In any election campaign it is the job of the media to scrutinise policies and hold the various parties – and their leaders – to account. But in a bitter and divisive campaign such as the one the UK is living through, scrutiny is often reflected back on the media themselves, particularly television broadcasters such as the BBC and Channel 4, which have both come under fire from both sides of the political fray for editorial decisions they have made during the campaign.
Such has been the criticism directed at the BBC that Fran Unsworth – the broadcaster’s director of news and current affairs wrote to defend the BBC’s coverage of the campaign in the Guardian, suggesting that the corporation’s detractors have ignored the merits of the BBC’s journalism and have focused instead on “a couple of editorial mistakes that they suggest are either emblematic of all our election coverage, or damning evidence of an editorial agenda that favours the Conservative party”.
Unsworth also writes that “BBC impartiality does not rely on a stopwatch” – in other words, opposing sides may not feature in every BBC news article, programme or tweet but “over time achieving fair and proportionate coverage” is the standard.
Providing each major party a broadly equal opportunity to make its argument and covering each with partisan disinterest are two significant and obvious indicators of broadcaster impartiality. Unlike the print press, TV news outlets must meet statutory requirements in these regards.
But a third, and often forgotten, aspect of balance comes in the form of agenda balance. Agenda balance refers to the extent to which media outlets cover the broad range of issues that constitute the main parties’ agenda. This form of balance matters because election coverage can “prime” voters to base their voting decision on the issues that are more salient in the news. Meanwhile different parties are keen to emphasise specific issues on which they are seen as competent and avoid others where they stand on weaker ground.
A media debate focusing disproportionately on one party’s stronger issues is therefore likely to advantage this party and penalise others.
Loughborough University has monitored media coverage of the election throughout the campaign so far. As part of this analysis, we have identified key themes in both media coverage and the various tweets posted by the Conservative and Labour party Twitter accounts and those of their leaders. As such, we can compare the media and party agendas to determine whether the broadcasters’ agenda balance has matched their relatively robust degrees of time and evaluative balance.
Figure 1 below shows the frequency of the top five themes in media coverage between November 18 and December 3, grouping the news media into four sectors: TV broadcasters, red top tabloids (Sun, Mirror, Star), mid-market tabloids (Mail, Express, i paper) and quality press (Guardian, Times, FT, Telegraph). Overall, Brexit comprised 13.9% of all thematic coverage, followed by business/economy/trade (12.2%), taxation (10.6%), corruption and scandals (10.3%) and health (10.2%).
Although the focus on these themes varied between the four media sectors, the top five issues were the same for all.
Brexit was most prominent on broadcast TV news, accounting for nearly one-in-five topics – and substantially more than in newspapers. The broadcasters have focused much less on health, which ranked fifth, as was the case for mid-market and quality newspapers. As in most campaigns, the economy and taxation have also loomed large, particularly in mid-market and quality papers. And perhaps unsurprisingly, corruption and scandals have featured most prominently in the red tops.
Assessing the themes discussed during the campaign by the Conservatives and Labour on Twitter shows that, unlike the news media, the two major parties diverge substantially in their agendas. In Figure 2, we compare the presence of the five most recurring themes in the main parties’ tweets and in TV news. The top five issues discussed in the Conservatives’ tweets are Brexit, taxation, business/economy/trade, health and crime. By contrast, the top five issues for Labour are health, the environment, business/economy/trade, social security and taxation.
The difference between the two major parties could not be starker when it comes to Brexit, which has been featured in 32% of themes in Conservative tweets versus less than 4% in Labour tweets. But the gaps are also substantial with respect to health (Labour 23%, Conservatives 8%), taxation (Conservatives 20%, Labour 6%), and the environment (Labour 15%, Conservatives 4%).
As is often the case in campaigns, the parties are trying to appeal to different groups of voters with different messages, focusing on some issues while neglecting others.
In this cacophony, broadcast media outlets can and ought to play an important role in maintaining a national conversation that accounts for the positions of the main parties and enables voters to hear about a variety of issues. But so far in the campaign, the TV news agenda has been much more closely aligned with the Conservatives’ issue agenda than Labour’s.
The Tories’ top two themes – Brexit and taxation – have received 24.5% of the coverage overall and 29.8% on broadcast TV. By contrast, Labour’s top two issues – health and the environment – have been featured in only 14.1% of all the coverage and 13.4% of the TV coverage.
There may be a variety of reasons for this imbalance – not least the fact that one of the reasons this election was called was to ask voters a clear mandate on the Brexit deal negotiated by the Government. But coverage of Brexit has declined slightly in recent days, as our latest report suggests, so there is clearly room for the agendas to develop further in the final week of the campaign. Thus far, though, the broadcast news landscape has provided better opportunities for Boris Johnson to fight the campaign on the terrain he and his party have chosen.