A Lapdog, not a Watchdog

Ofcom is the broadcasting regulator. It’s just consulted on its list of ‘major parties’ for the 2015 General Election. If that sounds esoteric, it’s important, because it has a bearing on how many election broadcasts the SNP will get in relation to the other parties; and it might just have a bearing on the proposed TV debates.

I’ve just responded to the consultation paper. Do I think it will make much difference? Frankly, I don’t think so, if mine is the only response, not least because as watchdogs go, Ofcom is a teacup poodle with serious conflict-aversion issues. But it might make a difference if enough people respond in similar vein. My response is below. It’s written from an SNP perspective, but much of it could apply equally to Plaid Cymru or to the Green Party. You can access the Ofcom consultation at: http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/consultations/major-parties-15/

Feel free to copy and paste or adapt. The consultation closes on 5th February.

General Comments

Ofcom’s approach to the categorization of major parties is flawed in two respects. First, the definition of ‘major party’ is drawn far too narrowly, and gives a de facto advantage to the Conservative and Labour parties and to a lesser extent to the Liberal Democrats. Second, Ofcom’s approach to the proposed TV debates represents an abdication of its duty to promote balance in broadcasters’ treatment of various parties in the General Election.

Too Narrow a Definition of Major Party

It is perfectly reasonable that broadcasters should not be required to give equal weighting to ‘fringe’ or ‘joke’ parties as they do to parties that have some reasonable prospect of participating in government – whether holding a majority, being part of a coalition, or maintaining a minority government through a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement. However, Ofcom’s approach to the categorization of ‘major parties’ as set out in the consultation paper is drawn far too narrowly, and gives a de facto advantage to the Conservative and Labour parties and to a lesser extent to the Liberal Democrats.

Giving so much weight to past performance over two electoral cycles, and hence giving ensuring more broadcasting airtime to the largest parties, will inevitably tend to lead to a perpetuation of the status quo.

It is axiomatic in polling on virtually any subject at any time that increased familiarity almost always leads to greater favourability. In the case of Westminster elections, under the ’first past the post’ system this is likely to be particularly the case. Not only will the policies and arguments of smaller parties get less exposure, but their credibility will be damaged by not being seen as serious contenders – a significant drawback in a system where many voters will understand that votes for ‘fringe’ parties are normally ‘wasted’ votes. The approach set out in the consultation paper in effect treats parties such as the Greens, Plaid Cymru, and the SNP – all or any of which could plausibly affect the composition of the next government – as equivalent to the ‘Standing at the Back Dressed Stupidly and Looking Stupid Party’.

Ofcom would not, in its role as a competition regulator, adopt an approach that favoured incumbents over challengers – if it did it would be in breach of its statutory obligations and would not be fit for purpose. Why, then, should it adopt such an approach n its assessment of major parties?

TV Debates

In relation to the proposed TV debates, I note that Ofcom’s position, as set out in paragraph 2.6 of the consultation paper is that “Ofcom has no role in determining the structure, format and style of any broadcast General Election debates that might take place in future. Rather, our concern would be whether any election debates comply with the rules in relation to due impartiality and elections in Sections Five and Six of the Code once they have been broadcast”. This is an absurd position for a regulator to take.

The debates, if they happen, will be several hours of prime-time coverage likely to be watched by tens of millions of people – in contrast to PEBs, which for many viewers will simply be a cue to take a break from the TV to put the kettle on. The participants will effectively get free airtime worth millions of pounds of advertising, and the parties excluded will be put at a massive and obvious disadvantage in the election. This approach to the proposed TV debates represents an abdication of its duty to promote balance in broadcasters’ treatment of various parties in the General Election.

Equally absurd is the position that Ofcom will only assess whether the election debates comply with the rules in relation to due impartiality and elections once they have been broadcast. The technical term for such an approach is shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. It is akin to the Bank of England or Financial Conduct Authority saying that it would only investigate the behaviour of a bank after the bank had collapsed. For a regulator to adopt such a position is nothing short of negligent.

Question 1: Please provide your views on:

a) The evidence of current support laid out in Annex 2; and
b) Whether there is any other relevant evidence which you consider Ofcom should take into account for the purposes of the 2015 review of the list of major parties.

The evidence of current support laid out in Annex 2 is flawed in a number of respects. The evidence base and methodology is such that it seriously and significantly underestimates the current level of support for the Scottish national Party, which should be treated as a ‘major party’ on a UK-wide basis.(Please see my answer to Q2 for further detail on this point.)

The timescale used for opinion polling data seriously underestimates the level of support for the SNP. Figure 25 puts the average support during 2014 for the SNP at 34.9%. However, closer inspection of Figure 25 also shows clearly that support for the party, prior to September 2014 never exceeded 34%; and that since September 2014, support for the party has never been lower than 34%, has almost always exceeded 40%, and has been as high as 52.0%. According to the noted psephologist, Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University, seven opinion polls in Scotland in recent months put the SNP on average at 46%. If that swing were to be replicated across Scotland as a whole, the SNP would win 52 of the 59 seats in Scotland. Even if it accepted that might be an optimistic scenario, it seems highly improbable that the SNP vote on may 7th will be significantly lower than it is now, and is likely to lead to the party gaining a substantial number of seats.

A further flaw is that Annex 2 does not take into account party membership numbers. One specific effect of this is to underestimate the support enjoyed by the SNP. SNP membership now stands at over 90,000 – more than that of the Liberal Democrats and UKIP combined, on a UK-wide basis. And while most SNP members live in Scotland, the party has active members throughout the UK, with branches as far afield as Cornwall and London.

Another serious omission in Annex 2 is the complete omission of any reference to the referendum on Scottish independence held on 18th September 2014. The referendum was not, of course, about support for a particular party, but rather a binary, yes/no choice. That means assessing its importance in relation to the assessment of ‘major parties’ is less than straightforward. However, just because something is less than straightforward to measure is no excuse for not seeking to measure it: it used to be the case that the efficiency of NHS hospitals was measured in terms of ‘finished patient episodes’ (i.e. how many patients were treated – easy to measure) rather than in terms of outcomes (i.e. to what extent did the patients have enhanced quality of life as a result of their treatment – harder to measure).

Many of those who voted ‘Yes’ in the referendum were not necessarily SNP supporters, but rather supporter of other parties. However, it is not unreasonable to assume that many will vote SNP in the 2015 Westminster General Election, a first past the post vote, not least to maximize the chances of securing the ‘Home Rule’ promised by the No Campaign in the so-called ‘Vow’ immediately before the referendum.

There is no credible political commentator who does not regard the independence referendum as representing anything other than a massive, tectonic shift in the politics of Scotland. For Ofcom to ignore it in its assessment of major parties simply because it is difficult to quantify the impact directly would be negligent in the extreme.

Question 2: Do you agree with our assessment in relation to each of:

a) The existing major parties;
b) Traditional Unionist Voice in Northern Ireland;
c) The Green Party (including the Scottish Green Party); and
d) UKIP?

Please provide reasons for your views.

For the reasons set out in answer to Q1 and in my general comments, above, the SNP should be treated as a UK-wide major party; and hence should be given equal billing in the proposed TV debates, and at least as many GB-wide PEBs as the Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat parties.

Based on current polling data, the SNP is likely to have more seats than the Liberal Democrats after the 2015 General Election and has a more than reasonable prospect of participating in government, either as part of a coalition, or maintaining a minority government through a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement.

Even accepting that the SNP is only likely to win seats in Scotland, it seems reasonable that voters elsewhere in the UK ought to have a right to hear the views of a party that could well have the decisive say in which party forms the UK Government, as this might affect how they cast their vote, not least given the fact that the SNP has categorically ruled out supporting a Conservative administration. Furthermore, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the SNP might field candidates in England or Wales.

Question 3: Do you agree with the proposed amendment to Rule 9 of the PPRB Rules Procedures outlined in paragraph 3.7 above? Please provide reasons for your views.

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