We receive lots of questions about our role when it comes to TV and radio programmes in the run-up to a general election.
This short guide explains the kind of issues we might look at, as well as ones that are not within our remit.
You can read Ofcom’s rules for TV and radio content in our Broadcasting Code (PDF, 1.2 MB) – which includes some special rules that apply during an election period.
Under our rules, the ‘election period’ for a general election begins when parliament is dissolved and ends at 10pm on election day, when the polls close. So for this general election it began on 6 November and will end at 10pm on 12 December.
The Broadcasting Code includes important rules on due impartiality and due accuracy.
At all times – not just during election periods – news must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality, and broadcasters must also preserve due impartiality in programmes that address ‘matters of political or industrial controversy, and matters relating to current public policy’.
What does that mean? Well, ‘due’ means adequate or appropriate to the subject and nature of the programme, while ‘impartiality’ means not favouring one side over another. So ‘due impartiality’ does not mean an equal division of time has to be given to every view, or that every argument and every facet of every argument has to be represented.
Instead, context is important. Broadcasters’ approach to due impartiality may vary, according to the nature of the subject, the type of programme and channel, the likely expectations of the audience and how the content and approach are signalled to the audience.
During an election period, those rules continue to apply. But as well as that, political parties and independent candidates must be given appropriate levels of coverage – or ‘due weight’ – on TV and radio.
To help decide on this, broadcasters should look at the levels of past and current electoral support for parties and candidates. Broadcasters must also consider giving appropriate coverage to parties and independent candidates with significant views and perspectives. To help broadcasters in this area, Ofcom has published a digest of evidence of past electoral support and current support (PDF, 570.1 KB) for the various parties.
Ofcom doesn’t determine the line-up or format of any leaders’ debates. These are editorial matters for the broadcasters, who must comply with our rules on due impartiality.
As a post-broadcast regulator, we examine any complaints about these issues after a programme is aired. If we have concerns, we can investigate and take further action.
Broadcasters must allocate party election broadcasts based on current and past levels of electoral support (see above). Parties can complain to Ofcom if they are unhappy about broadcasters’ decisions on this.
Under our rules, people who are standing as candidates in an election must not appear in programmes as presenters or interviewers during an election period.
Candidates can appear on TV and radio to talk about their constituencies but only if the broadcasters have also offered the other main candidates standing the chance to take part.
When people are going to the polls on election day, it’s important that everyone can vote on the same information.
So under our rules, discussion and analysis of election issues must finish when the polling stations open, and not resume until they close. And while people are voting, broadcasters must not publish the results of any opinion polls.
During election periods, Ofcom puts together an Election Committee, comprising members of our main Board and our specialist Content Board. The committee deals with disputes between broadcasters and political parties about the allocations of party election broadcasts, as well as looking at significant complaints we receive about programmes broadcast during the election period.
Because elections are important, we run a fast-track process to look at complaints about election coverage. This means we can investigate as quickly as possible if we need to. All broadcasters are expected to work quickly with us during the election period to help deal with complaints.
Under the BBC’s Charter, complaints about BBC programmes are dealt with by the BBC initially, whom we expect to deal with complaints it receives during elections as quickly as possible. But if somebody is unhappy with how the BBC has dealt with their complaint, they can contact Ofcom about their case and we may examine and rule on it.
Ofcom does not have powers to regulate social media. So, we don’t have any role in the social media activity of people like TV presenters, correspondents, newsreaders or political candidates.
Under UK law, political adverts on TV and radio are banned, and Ofcom enforces that ban. But the various parties can qualify for party election broadcasts (see above). Ofcom has no role in regulating political advertising on social media, newspapers or websites.
When we receive complaints about TV or radio programmes, we often say we are assessing them before deciding whether to investigate. It’s an important distinction.
We assess every complaint we receive – as a matter of course – to see whether it raises potential concerns under our rules. But there may not be a case to answer. So, assessing is not the same as investigating.
If we do have concerns, we launch an investigation. When this happens, we write to the broadcaster. In most cases, they have the opportunity to respond to our concerns before we reach a ‘preliminary view’ on whether our rules have been broken. Then, once we’ve taken into account any representations from the broadcaster, we reach a final decision and publish it.