Review of Ofcom’s party election broadcast regulations

07 January 2016

Ofcom has today published a consultation on proposals for the minimum allocation of party election broadcasts ahead of elections taking place on 5 May this year.

Ofcom has a statutory duty to set rules for a minimum allocation of short party election broadcasts.

There is a long-standing ban on political advertising on television and radio in the UK. Instead, free airtime is provided in the form of party election broadcasts, up to four minutes and 40 seconds in duration, which allow qualifying parties an opportunity to communicate directly with the electorate.

Based on evidence of public support, Ofcom advises which political parties should be offered a minimum of two party election broadcasts on each of the relevant channels. Ofcom is describing these parties as ‘larger parties’, formerly referred to as ‘major parties’.

For the May 2016 elections, party election broadcasts will appear on ITV, ITV Wales, STV, UTV and relevant local TV providers. Ofcom’s rules cover the minimum allocation of these broadcasts.

Broadcasters are free to offer additional party election broadcasts, beyond the minimum required by Ofcom. In previous elections, broadcasters have offered more election broadcasts than this minimum1.

By way of illustration, the table below shows the number of party election broadcasts shown on ITV, STV and UTV ahead of the 2015 General Election, alongside the minimum number of party election broadcasts required by Ofcom’s rules (shown in brackets).

Number of party election broadcasts on ITV, STV and UTV for 2015 General Election

Party Election Broadcasts shown ahead of

the May 2015 General Election2

England   Wales Scotland   Northern Ireland
Conservative Party 5 (2) 4 (2) 4 (2) 1 (1)
Labour Party 5 (2) 4 (2) 4 (2) -
Liberal Democrats 4 (2) 4 (2) 4 (2) -
Plaid Cymru - 4 (2) - -
SNP - - 4 (2) -
UK Independence Party 3 (2) 3 (2) 2 (1) 1 (1)
Green Party (incl. Scottish Green Party) 2 (1) 1 (1) 2 (1) 1 (1)
Socialist Labour Party - 1 (1) - -
Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition 1 (1) 1 (1) 1 (1) -
DUP - - - 4 (2)
Sinn Fein - - - 4 (2)
SDLP - - - 4 (2)
UUP - - - 4 (2)
Alliance Party - - - 3 (2)
Traditional Unionist Voice - - - 2 (1)
CISTA (Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol) - - - 1 (1)
Workers Party - - - 1 (1)

Under Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code, broadcasters must ensure fair coverage during the run up to elections. These rules include ensuring that relevant candidates have the opportunity to participate in discussions about their constituencies or electoral areas.

The BBC’s coverage of elections and the allocation of party election broadcasts are regulated by the BBC Trust. The BBC Trust recently amended its criteria for party political broadcasts - political broadcasts that take place outside election periods - and the BBC has confirmed which parties will be offered these broadcasts in 20163.

Party election broadcasts for May 2016 elections

The following elections will take place on 5 May this year:

  • English local elections (in some parts of England) and English mayoral elections in Bristol, Liverpool and Salford;
  • London Assembly and London mayoral elections;
  • Police and Crime Commissioner elections (in England and Wales);
  • National Assembly for Wales elections;
  • Scottish Parliamentary elections; and
  • Northern Ireland Assembly elections.

Ofcom has assessed evidence of public support in previous elections, and trends in opinion polling data4, to determine the proposed list of political parties that qualify for a minimum of two party election broadcasts.

Based on this evidence, Ofcom is proposing that the Conservative Party, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the UK Independence Party - the parties on the list for the May 2015 elections - remain on the list of political parties that qualify for a minimum of two party election broadcasts on each of the qualifying channels in England. For the purposes of the London Assembly elections, Ofcom proposes to add the Green Party to the list, which would mean the Green Party receives at least two party election broadcasts on ITV London.

In Wales, Ofcom proposes that the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the UK Independence Party - the parties on the list for the May 2015 elections - remain on the list of political parties that qualify for a minimum of two party election broadcasts on ITV Wales.

In Scotland, Ofcom is proposing that the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party - the parties on the list for the May 2015 elections - remain on the list of political parties that qualify for a minimum of two party election broadcasts on STV and ITV Border.

In Northern Ireland, Ofcom is proposing that the Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Féin, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Alliance Party -the parties on the list for the May 2015 elections - remain on the list of political parties that qualify for a minimum of two party election broadcasts on UTV.

Next steps

Ofcom is inviting comments on its proposals by 5pm on 4 February 2016. A statement on the list for the May 2016 elections will be made in March 2016.

Following the May 2016 elections, Ofcom intends to review the suitability of a ‘larger parties’ list for setting a minimum allocation of party election broadcasts. Ofcom will engage with broadcasters, political parties and other stakeholders before any public consultation later this year.

ENDS

NOTES FOR EDITORS 

1.. Under Ofcom’s rules, certain parties are entitled to at least one party election broadcast. Based on evidence of past electoral support and available opinion poll data, parties included on Ofcom’s list of ‘larger parties’ are entitled to a minimum of two party election broadcasts.

2. Table represents Ofcom’s understanding of the allocation of party election broadcasts by the Channel 3 services, ITV, STV and UTV, in the 2015 General Election

3.. Following a decision by the BBC Trust to amend the criteria the corporation use to decide qualification for Party Political Broadcasts, the BBC has now determined that the following parties will be offered broadcasts:

In England

The Conservative Party
The Labour Party
The Liberal Democrats
The UK Independence Party

In Wales

The above four parties plus:
Plaid Cymru

In Scotland

The Scottish National Party
The Labour Party
The Conservative Party
The Liberal Democrats

In Northern Ireland

The Democratic Unionist Party
Sinn Fein
The Ulster Unionist Party
The SDLP
The Alliance Party

4.. Ofcom places greater weight on performance in previous elections, which reflects how voters exercised their democratic choice, than opinion poll ratings. There is also a relative lack of opinion polling data since the 2015 General Election, in particular in Wales and Northern Ireland, compared with a significant amount of evidence of past electoral support.

5. Rule 6.2 of the Broadcasting Code states that due weight must be given to the broadcast coverage of political parties during the election period. Under Ofcom’s Rules on Party Political and Referendum Broadcasts (“the PPRB Rules”) listed parties must be offered at least two Party Election Broadcasts on the qualifying services which, for the May 2016 elections, will be the Channel 3 services (ITV, STV and UTV) and the relevant local TV services. The Code and PPRB Rules also lay out rules for the treatment of other registered parties.

6. Under the Memorandum of Understanding between Ofcom and the BBC Trust, BBC licence fee funded services have to comply with the Broadcasting Code: “to the extent that such standards do not concern the accuracy or impartiality of the content of any programme included in the BBC’s UK Public Broadcasting Services. The accuracy and impartiality of programmes within the BBC’s Public Broadcasting Services are the responsibility of the BBC Trust”. In relation to Party Election Broadcasts, under the 2006 BBC Charter and Agreement, the BBC Trust regulates the criteria for Party Election Broadcasts on BBC services.

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