A guide to complaining about media coverage of the election

I’m looking forward – not exactly – to an election where the media can be expected, by and large, to fail to correctly report parties’ English policies as being limited to England. How should we complain about this, if at all? I ask because there’ll be so many lapses, you could spend absolutely every spare hour knocking off another fruitless moan to the broadcasters’ respective complaint or feedback departments, which will doubtless be overworked with thousands of complaints of all varieties throughout the election.

I’ve discussed in depth the reasons for politicians’ and media’s omission of the ‘E’ word – ‘England’ – in numerous previous posts, most recently here in connection with the upcoming election. I won’t go over this ground again, other than to say that I think we need to distinguish between two types of omission of references to ‘England’, or of using ‘Britain’ when English matters are being discussed.

On the one hand, we need to acknowledge the fact that not calling an English spade an English spade is just part of the rules of the British political game: standard practice that is rooted in the system’s need to suppress the English-national consciousness in order to perpetuate the status quo and dampen demands for any kind of English dimension to politics, such as an English parliament. Even calling English matters ‘British’ is, on this level, merely a convention and does not, in all instances, equate to serious dishonesty or deceit, for two main reasons: 1) it’s a sort of game, and all those in the know (which, however, excludes the majority of English voters) accept that it’s really England that’s being talked about, it’s just that you can’t say so; and 2) technically, it’s correct to refer to the British government’s policies and laws on education and health, for instance, as ‘British’ because they’re those of the British government, even though they affect England alone. This is more a case of imprecise and misleading language – omitting to add the requisite ‘in England’ tag – rather than a downright lie.

On the other hand, there are instances where referring to English policies as ‘British’ does cross over into the territory of deception and lying. The borderline is quite fluid; but I would say that wherever a politician makes a big point about an England-only policy being ‘British’ or being for the ‘benefit’ of all the British people, that’s when a complaint should be triggered, assuming the interviewer or presenter doesn’t pick them up on it. The same applies to the presentation of news stories that are without a contribution from a party spokesperson where a distinct impression is conveyed that a policy relates to the whole of the UK, or at least Great Britain, but this is contrary to the facts. So this would be when the description of the policy makes more than merely passing reference to, say, ‘the NHS’ (implying the ‘British NHS’) or ‘British schools’ while mainly discussing the policy as being for ‘the country’ or ‘this country’, which is another shorthand employed to avoid being specific as to which country one is talking about.

The kind of situation I’m imagining here is either when the politician or the news item repeatedly and explicitly refers to an English policy as British, or if the context of the discussion is such that all reasonable people who don’t already know better would conclude that this was a policy intended to be implemented across the UK. An example of the latter – thinking of Labour’s five policy pledges being announced today – would be when discussion of the aim of more fairness for communities distinctly implied – through the actual choice of words, whether ‘Britain’ is referenced verbatim or not – that the pledge applies to the whole of Britain, whereas in fact communities are a devolved area and any implementation of the pledge by the British government can be effected only in England.

In situations such as this, I think a charge of failing to meet its statutory duty to ensure accuracy of reporting can be levied at the broadcaster in question, because it’s allowing the politicians to substantively mislead viewers. By substantively, I mean firstly that the politicians could procure a definite electoral advantage from the misunderstanding arising: for instance, fooling Scottish and Welsh viewers into thinking the pledge affects them, when it doesn’t, thereby persuading them to vote for them, effectively on a false prospectus.

And secondly, this sort of thing involves a failure by the media to inform English voters about which policies relate only to England. This prevents the public from being in full possession of the facts prior to voting, which could also materially affect the way they vote. For instance, many English voters might think that the parties’ policies in devolved areas were being proposed for the whole of Great Britain and that, accordingly, they would just have to accept the parties’ expressions of goodwill about imposing cuts even-handedly across the whole of ‘the country’. But if they realised that commitments to preserve or reduce expenditure related only to England, they might also start thinking there could be alternatives to the policies being proposed, such as the different policies being pursued in Scotland and Wales. Knowledge is power, as they say; and without that knowledge, English people are being deprived of a full, free and fair debate about the options available for England, as opposed to the rest of the UK. And that means the status of the election itself as free and fair is also called into question.

On this basis – and I’m offering these arguments as ones that can be borrowed in any complaint emails – I think complaints are warranted and should be directed to three main organisations: 1) Ofcom, the telecoms and media regulator, which has responsibility for ensuring compliance on the part of broadcasters other than the BBC with the ‘Broadcast Code’, which stipulates, among other things, that they should be accurate and impartial in reporting the news; 2) the BBC Trust, which handles similar complaints about inaccuracy and bias in BBC broadcasts; and 3) the Electoral Commission, which administers general elections, as well as local elections in England. As far as I can tell, the Electoral Commission is only really set up to deal with complaints about its own organisation or electoral irregularities (e.g. problems with the electoral roll or postal voting). But I think it would be worth directing to the Commission the more general type of complaint referred to in the previous paragraph: that the free and fair status of the election is compromised by parties’ and media’s failure to explain to English voters which policies exclusively affect them, and which are relevant to the whole of the UK; thereby preventing an open, honest and comprehensive discussion and engagement with English voters about their priorities in devolved policy areas.

What can realistically be achieved by complaints of this sort? Well, there’s an outside chance that if Ofcom or the BBC Trust concluded that broadcasters’ failure to point out that certain policy proposals were only relevant to England did substantively mislead voters, they might be forced to issue a formal apology and to make more of an effort to correctly label the policies in question as English. In any case, even in the absence of a judgement that a serious breach of accuracy had occurred, the broadcasters might acknowledge that the criticism had some validity, and then references to ‘England’ might start creeping in to discussions on key issues such as education and health. This would start to make the election a little fairer, in that English and non-English voters alike could be clearer about the issues that did or did not affect them.

Over and above this benefit, if the media started to feel obliged to be more precise in pointing out which policies are restricted to England and which are not, this means that the parties would also be obliged to acknowledge the fact that large parts of their manifesto were relevant only to England. The long-term goal this would further – beyond the election – would be the reinsertion of ‘England’ into the British political vocabulary, leading to a growing awareness that there is a distinction between British and English matters, and ultimately that Britain and England themselves are distinct entities that deserve separate recognition and representation in political and constitutional terms.

In other words, just as the establishment tries to suppress the emergence of a distinct English-national consciousness and politics by deleting the word ‘England’ from its vocabulary, we can try to leverage complaints about the inaccuracy this involves on the part of the media to reinsert ‘England’ back into that vocabulary, which will then enable the case for the establishment of a separate English polity to deal with English matters to be made more convincingly and effectively.

With respect to the more general complaint to the Electoral Commission, this is even more of a long shot than complaints to Ofcom and the BBC Trust. But I do think the allegation that the lack of an honest discussion about English policies prevents the election from being fair to English voters does have genuine merit. The Electoral Commission is an organisation that carries some clout, and is respected and listened to by the parties and the media. If it found them at serious fault for not setting out the full facts about English policies to English voters – effectively engaging in a conspiracy to mislead them – then this judgement could force them to radically alter their approach in subsequent elections and, indeed, in the way they discuss English matters on an ongoing basis. As I say, it’s a long shot; but if it worked, it would really strike a blow for fairness towards English voters.

If enough supporters of democratic fairness for England send similar complaints to organisations that are in a position to do something about them – e.g. the ones I’m recommending – then this will help force the media to take note. So let’s watch how the parties try to make out that their England-specific policies are relevant to the whole of the UK, and how the media lets them get away with it. And if we think this is substantively misleading, as I’ve defined it, let’s fire off those complaint emails!

My poor old keyboard is going to take a hammering, I can see!


One Response

  1. Thank you David. I suspect I’ll be on the phone soon after parliament dissolves – the BBC are in my sights, sad to say. Forever England mate.

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