Ofcom UKIP decision leaves broadcasters wondering about editorial freedom

(Photo: Michael Preston / Demotix)

(Photo: Michael Preston / Demotix)

Ofcom’s decision to declare the UK Independence Party a ‘major party’ for the purposes of this month’s European elections has led to questions about who should be allowed to address the public. Behind the scenes, broadcasters have asked why their right to editorial freedom is restricted at all.

UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, responded: “This ruling does not cover the local elections, despite UKIP making a major breakthrough in the county elections last year. This strikes me as wrong.”

Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party – which Ofcom decided was not a major party – pointed out that, unlike UKIP, her party has an MP, and is also “part of the fourth-largest group in the European Parliament”.

Both sides pounced on the Liberal Democrats, whose dwindling position in the polls, they hinted, should see it demoted to minor party status.

The decision means commercial TV channels that show party election broadcasts must allow UKIP the same number of broadcasts as the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. They will also be given equal weight in relevant news and current affairs programming. However, for content focusing on, or broadcasting solely to, Scotland, UKIP’s lower levels of support there mean it will remain a minor player.

This of course gives UKIP a certain level of legitimacy, and the scope to influence even more voters. For those campaigning against them, the move is grossly unfair.

The Green Party in particular feels hard done by. From the House of Lords to local councils it has representatives at every level, but Ofcom still claims it hasn’t achieved enough. Yet in its report the regulator said that it could not make UKIP a major party in Scotland without granting the same status to the Scottish Green Party, due to their comparable performance.

Ofcom has promised to review the list periodically, so things could change in future. But for now it believes the list represents political realities. UKIP’s focus on getting Britain out of Europe has helped it to do well at the past few European elections. In 2009 it came second in terms of vote share, up from third place in 2004, and this year a number of polls indicate that it could win. In more recent local elections UKIP has done well, achieving 19.9 per cent of the total vote in 2013. But this has leapt up from 4.6 per cent in 2009’s local elections, which for Ofcom is not consistent enough to justify extra coverage for its prospective councillors.

So it seems fair enough that UKIP counts as an important party for Britain in the European Parliament. The Greens are yet to win enough votes in enough elections for their inclusion to make sense. And the Liberal Democrats appear to be clinging on only because of their level of support in past general elections, which was also taken into account.

But the real question is why a list is necessary at all. After all a “regulated free press” sounds something like “freedom in moderation” – ultimately a nonsense. Ofcom’s control over which parties receive coverage puts a dampener on broadcasters’ right to freedom of expression and makes it more difficult for newer parties to break through.

Responding to a previous consultation on whether the list of major parties should be reviewed, Channel 4 said the regulator’s rules should “ensure that political messages are conveyed in a democracy… [but] such regulation should be as narrow as possible to restrict… any interference with the broadcaster’s right to editorial independence and its rights to freedom of expression”. Channel 5, meanwhile, said the concept of major parties did not have “continuing relevance at a time of increasing political flux and fragmentation within the electorate”.

Ofcom appears to be prioritising the need of the electorate to be informed. So it could be argued that, for the purposes of allocating party election broadcasts, the list is useful to prevent any channel from steadfastly omitting information on a party that is likely to appear on most voters’ ballot papers.

But in terms of news and current affairs programming, there seems little reason that broadcasters shouldn’t have the freedom to say what they please – particularly because newspapers are faced with no such restrictions.

As the dominance of mass media fades, and the internet provides access to alternative points of view, the restrictions on the news you receive through your TV will only become more obvious.

This article was originally published on April 30, 2014 at indexoncensorship.org

INDEX Q&A: It’s not easy being Green for US third party candidate

Nov 5, 2012 (Index) The United States two-party system leaves little room for third party candidates in the presidential race. Green Party nominee Jill Stein has faced numerous obstacles throughout her run — including being arrested outside of one of the presidential debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney.

Index’s Sara Yasin spoke to the candidate about free speech in America, and the challenges she’s faced as a third party candidate in the Presidential race

Index: What are the biggest barriers faced by alternative candidates in the Presidential race?

Jill Stein: Its almost as if third parties have been outlawed. There is not a specific law, but they have just made it incredibly difficult and complicated to get on the ballot, to be heard, it is as if [third parties] have been virtually outlawed.

To start with we don’t have ballot status, the big parties are “grandfathered” in. Other parties have to collect anywhere from ten to twenty to thirty to forty times as many signatures to get on the ballot. We spend 80 per cent of the campaign jumping through hoops in order to get on the ballot. It really makes it almost impossible to run.

It takes money in this country. You have to buy your way onto TV. The press will not cover third parties, challengers, alternatives. The press is consolidated into the hands of a few corporate media conglomerates, and they’re not interested and they also don’t have the time because their staff has been cut. So they’re basically, you know, covering the horse race. Not looking at new voices, new choices, the kinds of things that the American public is really clamouring for, and also not looking not the issues. And so you get this really dumbed down coverage that excludes third party candidates.

And then you have the debates, which are a mockery of democracy. Which are really sham debates held and organised by the Commission on the Presidential Debates, which is a private corporation led by Democratic and Republican parties. They sound like a public interest organisation; they’re not. They’re simply a front group to censor the debate. And to fool the American voter into thinking that is the only choice that Americans have. And in fact, by locking out third party candidates, we’ve effectively locked out voters.

According to a study in USA Today a couple weeks ago, roughly one out of every two eligible voters was predicted to be staying home in this election. That is an incredible indictment of the candidates.

Index: What are your thoughts on how multinational companies are using lobbying, lawsuits and advertisements to chill free speech around environmental issues?

This is certainly being challenged. Fossil fuels are an example. The fossil fuel industry has bought itself scientists — pseudo scientists I must say — and think tanks to churn out climate denial. That whole area of climate denial has been sufficiently disproven now, to the point where they don’t rear their ugly head anymore. Now there’s just climate silence, which Obama and Romney really share. Romney is not denying the reality of climate change, he’s just not acting on it. Unfortunately, Obama has seized that agenda as well in competing for money.

I think we are seeing enormous pushback against this, in the climate movement, in the healthy food movement, in the effort to pass the referendum in California (37) that would require the labeling of food which the GMO industry is deathly afraid of, because people are rightly skeptical. So for them, free speech, informed consumers, informed voters, are anthema, it’s deadly for them. They require the supression of democracy and the suppression of free speech. And the buying of the political parties is all about silencing voices like our campaign. which stands up on all of these issues.

There are huge social movements on the ground now for sustainable, healthy organic agriculture. For really concerted climate action, for green energy, for public transportation. These are thriving movements right now. Our campaign represents the political voice of those movements. There is also a strong movement now to amend the constitution to stop these abuses, to stop this suppression of free speech.

Index: Do you think that the two-party system allows for topics viewed as inconvenient to both Republicans and Democrats to remain untouched?

JS: That’s their agreement really. And the commission on presidential debates makes it so very clear. They have a written agreement that was leaked a couple of weeks ago. That agreement includes very carefully selected moderators who agree about what kinds of questions they will ask and they will go through…until they find the candidate for a moderator that will agree basically not to rock the boat. The moderators have to agree to not only exclude third parties, but not to participate in any other format with candidates whose issues can’t be controlled. This has everything to do with why they make the agreements that they do and why they will only talk to each other, because they’re both bought and paid for by the same industries responsible for the parties.

When I got arrested protesting the censorship of the debate, my running mate and I were both tightly handcuffed with these painful plastic restraints, and taken to a secret, dark site. Run by some combination of secret service, and police, and homeland security. Who knows who it really belongs to, but it was supposed to be top secret and no one was supposed to know and we were then handcuffed to metal chairs and sat there for almost eight hours. And there were sixteen cops watching the two of us, and we were in a facility decked out for 100 people to be arrested, but it was only the two of us and one other person brought in towards the end of the evening who was actually a Bradley Manning supporter who had been arrested just for taking photographs of someone who was photographing the protesters.

Index: What does freedom of expression mean to you?

JS: It means having a democracy, having a political system that actually allows the voices of everyday people to be heard. Not just, you know, the economic elite which has bought out our establishment political parties. So free expression, for me, is the life blood of a political system. I was not a political animal until rather late in life. I was shocked to learn we don’t have a political system based on free expression. We have a political system based on campaign contributions and the biggest spender, and they buy out the policies that they want, so to me, that is where free expression goes. And if we don’t have it we don’t have politics based on free expression —- it’s not just our health that is being thrown under the bus, it’s our economy, it is our climate, it is our environment. We don’t have a future if we don’t have free expression. If we don’t get our first amendment and free speech back, and that means liberating it from money.

Sara Yasin is an editorial assistant at Index on Censorship. She tweets at @missyasin