Should local TV stations have to run local election broadcasts?

Remote control being pointed at a TVOfcom’s current consultation into the rules for party election broadcasts on TV (the free slots political parties and candidates get for short films) raises an intriguing question about local TV licensees. What should they have to broadcast?

As the Electoral Commission summarises the options, they are:

a) that they should have a minimum obligation to re-transmit national Party Election Broadcasts (PEBs) and also transmit local PEBs featuring candidates for Mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections, or;

b) that they should have a minimum obligation to re-transmit national Party Election Broadcasts (PEBs) and also transmit local PEBs featuring candidates for Mayoral and PCC elections. And in addition, if they so wish, to offer parties the option of a locally-focussed PEBs which do not feature candidates.

Very little research has been done into the impact of the broadcasts we currently have, and they certainly are the butt of many a joke. Yet those at general election time also often have an audience running into several million and at a time when the theory is that political power is being shifted to mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners, the idea that current ways of publicising candidates should not be extended to them has an immediate credibility problem.

All the more so when when you remember that the London Mayor contestants get TV broadcasts. What’s so special about London elections that they deserve it and other similar contests don’t?

There are certainly practical issues to overcome, such as how neatly local TV broadcast areas match up with electoral boundaries and whether lower-budget campaigns can produce TV films of high enough quality. Yet the principle seems to me a good one.

Rather disappointing then that the Electoral Commission’s response to the Ofcom consultation is couched in such negative terms. Instead of welcoming the idea of more information for voters at election time and then talking about how to make sure the idea can work, the Electoral Commission starts off with throwing a bucket of cold water on the idea ¬†and then applies more water, repeatedly and always cold:

We would support any proposal to increase public trust, interest and participation in elections and think this is important. However, the proposals to include new rules requiring local digital television licensees to carry locallyfocussed broadcasts for mayoral elections and PCC elections, including broadcasts featuring candidates, raise concerns for us about both trust and participation.

It is difficult, on the basis of the evidence presented in the consultation document, to say whether the proposals for locally-focussed PEBs could work in practice and it seems quite possible they will not. Until further evidence is presented, we are unable to assess the merits of the two options and suggest OfCom do not pursue either until further work has been done to address the concerns we identify below.

There then follows another four paragraphs of potential problems, without any talk of how the Electoral Commission is keen to see if they can be overcome or the benefits that could flow from overcoming them.

It’s rather like the civil service cliche of saying, ‘Yes Minster, that’s a great idea’ and then going on about all the bad things to do with it.

Disappointingly negative. Practical problems should sink an idea – but only if they can’t be overcome. The existence of potential practical problems only sinks an idea if you’re not really interested in giving it a fair chance. And in this case that would be a mistake.

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