According to Theresa May, the general election was triggered by Brexit and the UK’s ongoing negotiations with the EU. However, our latest research of television news coverage shows that, while Brexit dominated the first week of campaigning, since then social policy issues have risen up the agenda after the parties launched their manifestos.
Yet many of these policy debates are devolved, in particular health and education, with decisions taken by governments in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Issues such as tuition fees, social care reform and free school meals are primarily relevant to English people – not all UK voters.
The Conservatives’ manifesto proposal to change how social care is funded – now under consultation after a U-turn – has gained widespread media prominence. But while changing the financial costs of social care have profound implications, it is a devolved issue, meaning that only people living in England will be affected by any changes.
However, on May 18, the day the Conservative manifesto was launched, the UK’s evening television news bulletins – watched by many millions of viewers, particularly elderly people – our analysis shows the devolved relevance of changes to social care could have been more explicitly spelled out by broadcasters.
On Sky News, for example, viewers were only told that “there are changes to social care which mean more people will end up paying towards any help they may need”. Residents from West Yorkshire were interviewed as part of the segment. But there was no mention of social care or the fact that the changes are only relevant in England.
Channel 4, by contrast, did state the English relevance of the policy in its introduction to the story: “Theresa May said it was the first time a government had produced a proper long-term plan for the sustainability of social care in England.”
Its follow-up report did not repeat that information, however. Statistics accompanying the piece only referred to England, and the reporter said that they applied to “everyone” – implying their audiences were not from Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.
Channel 5 did refer to the Conservatives’ manifesto pledges affecting England, but again the other nations were not name-checked. A reporter also said wealthy English pensioners would lose their winter fuel allowance. Since this matter is under Westminster’s powers, elderly people in the UK’s other nations may have thought it excluded them.
The BBC and ITV provided the most clarity when reporting devolved issues both in coverage of the manifesto generally, as well as in their more specific unpicking of the Conservative’s social care plans.
ITV’s opening introduction implied the devolved relevance of social care – “reforming the way social care for the elderly in England is paid for” – but the proceeding report did not mention the devolved nations. In a follow-up item about how social care would be funded, a reporter explicitly laid out the implications for all four UK nations:
The plans, though, would mark a stark contrast to the rest of the UK. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, care at home is predominantly free, and in Wales it is capped.
Likewise, the BBC’s headlines about the Conservative manifesto and the introduction to a package did clearly namecheck “England”:
One of the most radical changes would affect social care in England – which critics have said will be unfair to those with long-lasting illness.
It is not that surprising that election coverage so far has not always made clear that each nation can be affected by policies differently. Our research has long shown UK broadcast news either overlooks the devolved relevance to social policy issues or only gives implicit references to it. They choose to state a policy is “in England” far less often than explaining the differences between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
During an election campaign, however, one might expect the clarity and accuracy of policy coverage to be sharper. After all, it is critical for viewers who are deliberating which party to vote for. And yet, in the flurry to report the social care U-turn after May 18, for instance, the English relevance of policy was not always been put in a devolved context.
Of course, political parties should not escape criticism either. Often politicians make speeches about “Britain” or “the country”, without always pointing out the relevance of their policies to the 10m people not living in England.
With just over a week to go before election day, broadcasters have an important role to play in ensuring viewers are accurately informed of the policies that affect them. While stating “in England” goes some way in conveying a policy’s devolved relevance, more explicitly explaining any differences with the other nations might help improve people’s knowledge and understanding of the decisions that will affect them.
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.