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Rishi Sunak in a suit against a dark background, looking down with his hand on his hip

Factchecking of Sunak’s misleading tax claim shows broadcasters taking a new approach to impartiality

In the first televised general election debate, Rishi Sunak claimed more than ten times that a future Labour government would cost households £2,000 more in tax. It took some time for Keir Starmer to rebut the attack, allowing the idea to fester for almost an hour among 5 million prime time television viewers.

Senior Conservative politicians repeated the claim and said these figures were generated independently by the civil service. But Treasury officials wrote in a letter to Labour that the figures had not been calculated independently, and that it had warned the government about making this misleading claim.

Three days after the debate, the claim had unravelled further. The UK’s statistics watchdog warned the Conservatives that they had not made it clear the £2,000 claim related to a four-year period. But Sunak defended the claim and pushed back against Starmer’s accusations that he had deliberately lied.

Campaigns are a constant stream of claims, counterclaims, accusations and mudslinging, which do not always turn out to be true. To make sense of what parties claim, most people turn to the media – and particularly to broadcasters, who are legally required in the UK to be impartial in their coverage.

Read more: How Sunak came up with disputed Labour tax figures – and what's wrong with them

But broadcasters can find it difficult to report impartially when they have to single out one party for making dubious claims during an intense election campaign.

The BBC is long renowned for being a politically cautious broadcaster. But its political editor, Chris Mason, adopted an assertive approach to impartiality when reporting the £2,000 tax claim. In the BBC’s Electioncast podcast, he acknowledged it was difficult to balance being impartial while questioning the claim’s credibility.

Mason also cast considerable doubt on the claim during the BBC News at Ten, explaining to viewers that he saw it as “misleading” and “dubious”. Not only that, the News at Ten drew on the factchecking service BBC Verify to break down the figures. In a two-minute studio piece, it identified where Conservative political advisors had influenced the calculations of the figures.

While this may appear standard journalistic practice, it is something of a watershed moment in how the BBC has interpreted impartiality over recent decades. My research with colleagues at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Culture has historically shown that the BBC’s factchecking service has not prominently featured in broadcast programming.

Read more: Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer's first election debate: the facts behind the claims

We have been monitoring BBC News at Ten since the start of 2024. While Verify is occasionally drawn on to factcheck international stories (notably in the Middle East), before the election campaign it had only been used once in domestic political coverage – after the UK government announced its budget in March.

Other broadcasters have factchecked the £2,000 tax claim too. A reporter in an ITV News bulletin labelled it “just not true”, while forensically going through the figures. Typically one of the most tenacious broadcasters, Channel Four’s coverage was more circumspect, questioning the claim with evidence but without explicitly labelling it false.

Are audiences convinced?

Despite the robust way some broadcasters dealt with the disputed calculations about Labour’s plans, the misleading £2,000 number has stuck with some viewers.

A poll two days after the debate found that a majority either thought the claim was accurate, or did not know if it was true or false. This suggests broadcasters could be even more explicit in telling any confused voters that the figures were misleading and not independently produced.

Our research with news audiences has shown they would welcome journalists calling out false and misleading political claims.

But calling out one party’s claim and not another can be challenging for impartial broadcasters. Ahead of the EU referendum in 2016, many broadcasters did not regularly challenge the leave campaign’s bogus claim that the UK spent £350 million per week on EU membership. This is despite the fact that independent bodies, including the statistics watchdog, considered it highly misleading.

Since broadcasters did not repeatedly challenge this figure, it perhaps explains why a poll found almost half the population believed it just days before they cast their EU referendum vote.

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Our research of the UK’s flagship evening TV news bulletins during the ten-week EU referendum campaign revealed they balanced the competing leave and remain perspectives, but did not regularly challenge claims and counter-claims. Impartiality was constructed as balancing perspectives, rather than independently assessing campaign claims on both sides of the political debate.

During past election campaigns, we have also found that broadcasters have adopted a “he said, she said” style of reporting. This might lead to political balance, but not robust scrutiny.

We have examined almost a thousand journalistic interactions with claims made by the four main party leaders during the 2019 UK and 2020 US elections. While BBC reporters often challenged the claims of US politicians, they typically reported the competing positions of UK politicians without evaluating or calling out any dubious political perspectives.

The events of the last few days suggest that broadcasters may finally be ready to rigorously contest questionable party claims. But as more misleading or dubious figures are bandied about ahead of election day, they will need to continue factchecking parties to ensure voters are properly informed.

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