Media & PR

Why the BBC has axed the word "reform" when talking of electoral reform

The  BBC has given an official response to complaints (such as mine) that it has banned the use of “reform” as in “electoral reform”.

As I wrote:

Given that the phrase “electoral reform” has been a widely used term for decades to describe all sorts of different proposals to change the electoral system and given that it has been widely used by proponents on all sides of those exchanges too, I’m surprised that you now are of the view that it isn’t an appropriate phrase for the BBC to use.

But what really baffles me is the continued use of “reform” by the BBC in all sorts of other contexts where the question of whether or not the changes are a good idea is being much debated in political circles and more widely.

Whether it is talking about “syllabus reform” in the UK, “economic reform” in Kazakhstan, “reform” to the political system in Jersey, “economic reform” in Haiti, “reform of the financial services” in Europe, “reform of the Common Agricultural Policy” or many other topics where proposed changes have prominent and vocal opponents, the BBC regularly uses the word “reform”. All of these examples are from stories current on the BBC website and dated as last editied within the last seven days.

My list is not even close to a comprehensive one of the last week alone, nor indeed does it cover such obvious examples as health care reform in the US. Not exactly an uncontroversial issue I hear…

The BBC’s response is:

We understand you were unhappy with reports that the BBC’s political adviser had banned the use of the phrase electoral “reform”, in regards to our coverage of the referendum on whether to change the voting system.

The reason for issuing specific guidance both for election and 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 decision. Of course the BBC uses the term “reform” in a number of other contexts, including government proposals on health and education. But the Alternative Vote 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 this referendum as being about “reform.” In effect we 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 judgement about what constitutes “due impartiality” is different. The question (and it is not an issue on which people are about to cast their vote) is more broadly about how to improve health and education, rather than about whether they should be improved. Opponents of the government’s plans, 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” when it is 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 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 partial campaigners will use but it will be avoided by our own journalists without appropriate qualification.

Thanks for taking the time to contact us.

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