December 9, 2019
Ofcom’s Election Committee noted that the format of election debate programming is a matter of editorial freedom for the individual broadcasters, as long as the programming as broadcast complies with the Broadcasting Code. The rules on due impartiality require that when broadcasters are dealing with major matters relating to current public policy, such as climate change, an appropriately wide range of significant views must be included and given due weight in each programme or in clearly linked and timely programmes. Due weight must be given to the coverage of parties during the election period.
Further, the Committee noted, in deciding upon the format of any election debates, it is for a broadcaster to propose a format, discuss and negotiate with the political parties. There is no obligation for any of the political parties or politicians to participate in any particular programme; it is up to the political parties to decide whether or not they wish to participate. If a broadcaster is unable to agree participation in a programme with any particular politician or party, it is then the broadcaster’s editorial decision whether to proceed with the programme or not.
Depending on the particular circumstances, a broadcaster may decide to proceed with an election debate programme and to “empty chair” a political party or politician who decides not to participate. In any event, the broadcaster must ensure that the programmes (including linked programmes) as broadcast comply with the due impartiality requirements of the Code.
The Conservative Party’s complaint to Ofcom concerned Channel 4’s intention to “empty-chair” the Conservative Party, by placing a globe ice sculpture in its place, and its refusal to accept a senior Cabinet Minister, Michael Gove, to attend the Channel 4 News Climate Debate instead of Boris Johnson. The Complaint alleged that Channel 4 had failed to comply with its obligations in respect of due impartiality under Sections Five and Six of the Code in the format and transmission of the Channel 4 News Climate Debate.
The Committee took into account, as context, the pre-broadcast issues that were made clear to the audience of Channel 4 News Climate Debate and considered whether the programme and linked programming were duly impartial in that context. The Committee also took into account references made in the programme to the Conservative Party and its policies on climate change, as well as linked Channel 4 News programmes, such as the episode broadcast on the evening following the Channel 4 News Climate Debate, which summarised Conservative Party manifesto commitments and featured Michael Gove speaking on Conservative climate change policies.
The Committee concluded that, across the one-hour debate and the subsequent news programme, Channel 4’s use of editorial techniques ensured that the Conservative’s viewpoint on climate and environmental issues was adequately reflected and given due weight.
The Committee also took into account that the globe ice sculpture was not a representation of the Prime Minister personally, and little editorial focus was given to it, either visually or in references made by the presenter or debate participants.
The Committee therefore considered that the programme, including the use of the ice sculpture, did not raise issues warranting further investigation under Ofcom’s due impartiality and elections rules. To read the decision in full, click here.