is a minimum for Independent candidates, and where there is appropriate current evidence, any one or more Independent candidates may receive more coverage.
However, care must be taken to ensure that any such candidates who have a newsworthy personal profile are not given disproportionate coverage which would give them a major advantage over other candidates in the same constituency or region.
Relevant output should take into account the political context in which candidates are standing: for instance, where an independent candidate subscribes to a political party, or where a group of independents are acting together, whether or not on a common manifesto; the objective will be to ensure the audience is given clear and accurate information and that due weight is applied to the various political perspectives.
Further advice on coverage of smaller parties and independents can be sought from the Chief Adviser, Politics.
A3.5 Context of Electoral support in Wales – please see Ofcom Digest.