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Planning the BBC's election coverage

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Mark Thompson Mark Thompson | 13:00 UK time, Sunday, 4 April 2010

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 bbc.co.uk 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.


  • Comment number 1.

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

  • Comment number 2.

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

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • Comment number 6.

    Why is my first comment still in moderation?

  • Comment number 7.

    "I do remember... the corridors of Broadcasting House were strewn with empty champagne bottles. I'll always remember that."

    Jane Garvey, BBC Five Live, recalling the day after the general election 1997

  • Comment number 8.

    The fact you feel obliged to make the comment that the BBC will be impartial, speaks volumes. I thought it was your legal obligation to be impartial, as with all other news broadcasters.

  • Comment number 9.

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

  • Comment number 10.

    You wrote:
    'Above all, the BBC will aim to be the standard-bearer for fair, accurate and impartial journalism across the UK.'
    Yes, well, I should think so, too!
    In which case I hope I will never write the complaint below:

    "I'd like to draw your attention to the early morning BBC Breakfast TV broadcast, April 5th 2010. Within the first four minutes, from 6.00 to 6.04 a.m., all three parties were mentioned, starting with a report on a podcast by Gordon Brown, criticising the Tories and reporting in detail the points of this criticism.
    This was followed by a brief report on Tory policy, with more time spent on the criticism by Labour and the Libdems of that policy than on the actual reported item.
    Then there was a lengthy report on LibDem policy, with special attention on the LibDem criticism of Tory policy.
    This in my opinion is a clear example of political bias. Just allocating a programme segment to report on each party regardless of content is not being unbiased when each segment contains critique of one party only, in this case the Tory party.
    It is biased reporting when there are no reports of Tory criticism of Labour or LibDem policies.
    In the run up to the General election it is vital that the BBC reports unbiased about each party and their policies - which includes reporting of Tory criticisms of the other two parties."

    We'll indeed be watching the BBC - but perhaps not quite in the way you seem to assume.

  • Comment number 11.

    And so the similarity in news reporting (e.g. on Lord Ashcroft, Chris Grayling, and the burying of stories critical of Labour) between the Guardain and the BBC is just an extraordinary coincidence then?

  • Comment number 12.

    I am glad you are coming out and stating you will be impartial. My viewing of BBC from overseas(Canada) showed me a distinct lack of impartiality in reporting of the expenses scandal. (Bias towards Labour was unbeliveably strong, infact on my viewing I saw zero headlines on Labour members expense fraud)

    I think that the fact that other parties are polling 10% of the vote and the chances of a hung Parliament should mean that they should have their policies and points of view included in the BBC coverage of the election, whatever their political complexion.

  • Comment number 13.

    APbbforum this Government blacked most of the expense claims information, without the newspaper reports we would have no idea to the size of the scandal. Whatever happened to Tony Blair's expense claims?

  • Comment number 14.

    Jim, I expect because it wasnt in line with the new found impartiality policy :~D

    I will be very surprised if this is posted.

  • Comment number 15.

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

  • Comment number 16.

    Many thanks for all your comments, but can I remind you that this post concerns itself with the BBC's Election coverage. Any comments regarding 6 Music or the Strategy Review are considered off-topic and will be removed.
    You may wish to comment on Mark Thompson's previous post regarding these topics here.

  • Comment number 17.

    Mark Thompson writes,

    "Above all, the BBC will aim to be the standard-bearer for fair, accurate and impartial journalism across the UK."

    Is this blog a spoof? Have the BBC computers been hacked?

    One could make a long list every day of the casual political bias in the BBC news - left-wing bias that BBC staff may not even notice because it conforms to their worldview.

    Instead of giving instances here, it is easier just to refer to-


  • Comment number 18.

    "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."

    This is precisely the problem that the BBC seem blind to. The fact that they see this as their duty, rather than the cause of all the bias, shows how out of touch you are. You need to take a step back and look, really look at what you're saying.

    The BBC stopped reporting and informing factual content as news back in late seventies / early eighties and instead decided that the public needed to also be told how to interpret the facts. Presumably this was in case we poor dimwits were unable to comprehend whole sentences or form our own conclusions. For some ridiculous reason the BBC thought they would be ideally placed to lead us to what they believed facts were pointing to.

    Just read the section I have highlighted from your letter Mr Thompson. It is one of the most patronising and revealingly innacurate statements I have ever heard.

    Go back to reporting the facts without supplying a BBC paid commentariat (he said this, she said that. This happened), and we the people will quite happily make connections and conclusions ourselvses without your misguided hand holding. By all means have people expressing opinion, just make sure they are not BBC staff and are given equal air time as any opposing viewpoint.

  • Comment number 19.

    It is laudable that you at least recognise your duty to be impartial in this election but stating this is clearly not the same thing as fulfilling it. It would be helpful if you could explain what tangible measures you plan to take to make sure that you are willing the means as well as the ends. This is very important because the BBC wields immense power and needs to be seen to exercise it responsibly. I and many others have felt that your arrogance in your exercise of this power - the way your reporters have sought to influence events more than reporting on them and then sneeringly brush off complaints of bias - is another symptom of the decaying status quo shown up in the expenses scandal.

  • Comment number 20.

    Mark Thompson doesn’t understand that right wingers generally gravitate towards the Conservatives, big business or the armed forces whilst lefties generally gravitate towards New Labour, the arts and the media.

    Instead of addressing the colossal Liberal Left wing group-think at the BBC he feels the need to post a blog telling us that the BBC will be impartial throughout this general election.

    He will ignore all our post about the Liberal Left wing bias that is generally accepted in the right wing blogosphere and press. He and the BBC will instead keep on telling us that the BBC is impartial throughout the election without providing a shred of evidence.


    The very fact that the BBC feels the need to tell us that they are impartial speaks volumes.

  • Comment number 21.

    The BBC should not need to say that it will report the election in an unbiased way. However, after hearing the way in which some presenters have performed e.g. Sarah Montague's interview with David Cameron on Today, it may feel it necessary to make this commitment. I hope that the BBC can return to its previous exemplary reporting. Too many interviewers and reporters seem to have ingested an attitude of 'spinning'and 'commenting' according to an agenda that does not fit with a professional and unbiased approach - when this is presented as 'fact'by 'experts' (such as Nick Robinson)it actually perverts news presentation. If the BBC wants to retain the loyalty of the fee paying public it should take care that it never needs to put out such a statement again.

  • Comment number 22.

    @David #14 Indeed, I think mentioning the six blogs a certain individual made about Ashcroft hit a nerve. Good job I didn't mention the reporting of Labours ex-ministers for hire, other outlets reported on the facts, the BBC instead reported on the governments anger with those ex-ministers, making a positive from a negative.

  • Comment number 23.

    If Mr Thompson has been reading the comments he should be in no doubt that most respondents are strongly of the opinion, backed by examples, that the Tory party is, as alleged in Robin Aitken's book, one of the BBC's hated tribes.

    Studies in the USA estimate that the liberal bias in the US TV networks (with the exception of Fox) was worth about 10% to Obama, swinging the election. In this country, the BBC is a virtual monopoly, shilling for Labour. Worse than a monopoly, it is an oligarchy, as failure to pay the BBC tax is a criminal offence. As if the outrageous 8% bias in the constituency boundaries that Labour has cynically ignored, in addition to the lack of Tory representation outside England were not enough.

    Mr Thompson, why do you blog here at all? Why am I paying for your opinions, and for those of the sorry list of metropolitan liberal apparatchiks who also blog on the BBC's site? If you want to satisfy the average licence payer, and if you genuinely believe in democracy, would you please remove all blogs from the BBC website (including your own), and use the funds so freed to reduce the licence fee.

  • Comment number 24.

    Once more, many thanks for your comments. You may also be interested to read about the new special house rules regarding moderation of comments on the BBC blog network during the period leading up to, and including, the General Election here at the BBC Internet blog.

  • Comment number 25.

    To the BBC Editors

    Time & time again the issues of the colossal Liberal Left wing BBC group think is raised on the BBC Blogs and I can point to tons of BBC blogs where these points have gone unanswered.

    Occasionally we get a response from the BBC telling us that the BBC is totally committed to impartiality.

    So we’ve learnt that supplying evidence and complaining on mass dose not work, so here is a different approach, how do you ignore all the complaints and criticism from the right?

    I’d like to know?

  • Comment number 26.

    I reckon that the BBC election coverage has been pretty fair and balanced so far.

    However, there is one exception: I can’t see how the BBC can remain impartial and comply with the law when Nick Robinson (and others) are openly broadcasting their personal views about the election candidates

  • Comment number 27.

    A question that I would like raised in any of the forthcoming debates is something on the lines: "Why is it that the Labour Party, Gordon Brown and Lord Mandleson in particular, persist in raising the issue of class and privilege?" Bearing in mind the wealth, private/top Grammar school education and inherited status of many/most of the leading lights of the Labour Party it seem slightly hypocritical of the PM to bang this particularly divisive drum.

  • Comment number 28.

    Is it cynical of me to conclude that The Times Online giving away a free download of a world class BBC show, The Thick of It, to subscribers to their pay-wall is a clear indication of a new working relationship between the BBC and Murdoch?

    This is OUR BBC - you and your colleagues have sold us out. Those of us who believe of a strong, state BBC will never forget.

    Hang your heads in shame.

  • Comment number 29.


    We want a Freedom of Information disclosure of all emails and meetings between the BBC board members and both News International and representatives of the Conservative party.

  • Comment number 30.

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


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