Is it a fair election, when 'favoured' candidates get hundreds of hours of state-sponsored TV coverage, and 'minor' candidates are sidelined?
In 2008, I withdrew from the London Mayor election because of the state restrictions on being allowed to contact constituents or campaign. Some of the most debilitating restrictions surrounded broadcast media rules on so-called “minor” candidates. As a One London party candidate, I was deemed to belong to this ‘lesser class’, even though I was an elected member of the London Assembly, a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority and had been regularly called upon to speak by broadcasters including the BBC before standing in the Mayorals.
The rules create “balance” within each class structure, but not between the classes. With hours and hours of pre-planned TV, it's easy to maintain balance between the "main" candidates - any imbalance can be rectified the next day. Meanwhile the “others” are whizzed on and off the screen a very long time before the election itself. “Give us your view on how London should be run in 15 seconds”, I was asked.
Now at the 2012 contest, the rules have changed slightly, with the admission of the personable Green candidate Jenny Jones to “favoured candidate” status alongside Tory, Labour and LibDem. Already it has been down to Jones to inject some interest in the campaign with her suggestion about the publishing of candidates’ income and tax. While many might not agree with the idea, it at least punctured the Punch and Judy Show on earnings between the “main” candidates.
This leaves only three “minor” contenders. One result of this is that the matter has begun properly to be raised. The BNP and UKIP candidates appear paralysed by inactivity, but the only independent in the running, former civil servant Siobhan Benita, is like a terrier with a rat between her teeth, and rightly so. She has made TV restrictions an issue, obtaining a sympathetic hearing in the Guardian and Independent. But still she has not been allowed access to meaningful TV.
Pre-election polling explains news interest in the two leading contenders, but cannot exonerate this curious class structure. In March 2012, before the BBC made its decision on the editorial guidelines, a YouGov poll for London Mayor showed Greens, UKIP and BNP roughly equal in the race, with a slight national advantage for UKIP. And the LibDem on just 6%. For every hour of TV exposure now given to the Greens, the “minor” candidates appear to be receiving half a minute at the most. And of course the polling for the Greens has risen since the decision of the BBC to include that party as “favoured” for TV coverage.
When I was still a prospective candidate in 2008, at a time when there was a possible 12 or 13 candidates, one producer told me, in full panic mode, that I “must” appear on his programme or their whole balance would be thrown and they’d have to dump all the slots and start all over again on the eve of transmission. He then told me that whatever I came up with, however interesting, would be barred from the screens outside of the pre-planned slots “because we would then have to invite all the other minor candidates on for exactly the same time because of the balance rules and it is just not possible in a news context.”
This system also has an enormous impact on public meetings. When I asked to appear at one meeting in 2008, I was told by the organisers’ PR that I could not because the BBC rules said that they could only show the three main candidates and that if I were on the platform the BBC would have to edit me out and did not want to be seen doing this. It was an extraordinary admission and clearly a gaffe by an event organiser under pressure who had been told the true score and just did not grasp how serious was the affront to democracy by the BBC she was relaying.
There needs to be a proper audit across all broadcast media in elections as to the nature and amount of coverage given to the different candidates. We also require a sensible discussion on how to allow candidates barred from equal access to the media the opportunity to rectify the matter through raising their own funds.
The current system seems designed to stop all meaningful coverage of diverse forces. Is this because they are annoying and inconvenient to programmers? Or is it because the state through its broadcast arm wants to prevent the flood of disillusionment and anger with the political class having an actual electoral outcome?
Damian Hockney is a magazine publisher who became involved in politics through his opposition to the plan to give Europol officers immunity for life from prosecution. A former vice-chair of UKIP, he was elected to the London Assembly in 2004 and was a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority from 2004 to 2008.