Viewers and Voters: Attitudes to television coverage of the 2005 General Election
The General Election of 2005 took place against a backdrop of declining levels of political interest and participation in politics across the board. Turnout in the preceding General Election of 2001 had dipped to a record low of 59%, political party memberships had dropped significantly in the meantime, and a general antipathy toward politicians and political processes has been generally observed by opinion pollsters and academics alike.
The Local Authority and European Parliament elections of 2004 suggested that the turnout ‘floor’ had been reached, even if the introduction of all-postal pilot schemes for voting was the mechanism for reacquainting some voters with the democratic process. As such, the 2005 General Election was eagerly anticipated by electoral administrators and political commentators alike. The contribution of the media to perceptions of campaign and the extent to which politics on television contributed to any developments in turnout was also of interest.
In March 2005 Ofcom commissioned ICM Research, an independent research agency, to undertake a programme of research that identified the views of the general public toward General Election broadcasting on television.
ICM Research interviewed a random sample of 1,438 people aged 18 years and over by telephone on the pre-Election survey (undertaken during 6-12 April), and 1,433 on the post-Election survey (undertaken during 6-16 May).
Political interest and voting behaviour
The survey showed that:
- Around four out of ten UK adults claimed to have a lot of interest in politics and one-half of the population were only interested a little. Those most interested in politics tended to be male, aged 45 years and above and in social groups AB.
- A range of different sources were used to obtain information on political issues, but television in general (four-fifths of respondents), and news programmes in particular (around one-half) were named as the main sources. Radio and national newspapers also came narrowly behind party campaign material, local newspapers, and conversations with other people.
- 60% of post wave respondents claimed they had decided how they would cast their vote before the campaign began and the date for the Election was set.
- However, a significant minority of the electorate (25%) decided how they would vote within the later stages of the Election campaign, including 16% in the last few days.
- The pre and post election surveys found that the Conservatives' share of voting intentions fell across the election campaign, with Liberal Democrats and smaller parties gaining and Labour stable.
Television coverage of the 2005 election
- Just over half of respondents felt that television channels as a whole devoted the right amount of time to Election coverage, but four-in-ten felt there was too much and a few felt there was too little. The majority reported that this coverage was fair to all political parties. Just under two-thirds reported that it covered the issues that were relevant to them.
- Respondents reported that television coverage explained issues either quite (55%) or very well (14%), and the majority believed that news coverage of the Election was fair, accurate, balanced, informative and impartial.
- Respondents also reported that television programmes were good at explaining each of the party’s policies, though the programmes tended to spend too much time on the personalities of politicians.
- Around two-fifths of respondents reported that they paid a lot of attention to television news coverage of the Election, no matter which political parties were featured.
- BBC1's coverage was rated the most accurate, interesting and informative of all channels.
Party Election Broadcasts
- Around seven in ten respondents reported that Party Election Broadcasts were either ‘very’ or ‘quite’ important. Three-fifths (62%) reported that they had watched at least one Party Election Broadcast during the 2005 Election campaign and that it had influenced how they would vote either a little (39%) or a lot (16%). As already mentioned, many people had already made up their minds about which party to vote for, and the net effect of PEBs in many cases was merely to confirm or consolidate party preferences.
- Over three-quarters of respondents (78%) believed that Party Election Broadcasts should not be carried outside the five main terrestrial channels.
- Just over half (54%) believed that parties should remain unable to take paid advertising on television, but 38% believed this should be allowed either instead of or as well as PEBs.
- Three-fifths of respondents (60%) would like to see PEBs shortened, but 55% said if the broadcasts were shorter in length they would not like to see any more than there are at present.
- The survey results suggested that more than one-half of 18-24 year olds (51%) did not vote in the 2005 General Election compared with the entire sample (28%).
- Higher proportions of younger people (18% aged 18-24 post election) reported that they had no interest in politics compared with all respondents (13% post election).
- While 63% of younger people used television news broadcasts as a primary source of information on politics, in general they did not think that television explained party policies very well (30% of 18-24 year olds compared with 25% of all respondents pre election), and that too little time was spent covering opinion polls, the personalities of politicians and press conferences, walkabouts and other personal appearances by politicians.
- Younger people were also more likely to claim that Party Election Broadcasts were important (68% of all respondents claimed that PEBs were important compared with 75% of 18-24 year olds post election) and that they used them to help decide how to vote in the Election (56% of younger people stated this compared with 39% of all respondents).
- Younger voters (15%) believed that there were not enough Election Broadcasts on television compared with the entire sample of respondents (7%) and that they would prefer to see shorter PEBs, more PEBs and ‘red button’ i.e. interactive broadcasts instead of Election Broadcasts.
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