Planning the BBC's election coverage

Sunday 4 April 2010, 14:00

Mark Thompson Mark Thompson Director-General (2004-2012)

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Whilst in some ways it feels like the campaign has already started and the date has been announced, Westminster and the wider world are waiting with bated breath for the General Election to be formally called.

Like the political parties, our preparation and planning will have been in development for months before the Prime Minister finally drives to the Palace and asks the Queen to dissolve Parliament.

And, more than any election before it, this will be a television and digital election - the historic prime ministerial TV debates being the biggest and most obvious example.

The public looks to the BBC's expertise to help them navigate and make clear some of the political complexities they face. It is one of the BBC's key responsibilities and is arguably the most important and serious duty the BBC has. The BBC is the crucible where the big debates about the future of the country inevitably take place and where many opinions will be shaped. Above all, the BBC will aim to be the standard-bearer for fair, accurate and impartial journalism across the UK. We will provide election coverage that is both independent and unique offering unprecedented breadth, depth and insight.

This could be one of the closest and therefore most ferociously fought elections in living memory. With the stakes so high for the political parties, it would not be surprising if they were in contact about how we were covering what they do and say. Whilst we will always take seriously any accusations or questions about our even-handedness and accept any mistakes if we get things wrong, we will show neither fear nor favour in how we report the election.

It is vital that the BBC is able to provide a strong and independent space where the big debates can take place, free from political or commercial influence. In this public space, everyone can have access to the lifeblood of healthy democratic debate - impartial news and information. The strength of our impartial public service broadcasting, combined with a strong newspaper tradition, is what makes us distinct from most democracies around the world.

So how will our coverage be different from previous years?

Firstly, audiences will be able to put the politicians and their policies under the microscope and scrutinise them in more detail than ever before. The Prime Ministerial Debates will enable the public to engage in the campaign in a new way, with the BBC hosting the final debate on the economy. In addition, there will be special programmes on each night of the debates, with focus groups, specialist correspondents and party pundits providing the first full analysis and reaction. And, as in previous years, we will also try to secure on BBC One one-to-one interviews with the leaders of the main political parties.

The Daily Politics will be extended to 60 minutes, Monday to Friday, throughout the campaign. It will host nine 'Cabinet Contender' debates which will provide a unique opportunity for the public to compare and contrast what each party has to offer on the issues that matter most to them. The programmes will be broadcast during the last three weeks of the campaign and will be presented by Andrew Neil and an independent policy expert and BBC specialist correspondent.

In Scotland there will be two election debates in Edinburgh and Glasgow, broadcast on BBC One Scotland, and Newsnight Scotland will be extended for four nights a week for the election coverage and an election night special with Jackie Bird, Glenn Campbell and Brian Taylor. Noel Thompson and Jim Fitzpatrick will lead the coverage in Northern Ireland, reflecting the local and national election picture as results come in. BBC Newsline will have a series of special reports and political debates from around the constituencies, and of course there will also be a Leaders debate. BBC Cymru Wales will host three election debates from around the nation, including a Welsh Leaders debate. On election night, Huw Edwards will lead proceedings on BBC One Wales. A range of Welsh language content will produced for radio, TV and online, including three Welsh language debates. In addition, across England, towards the end of the campaign, there will be 12 regional television debates with politicians, each focusing on issues that matter to the region, in front of a live audience.

Finally, we will offer the most comprehensive coverage in trying to energise and engage different audiences in the democratic process. Audiences tell us they look to the BBC to unpick the complexities of policy and bring clarity to difficult issues. We'll be doing this through the use of our trusted expertise of our specialist editors including Nick Robinson, Stephanie Flanders and Robert Peston.

This means a quality offer not just on our flagship news and current affairs programmes - Today, Newsnight, The World At One, Jeremy Vine and many other key programmes, but to other audiences through Newsround, Radio 1 and Newsbeat. Digital and online will also play a central and enhanced role. A special General Election site on will bring the most immediate developments, showcase the best of our content, and provide depth and analysis on the key issues. There is no better example than the General Election, with our online coverage being a cornerstone of what the BBC should be about.

Of course this is not the totality of what we will do. Campaigns, and the coverage of them, can evolve and change based on events. And every campaign always has those unexpected and sometimes defining moments.

Every day the BBC seeks to inform. During a General Election campaign that responsibility increases. Whilst our attention will be on the political parties - reporting their policies, holding them to account and analysing their announcements - our focus will be on serving the British electorate. Our recent Strategy Review was about making the BBC more mission-focused so that we deliver the best service for licence fee payers. Providing the best journalism in the world - through independent, impartial and authoritative content which the electorate can trust - is one of the main reasons why the BBC exists, and it is exactly what we will seek to fulfil in the weeks ahead.

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  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    Comment number 3.

    Trusted expertise of of your specialist editors like Nick Robinson?

    You obviously haven't been following his recent partial blogs and the comments section of those blogs. I'd say that at this moment Nick Robinson's standing is considered about as impartial as Charley Whelan or Alistair Campbell.

    The fact that you have to post a letter promising that the BBC will be impartial indicates to me that you know that the left leaning bias of the BBC is accepted far and wide and you are frantically scrabbling for credibility.

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    Comment number 4.

    The public looks to the BBC's expertise to help them navigate and make clear some of the political complexities they face.

    Nonsense. You are required by law to be impartial, a duty your self-appointed 'experts' demonstrably fail to achieve. The internal BBC conception of the political centre is well to the left of the general public.

    So just let us hear the parties and what they choose to say, unmediated by your 'interpretations'.

    Oh, and next time there's a newspaper review on Broadcasting House, let's have at least one Conservative present, shall we?

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    It is good to see that the BBC is taking seriously its responsibility to inform the British electorate ahead of the election.

    This morning, the BBC has cleared up 2 of my most recently pressing concerns: (a) was the polling card I received last week lying about the election being on 6 May; and (b) is Gordon Brown capable of walking?

    You can imagine my relief when I saw that the BBC was devoting the entire morning's coverage to confirming that, yes indeed, my polling card IS accurate (phew). Furthermore, into the bargain, with a combination of helicopter-born and ground-based camera work, BBC1 has been able to demonstrate that Gordon Brown can indeed walk without any sort of assistance or aid, and - whilst doing so - can shake hands and take himself into a train station.

    Cracking stuff. In the interest of impartiality though, could we perhaps see if David Cameron can drive and if Nick Clegg is able to eat with a knife and fork?

    Also - on a slightly unrelated point - could the BBC confirm if there is a football world cup this year? I have seen elsewhere that that is the case, but until the BBC devotes a morning of television coverage to it, I fear I will not be able to truly accept it.


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