BBC BLOGS - The Editors

Impartiality and coalition government

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Ric Bailey | 16:08 UK time, Friday, 14 May 2010

We're all in new territory: government, opposition - and broadcasters. Coming to terms with the "new politics" of coalition sets us some new challenges, just as we're trying to recover our breath from the extraordinary events of recent weeks.

There's already been much speculation about the question of "balance". Especially during the campaign, we're used to hearing the views of the different parties on any given issue and seeing them represented on programmes such as Question Time and Any Questions. So if the Conservatives and the Lib Dems are in together, what happens? Do they both get a say?

Firstly, it's important - if obvious - to register that we're no longer in the run-up to a general election. And there is no mathematical formula for deciding what constitutes "balance". Neither is there a requirement for the BBC to think about its coverage in that way once voters have had their say. The key obligation for us has to be due impartiality - which means taking account of the present political context and making good editorial judgements about fairness, reflecting the different strands of all the main arguments.

And those judgements will vary from programme to programme, genre to genre.

Clearly, in our normal news journalism, reporting on what the government is saying or doing, it will normally not make sense to have both government parties saying the same thing. Where the "Liberal-Conservative" administration is speaking with one voice, that's what we will reflect, along with the different voices of opposition parties. Of course, on some issues, we may want to illustrate the different emphasis and nuance the partners bring to a particular story.

For the more set-piece formats, such as Question Time and Any Questions, where politicians are speaking more broadly across the range of political issues, then it's worth stepping back and considering some first principles. Editorially, such programmes look to have contributors who approach issues from different perspectives and encompass a breadth of arguments. But they are also often discussing issues which are not necessarily just about government and opposition - and not just about the politics of Westminster.

One of the fascinating aspects to these new arrangements will be how far the respective leaders are able to carry their own parties with them. In capturing the range of views, it will be particularly relevant to hear the voices of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats outside the government - including, as well as "dissidents", those who operate outside Westminster, where the shifting political relationships are different - Scotland, Wales, the European Parliament and local government. These are places where parties working together - yet standing against each other in elections - is now rather old hat. And in Northern Ireland, the complexities of representing different political views from parties sharing the responsibilities of government are, to say the least, rather more challenging than the new ones at Westminster.

Mostly, then, in discussions or packages the coalition will only need one representative - Conservative or Liberal Democrat. But where it's the party being represented, taking a different (though not necessarily opposing) stance, it may well be perfectly in order to have representatives from both Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties.

Either way, we will still want to make sure that all political parties continue to get fair representation, in relation to their electoral support, across our output.

We need to look at where the pivot of argument lies - sometimes it will, of course, still be between the political parties. But sometimes it will be between front-bench and back-bench; sometimes between Westminster and other political structures; sometimes between different factions of the same party.

So we should not make hard-and-fast rules, or try to construct formulas for the "new politics" - not least because we are, for the government of the UK at least, in unchartered waters heading in an uncertain direction. What we should do is to carry on making good and fair editorial judgements according to the particular circumstances and the many different sorts of journalism we do. Not such new territory after all.

Ric Bailey is the BBC's chief political adviser.

Prime ministerial debates

Ric Bailey | 17:00 UK time, Tuesday, 2 March 2010

So finally we can say - they are going to happen. After decades of arguing and a whole host of reasons why they should not happen - there will now be debates during the general election campaign between those who aspire to be prime minister.

Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick CleggAfter months of negotiation - constructive and good-humoured but often tough and mind-numbingly detailed - an agreement has been worked out between the three broadcasters - ITV, Sky and BBC - and the three largest UK political parties - Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats - over the three debates which will take place, one on each network during each week of the campaign.

Here are the key principles for the debates. [40KB PDF]
Here is the programme format agreed by all parties. [44KB PDF]

The fact that debates have never happened before is an indication of how difficult it is - especially in the pre-election atmosphere - for the broadcasters and the parties involved to find sufficient common ground.

But all involved were very clear that these were events which should and could add to the understanding of voters as they make up their minds.

Each broadcaster will also be looking carefully at how to ensure the obligations of impartiality are properly fulfilled. The BBC will hold subsequent leaders' debates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, part of a range of measures to ensure that the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Northern Ireland parties have appropriate opportunities to be heard. There will also be special arrangements in the programming around the BBC debate itself - a week before polling day - to ensure that other parties which have demonstrated that they have some electoral support - UKIP, the Green Party and the BNP - will have their say.

The broadcasters' negotiating panel had a number of ambitions: to involve the public in the debates; to establish a format in which the leaders would actually debate with each other; to make the debates interesting and engaging and not, perhaps, as formulaic and structured as the American presidential debates can be.

For some it's making history - for others it's a constitutional anomaly... whichever, the debates will now happen - and election campaigns may never be the same again in this country.

Ric Bailey is the BBC's chief political adviser.

Question Time and the BNP

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Ric Bailey | 09:18 UK time, Monday, 7 September 2009

The news that Question Time is likely to invite the BNP's Nick Griffin to be a panellist at some stage has set off a keen debate in the newspapers and among politicians. Of course, Mr Griffin has been on many other BBC programmes, including the Andrew Marr Show during the summer - so why is an appearance on Question Time front-page news?

Nick GriffinIt's true there is something different. For a start, panellists, whether they are party politicians or not, are being given a platform to share their views with the audience on a broad range of subjects. That's not quite the same as, say, an interview on Today or Newsnight, where an interviewer pursues a particular line of questioning, usually on a specific issue.

But that is not to say that politicians, when they appear on Question Time, or other debating programmes such as Any Questions on Radio 4, are not being subjected to the tough level of scrutiny which is central to BBC journalism. Ask any cabinet minister - a Conservative in the mid-90s, one from Labour more recently - and they'll tell you that it's often there, with an engaged and passionate audience, where you find out just how well thought through are your policies and views.

Sitting on a panel is also different because it usually involves more interaction with other politicians - and this is where the newspaper stories are particularly interesting. It's said that Labour is reviewing its stance of not sharing a platform with the BNP. All the other parties are having to come to terms with the fact that the BNP won two seats in the recent European election, giving them representation at a national level for the first time.

For the BBC, it's quite straightforward. "Due impartiality" means we have to take account of the political context when we're making editorial judgements, day in day out. There isn't one single formula which applies in all circumstances. So how do we decide what are appropriate levels of airtime for the different political parties? Our starting point for that judgement - though not the only factor - is how real people vote in real elections.

Measuring impartiality is less about mathematics and more about good judgement - but let's just look at the maths for a moment. In the recent European election, the BNP won more than 6% of the vote across Britain - approaching a million people. In some regions it was close to 10%. Like the Greens, they now have two MEPs - far fewer than UKIP - but they also have over 50 local councillors - fewer than the Greens, many more than UKIP.

Ever since UKIP and the Greens won representation at a national level, they have appeared from time to time on Question Time. Inviting the BNP onto the panel would be a continuation of the approach which recognises that the level of electoral support is a relevant factor in making these judgements.

The BBC could not apply different standards to different parties because of their particular policies. That would be a breach of our charter, challengeable in the courts.

But it's not fear of the lawyers or lobbying from the BNP themselves which would prompt an invitation to Nick Griffin. Impartiality is at the core of the BBC's journalism and this is a normal part of the process of constantly asking ourselves how we should be defining that impartiality in a changing political environment.

Ric Bailey is the BBC's chief political adviser and was executive editor of Question Time from 2000 to 2006.

When is 'news' news?

Ric Bailey | 13:05 UK time, Thursday, 13 July 2006

We received this e-mail earlier in the week:

I am getting fed up with the BBC and others presenting stories as news when they are not news at all. OK you may have reporters that get briefed by spin doctors in advance - but until the minister actually makes his statement it isn't news. If say, the minister changes his mind, you would then have to print a story to cover the fact that your earlier news story was incorrect. This is ridiculous. Why not present news as it happens and not guess what might happen - anyone can do that.

So what exactly is "news"? A proper full answer probably needs a spot of analysis somewhere on the scale of a PhD, so excuse me if I limit myself to a few thoughts on what this means in the world of political coverage.

Here, most stories don't just pop up out of the blue (or even red). If it's the government (or opposition come to that) making an announcement of a new policy, then that will have a context. There are two separate elements here: one is the idea of an "embargo", the other is what people often refer to as "speculation".

An embargo is usually a device of practical convenience, for instance, about when exactly an announcement is being made:
• by having an agreed time when everyone across the media can start running the story, it ensures the news-maker (eg a government department) can field their ministers in an orderly way and it's their way of trying to get the story on the appropriate outlet (ie, Sunday papers, early morning radio, etc);
• it helps the media prepare the background so they can tell their viewers and readers the story properly (in our case, for example, assemble relevant pictures, give our correspondents time to absorb and analyse the information, perhaps find effective ways of translating technical terms into more understandable language).
• from the government's point of view, an embargo is often timed because ministers are expected to announce new policies first to Parliament and there is sometimes an agreed etiquette allowing opposition parties time to prepare their response.

Sometimes, if these embargoes apply to a particularly big story, such as this week's energy review, then it is quite right that in advance of the announcement, we should prepare the ground and the context by previewing what we expect ministers to say. So, we are seldom, if ever, "guessing". We know what the gist of the announcement contains in advance, if not always the detail and we are informing viewers and listeners what they can expect and when. I think we'd be criticised if we held that back on an important issue which has an impact on people's lives.

If the minister then does say something very different to what was expected, the likelihood is that there is a genuinely different and interesting story going on behind the scenes - eg, there's been a last minute argument between government departments over the announcement which has resulted in a rethink. In those circumstances, it would absolutely be the responsibility of our correspondents not to "correct" our earlier story, but to explain what's happening behind the scenes and why.

By "speculation", it's often implied that our correspondents are talking off the top of their heads about things which might or might not happen. While I wouldn't claim that never happens, most of the time, it means something rather different.

We employ our political correspondents - and other specialists - for their expertise and experience in the field. What some people believe is speculation is what I would term "interpretation" - the correspondents are attempting to shed light on political activity which may not be all that it seems. Behind every "public" announcement there has often been months of private discussion, conflict, lobbying, mind-changing, etc. Governments - or political parties generally - seldom make sudden changes of policy and certainly don't like to be perceived as having made "U-turns". It's often a gradual process, during which they prepare the ground, subtly change the language, soften denials, inch forward.

For them, that might be a necessary part of the political process of "testing the water", or ensuring they maintain the backing of their own supporters. An understanding of that process is part and parcel of how the story develops and it is quite right that we should try to give our audience a flavour of it to help them appreciate the context when the "news" finally pops into the public domain by official announcement.

None of this is to say that the "fed up" e-mailer above doesn't have a point. There is, for instance, a phenomenon known as "kite-flying", which politicians of all sides have been known to practice. Drop a hint in the ear of a friendly journalist; see what the reaction is to the splash story; if it's universally thought a turkey - deny it was ever considered. The rules of the political Lobby - that such information is quotable, so long as the source isn't named - are controversial, but, in practice, are part of the lubricant of politics. You have to take a judgement on whether your viewers and listeners are better served by having access to this information, or whether they'd be better off blissfully unaware.

Again, I would plead confidence in the expertise of our correspondents. Their job is to be able to spot when (to mix metaphors) a kite-flyer is a runner and when it's mischief-making. If the hint came from an out-of the-loop back bencher, treat it accordingly. If it came from a close confidant of the prime minister, likewise.

Real news in politics is not purely about events - a photo-opportunity, a speech, a particular meeting, an announcement. It is often about opinion, perception, context, prejudice. The timing of when it actually becomes "news" may hang on a particular event, usually something organised by the politician. But that is seldom the whole story - and we'd be short-changing our audience if we only told them about things when the politicians get round to deciding they think it's time for the public to know.

Ric Bailey is deputy head of political programmes

Schools QT - a success?

Ric Bailey | 12:51 UK time, Monday, 10 July 2006

I'll be honest - Schools Question Time can be a bit of a pain.

Question Time logoIt's a huge amount of extra work for everyone involved, way beyond the call of duty, full of hassle, etc etc. And it's risky for programme makers to give away a bit of their control.

And when I said in the last blog that I was worried about whether we'd find a suitable Joe Public panelist, aged between 18 and 25 - well, I really meant it.

So if I say there's a feeling of relief, it's not just because it's all over (arggh - we've just launched next year's competition) - but because all the worries turned out to be totally unjustified and the response from all those involved, as well as the viewing audience, was truly inspirational.

Four young people, shortlisted for the job, appeared on a mini Question Time (viewable on our website) to decide which one should do the real thing. All four were terrific and could have done the job.

Matt PollardBut the winner, Matt Pollard, was amazing. Cool and confident, but not cocky; knowledgeable without sounding nerdy; politely combative. We could not have asked for more - he carried off the surrounding media interviews with the seasoned assurance of a pro (at least, once he realised he didn't have to answer the Telegraph's question about girlfriends...). A star is born. Even if he has to return to his summer job of being a waiter, it can only stand him in great stead for the future.

Matt, Gareth, Sarah and LouiseSo thanks, Matt - and Gareth, Sarah and Louise - and of course the eight teenagers who helped produced the programme, as well as the thousands of others earlier in the challenge, who used the Question Time format in their lessons and in local events - for turning one of those high-ideal-sounding BBC objectives ("engaging young people in citizenship and politics") into an excellent programme which exuded their enthusiasm and engagement...

O God, here we go again...

School programmes

Ric Bailey | 12:01 UK time, Friday, 30 June 2006

It seemed like a good idea at the time... and I think it still is...

Question Time logoThe teenagers who won the Schools Question Time Challenge (and are producing next week's programme) decided they wanted a Joe Public panellist - and a young one at that.

They also wanted some new-fangled internetty way of finding the right person - get 18 to 25 year olds to send in a video clip of themselves on their mobile phone.

Well, we had a pretty good response in the circumstances. It has to be said, a fair few entries never quite overcame the technological hurdle (or was it our ability to fathom how to access them?). By no stretch could you say those entering were a representative sample of the age group - but it was striking how many said they were Conservative supporters. And each assumed they'd be highly unusual to hold such views when so young. And surprisingly few green types - or is that my middle-age stereotyping expectations? Some Labour supporters - rather fewer actually expressing enthusiasm for the government - and quite a decent smattering of Lib Dems and others not yet committed to a party…

But we absolutely have to do this on merit - sticking them on the programme with four professionals is a huge ask. So we distribute the shortlist to the student producers, some now more absorbed in exams than programme planning - more technical and logistic hitches - but they start e-mailing back their views. Thankfully broadly in line with ours.

Those who almost made the final cut included a brace of Cambridge undergraduates and ranged from an Iraqi medical student to a single-mother voluntary worker.

Anyway, having got the shortlist down to four, we're now organising our own mini "Politics Idol" - run a dummy Question Time (with David D in the chair of course) putting these finalists through their paces. The aim is for one of them then to join the normal-ish Question Time panel, next Thursday and spout their views to the nation on whatever subjects come up.

I say "aim" - frankly, that's my weasel-word way of saying that if, when it comes to the crunch, none of them are quite up to it, then I still reserve the right to protect BBC One from a duff programme - and abandon the whole idea. I keep reassuring myself that it won't come to that and that taking risks (reasonable ones) is part and parcel of keeping a long-running and treasured flagship fresh and relevant.

Ask me again a week from now.

So, assuming it goes to plan and looking on the bright side, expect to see one of the following on the last Question Time of the series, on July 6th:

• Gareth Davies, a 22 year old from Leeds, who, uniquely among entrants, managed, simultaneously, to walk and talk into his mobile phone - and make good sense.

• Louise Box, who's 21, just moving to Manchester and works in retail. One of her hobbies is shouting at the telly every Thursday night.

• Matt Pollard, a student at Exeter who once got to ask a question from the audience on Question Time.

• Sarah Hajibagheri, an 18 year old gap year student who's just had a stint working for an "inspirational" MEP.

Good luck to them and to the Question Time student producers - and I must remember to send heartfelt appreciation to the regular Question Time team, who put a huge amount of extra work into this.

School questions

Ric Bailey | 10:26 UK time, Friday, 26 May 2006

Brave - yes, that's one word for it. Foolhardy, that's another. There's probably a really good reason why Question Time has consistently been the most popular political programme on TV for nearly 27 years - without yet having a member of the public on the panel.

qtime.gifAnyway, it looks like that's about to change, thanks to the teenagers who are helping to produce this year's special Schools Question Time edition in July. The search is on for a young panellist up to the challenge of debating hot political topics with top politicians, maybe the odd celebrity and, of course, fending off a probing Dimbleby.

The would-be panellists will have to use their mobile phones to send a one minute video clip of themselves explaining why they should be the new star of QT. As they have to be aged between 18 and 25, hopefully they won't be as technically challenged as I would be attempting that. The final few shortlisted will then go through a mini "pop-idol" audition to decide who sits in the vacant chair.

We're genuinely a bit apprehensive! Nothing quite like this has been done before - will there be 20 entrants or 20,000? What if there isn't a single one who's up to it? Question Time really is probably the most intimidating of programmes for panellists, as plenty of Cabinet Ministers will tell you.

It is actually invigorating to bring a new generation to such an iconic programme and give them the chance to use its format to engage in impassioned political debate. The students from the four winning schools in this year's challenge are busy planning all aspects of their programme. Our experience of the first couple of years of the competition has been that it produces a real buzz and a freshness which makes for a terrific debate. And maybe this year, it'll launch a bright new political career as well.

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