Party funding is still on the Agenda and you have a week left to make your submission on it to the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
Damian Hockney hopes that smaller parties and non party candidates who have stood for London Mayor are going to take the opportunity to make clear the dramatically unfair restrictions placed on them.
“Spending rules, together with the draconian anti-democratic restrictions of media coverage through state broadcast guidelines, have created an extraordinarily skewed playing field,” he says.
When making a decision as to whether to continue my candidacy for London Mayor in early 2008, I was told that I was barred from sending out any leaflet to my constituents, while on the same day was informed by the BBC that the amount of time I would be given on TV during the month leading up to the election would be ‘practically zero’ as I was the wrong class of candidate.
I could only be on telly if I was in their top tier of candidates. And then to cap it all, next morning I was told that the only information I could send out to the whole electorate was a state controlled booklet which is censored. I had had experience of this already in 2000 when I did actually stand, but this made me realise one very simple thing – whatever else this election was, it appeared almost to be designed that the smaller candidates should be made invisible.
The bottom line in all elections is the degree to which you are permitted by the governing parties to achieve access to the voters, by your own efforts. If you are specifically barred from making the effort, it is not a free and fair election.
If it appears in any way irrelevant to you that a bunch of small and alternative voices are barred from accessing their constituents – “so what?” – then I ask you to to think again.
CLASSES OF CANDIDATES
When I withdrew from being a candidate for London Mayor in 2008, Nick Ferrari of LBC said to me on air on the day I pulled out: “It is ridiculous that I can have you on the show now that you are no longer standing as a candidate, but that if you were still a candidate I couldn’t have you on, but I can have Ken and Boris on any time I want.”
And the reason for this is that the BBC, in its role as state radio and television, has control of the rules of ‘balance’ for all broadcasters. These archaic rules seriously restrict access by smaller parties. Their original declared intention over 60 years ago was indeed to ensure balance in a two party state, and this at a time when broadcasters could not mention for 14 days anything due to be raised in Parliament!
It was expected that these rules would simply refer to actual balance, and not be used in a way which would create tiers and classes of candidates in a 24 hour media age and when elections were won and fought almost solely in terms of TV coverage and the networks would offer vast coverage of every detail of a chosen few candidates. Those who originally planned the rules would be appalled at the way in which they have been gradually distorted by the state to create such an unfair and unbalanced structure of involvement in elections by TV and radio.
The rules now simply represent what amounts to a state sanctioned excuse to provide the big parties with get vast quantities of tame media coverage because, without actual advertising, they would not be seen or heard. Simple news coverage would also not do the trick.
And it appears that these same rules are used to ensure that the small parties get practically nothing – there is no doubt that many find the “intrusion” of small parties a pain in the neck, and I have written here before about the extraordinary attitudes of organisers of public meetings during the London Mayor election.
And, as I pointed out to Nick Ferrari, I had also been told by the powers-that-be that I was barred from sending out even one (yes, just one) leaflet to my constituents as a prospective candidate, barred from redressing the imbalance created by state radio and television through the publication of my own media, and barred of course from any form of tv and radio advertising.
BENEFIT IN KIND
And of course this has a major impact on the question of funding, because the free tame media given to the candidates from the larger parties is a classic “benefit in kind”, which candidates normally have to declare on their expenses returns.
To receive guaranteed slots worth millions, scheduled in advance and meticulously calculated in terms of hours of balance, is not journalistic coverage of news. It is planned advertorial coverage, however otherwise it is politely and fictionally described.
No broadcaster can now shelter behind saying that they are “covering the news” on London Mayor – they are offering carefully planned advertorial in truly heroic quantities which bears no relation to news. It is mostly anodyne, unchallenging and tedious, admittedly. But it still allows for enhanced and repeated recognition – every study ever made of advertising and recognition will tell you that state radio and television is providing what it describes as the “main” parties with this oxygen, while specifically denying the same life support to what it describes as the “minor” parties.
They are effectively offering the advertising which is available for sale in most countries, but just exclusively for one “class” of candidate. And the others are barred from it because they can’t buy it.
Continuing the Orwell theme, you may wish to argue that some candidates are more equal than others, and should get more genuine news coverage. Yes, but this is not what happens – it’s all pre-planned feature advertorial coverage, even in news programmes. And it begs the question as to why the “others” in this equation are then barred from being allowed to get their message across by the use and imposition of cunningly designed state spending rules.
“Do the math” as our American cousins might say – with a spending limit of £420,000, and one mailing going to an electorate of 5 million, you can’t do it. Cost of leaflet £100,000, plus cost of cheapest mail option £600,000…
During the London Mayor election, the BBC (state radio and television) gives hours of what amounts to tedious advertorial coverage each day on its programmes to what it patronisingly calls the three “main” parties. The grudging and tiny numbers of seconds given over a long period of time to its second class of candidates, what are referred to as the “minor” parties, are allocated according to the enforcement on all broadcasters of the BBC’s extraordinarily Orwellian concept of “balance” rules.
The small parties have their own sad little completely separate and second class “balance” rule which means they are pushed into programmes with small listening figures (note, “listening” figures, not much viewing), early in the campaign, and the bureaucratic rules are such that it makes it almost impossible for a commercial broadcaster to feature small party candidates without falling foul of the law. The balance is between the smaller parties, not in any way with or set against the “main” parties. It is entirely separate. Very clever.
Orwell would indeed recognise it from this Ministry of Truth in the novel 1984 – a “balance” rule which guarantees that some parties get 115 hours of coverage and others get almost zero. All in the interests of “balance”. And it is just simply not fair or democratic.
There is another problem here. All those involved in broadcasting clearly also wish to avoid including the BNP. People have said to me “we must keep them off the air at all costs”. Of course this proves that those in charge are aware of the power of the media. But I wonder if you have spotted the additional problem for small parties here.
The BNP is included in this balance rule, as it is a legal party. It was in fact for London Mayor and Assembly on the same “tier” or “class” level as UKIP, the Greens and our party (One London). If you are trying “at all costs” to keep BNP coverage to a minimum, you must by law and by those rules, keep Greens, UKIP and One London to that exact minimum level as well!
Every time a Damian Hockney, Gerard Batten or Darren Johnson is given 19 seconds at 2am on some half baked show when life is at its lowest ebb, so must Richard Barnbrook.
It has to be said that sometimes one wonders whether this use of the BNP as the horned one is highly convenient – it enables broadcasters to reduce the amount of coverage given to all small parties (it is organisationally very inconvenient), while affecting a commitment to Orwellian “balance”. But that is another story.
The state radio and tv tiered balance system means that these “main” parties are given vast amounts of nightly coverage (often more, in fact, in one night than all the smaller parties get in the whole campaign). There is often nothing to say but something has to be said on every bulletin…and that is why the campaign often appears to dull to outsiders.
But all this fades in importance against the one vital fact – endlessly repeating the same person’s message across several programmes daily, nightly, allows for recognition. Why else did Obama raise all that cash? For public meetings or the hire of halls? No, for media media media. Just check where he spent it! Did he do that for nothing? Those barred from meaningful presence in the media ‘do not exist’ in a very real sense to the public.
And if you are barred from it by state radio and television rules, then your only hope is to do what Obama did. Be able to raise enough to bypass any possible bias against you. And if you are barred from actually doing that, then it is not a free and fair election.
The Obama campaign spent more cash on just research on this one matter than was spent on the entire London Mayor campaign by all parties. And this is why the value of the free tame media given to Tory, Labour and LibDems candidates for London Mayor should be calculated in terms of the millions of pounds they are worth, listed clearly in terms of the weeks, days and hours given by state radio and television…and why the smaller parties should be allowed, through the spending rules, to redress the balance. If, that is, the state and its broadcasting arm wish to continue its rules which are an affront to democracy in the 21st century and a serious stain on the the UK’s reputation.
Smaller parties are often on bended knee before the broadcasters to get “media” and are fearful of offending. And this begs the question of whether the BBC should in fact be deciding who to include and not include in coverage in advance, with no reference to news values. But it is worth at least making a point about the lack of balance and the issues which impact so clearly on spending limits and their effectiveness.
ARCHAIC AND DISCREDITED
Leave aside the controversial matter of paid political advertising on TV, if the ban on meaningful coverage through the archaic and in my opinion discredited state radio and TV guidelines is to continue, then at the very least surely the smaller parties should be allowed to raise enough money to counter the vast avalanche of state funded propaganda from the larger parties, assisted by all arms of the state from the Ministry of Truth to those who place restrictions on the ability of smaller parties to get their message across through devious funding rules.
The small parties should, for example, be able to produce CDs/DVDs, run then type of campaigns that are offered in the USA, mail every voter several times. OK, it means that the big parties are getting it free every night on the BBC and the small parties have to pay for the opportunity to redress the propaganda by other means. It is at least one stop on the road towards redressing the balance.
This is a matter close to my own heart because in the London Mayor election in 2008, we were offered funding from several people which would have allowed us to do all the things which would enable us to redress the balance. And we were then told we had to reject the funding and would be barred from mailing even one leaflet to the whole electorate of London.
LANDED IN JAIL
Had I accepted the cash and gone ahead with trying to make my voice heard, I would have been disqualified, barred from office and possibly jailed. Just writing to every constituent could have landed me in jail…while every night state radio and TV is handing free to its “main” parties considerably more in value to what we had raised by our own efforts.
And without being able to use that money, you can do nothing. When people say “why were you not on that programme?”, “why didn’t you write to us”, they find it difficult to grasp that the “balance” rules specifically bar you from the programme and the funding rules bar you from writing.
You cannot target 5 million people through handing out leaflets at Liverpool Street – in any event, 65% in the station at any one time live out of the GLA area.
Possibly the most difficult to understand aspect, and one which always really shocks American audiences because I speak on this in the USA and Canada quite often, is that the bar on inclusion is absolute. Whatever you do in the campaign, however newsworthy, will not be covered on TV or radio.
Even a good news story will be suppressed by these ‘balance’ rules in favour of yet another tedious but pre-planned 19 minutes on Ken, Boris and the other guy. It has to be, because of the legally enforceable state radio and TV guidelines. In the case of the BBC, you are allocated your seconds of coverage (which have to be exactly the same as the other “minor” candidates) and you will get absolutely no more. No way. Under no circumstances.
So if a small party tells the state radio and tv journalists it is launching a new policy initiative, they do not even want to know what it is. Because whatever it is, no coverage will ensue unless UKIP, the Greens, BNP etc are all included and get exactly the same amount of coverage. This is too much to organise and plan, so it is rarely done other than in carefully pre-planned coverage. And as they do not want to feature the BNP, it means that you will only get the cleverly stage managed and pre-planned “advertorial” slots booked way in advance which masquerade as editorial.
American audiences gasp when I show them the state rules barring me from contacting my electorate for the entire duration of a very long election campaign. In fact, what is worse, if I announce my candidacy early (i.e. three or four months beforehand) then anything I spend on any aspect is taken as part of that spending limit. The BBC guidelines exclude the majority of the candidates from meaningful TV and radio while the state’s other arm bars them from even sending out a leaflet.
And when you mention to those in other countries the rules about the state “booklet”, this draws further gasps. You may have seen this dire piece of state publishing (or you may have discarded it as junk mail). It is a booklet featuring all candidates who will pay £10,000 for the dubious advantage. These entries are censored, unlike the leaflets which are offered free delivery through Royal Mail during the General Election.
The ones for General Elections are only checked for anything “obscene, offensive or indecent”. The censoring for London Mayor has nothing to do with anything a candidate might write which is illegal or contentious – when I stood as a candidate for London Mayor in 2000 I was barred from mentioning the party in the copy, barred from mentioning we were standing in the London Assembly elections…and even some of the policy aspects were altered by the censors. So the value of this dull, uninspiring, badly produced and tedious booklet is almost zero.
It is, from the point of view of a free and fair election in a Commonwealth country, certainly not “your own literature in your own words”, making your own offer to the electorate. So the only thing you are allowed to put out is censored and controlled by the state, which alters content (which itself is perfectly legal), not libellous. In any event, the leaflet is barely noticed by anyone who is not a diehard, and is mistaken by porters and householders throughout the capital for a particularly large and tedious pizza delivery leaflet. In the bin.
So where do we go from here? The situation is clearly unfair and wrong and anti-democratic.
A few suggestions, and these are specifically for the London Mayor election.
1) Reconsider the issue of tv and radio advertising for the parties. The tendency to be snobbish about Americans doing it (“so it must be vulgar”) reminds me of Maggie Smith’s dowager character in Downton Abbey (“pray what is a Week End, Sir”) – this attitude that the Americans must be wrong should be set aside and proper consideration given to the fact that we ourselves may have this wrong.
Maybe set up an enquiry into it (if in doubt, have an enquiry…) – the BBC is effectively giving free pre-planned advertorials to the big parties now anyway, wrapped up as “coverage”. Everyone knows this idea that it is news is a fiction, including the journalists themselves who are tired and weary of being forced by their masters to cover something that is not news night after night after night.
2) Require, in the meantime, the broadcasters to add up all the free coverage given to all parties and publish the number of days worth (in the case of the big parties) and number of seconds (in the case of the smaller ones) given. Then, against a background of transparency, we can calculate the millions given to the big guys and the pence given to the smaller ones.
3) If the anti-democratic broadcast ‘balance’ rules are to remain the same, then some formula must be calculated whereby alternative voices are allowed to actually be heard.
4) The BBC as a broadcaster should not be formulating guidelines on who should or should not be included, in advance, during campaigns. Its reputation is too valuable to the UK to possibly find itself mired in controversy and even scandal over such an issue.
5) The state booklet must not be censored – the rules should be exactly the same on content as those for General Election candidates.
6) All candidates who wish to take part should be told about the restrictions, and the implications made clear to them. In a democratic society, it is almost impossible to believe, when you raise your deposit and get all the signatures you need for candidacy, that you will be barred from media (until it happens to you!) so you do not expect this, and cannot be expected to know this beforehand. And it should be made clear to you that under the represent rules, you are barred from contacting all your constituents.
Two independents, great people with genuine points to make, stood in early elections and subsequently became good friends of mine (Tammy and Ashwin) and I am sure they will not mind me saying that they, like me, would have had second thoughts about standing in 2000 had they known what was going to happen and how they would be excluded from everything, by law.
7) If there is a desire not to change anything and keep the restrictions on alternative voices in place, then I would think it only fair for the Government and the election organisers to agree to allow the Commonwealth Secretariat to provide Election Observers through Assessment Missions (or more likely an Expert Team) to monitor the election at all its stages and take evidence from those excluded from the process. After all, if those organising the election have nothing to hide…
And actually, think about that last campaign in 2008 – surely everyone wants to be spared a re-run of that tedious and dull election – that is now what we are up for. It only needs the ex-cop to get back into the ring for a monumentally tedious three way election to be re-run in 2012.
The views of those watching and commenting about the tv programmes where the three “main” candidates “debated” in 2008 with each other are a joy (views, incidentally which those powers-that-be have tried to conceal but will make great reading when the book is written)…as indeed are the figures which show the collapse in numbers watching towards the end…about the only thing you could say in its favour is that such tedium means less consumption of electricity and more Londoners tucked up in bed with a cup of cocoa and a copy of the Good Book…or something.
But democracy it ain’t.