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Ducks, cabbages and 'reform' in the AV Referendum

Ric Bailey

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I've been accused of some things - but calling a duck a cabbage is one of the weirder ones.

When I published the BBC's guidance for covering the AV Referendum (downloadable document available here), it provoked the 'Yes' campaign to organise an online petition to have my advice reversed, claiming it was "ridiculous" and that "Essentially - they're saying that a duck is a cabbage." 

My note referred to the use of the word 'reform' in BBC coverage of the Referendum campaign - and made no mention of ducks or cabbages.

The reason for issuing specific guidance - both for the election and the referendum periods - is that 'due' impartiality requires the BBC to give particular consideration to the context in which voters are being asked to make their decisions.

Of course the BBC uses the term 'reform' in a number of other contexts, including government proposals for health and education.

But the AV Referendum is asking a single and very specific question: it is asking the voter to decide whether to support the status quo for Westminster elections or whether to change to a different system.

The question of whether one system is better than the other is, therefore, fundamental to the vote. 

The definition of 'reform' is very clear, both in dictionaries and in common usage: it means 'improvement' or 'to make better'. It would, therefore, not be impartial for the BBC to characterise the Referendum as being about 'reform' - in effect, that would be saying to the voter: 'Do you want to stick with the existing system, or would you like a better system?' 

That is not a balanced way to present the question. The paraphrase of the referendum question needs to be: 'Do you want to stick with the existing system - or do you want a different system?'

The political context for the Government's health and education 'reforms' is different and therefore our judgment about what constitutes 'due impartiality' is different. The question is more broadly about how to improve health and education, rather than about whether they should be improved. What's more, it is not an issue on which people are about to cast their vote. 

Opponents of the Government's plans for health and education, therefore, do not normally raise any objection to the term - indeed, they often use it themselves. That is not the case with 'electoral reform'.

There is a second issue around use of the word 'reform' in the context of electoral change. As the Electoral Commission has emphasised, the media has a particular responsibility for clarity in attempting to explain the complexities of the voting systems involved in the Referendum. 

One of the key elements which needs to be explained to our audience, for instance, is that the Alternative Vote is not a system of proportional representation. Yet, for many years, insofar as the public at large understood the term 'electoral reform', it has been closely associated with proportional voting systems. 

The aim of our guidance - as well as setting out issues of due impartiality - is to encourage staff to use more precise language in helping voters to understand what is being asked of them in this referendum.

The guidance does not - as newspaper reports suggested - "ban" the use of the word 'reform'. Obviously it is a term which campaigners will use - but it will be avoided by our own journalists "without appropriate qualification" when talking directly about this particular referendum.

Ric Bailey is the BBC's Chief Political Adviser.

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