The first of our election coverage alerts (with thanks to Patrick Newman from Stevenage) concerns an interview on this morning’s BBC Radio 4 Today Programme with Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats. The interview lasted over 10 minutes, during which Farron made repeated claims about his party being – or having the potential to be – the only credible and effective opposition to the Tories. Rather than challenge or question these claims, the presenter Sarah Montague spent most of the interview trying to call out suspected deal-making between Lib Dems and other parties, especially the Greens.
The notion that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is unable to provide effective opposition to the Tories should have been questioned not only because it was stated so often during the interview, but because it ties into a deeper narrative that has been peddled by right wing media, Conservative politicians and Labour centrists ever since Corbyn first became leader of the party. There is a clear and legitimate counter-view that, if the BBC were being true to its public service mission, would at least be given an airing in interviews such as this. This view is that Jeremy Corbyn has in fact turned the Labour Party into a far more effective opposition than many of his predecessors. Indeed, under Corbyn’s leadership the party has actually opposed austerity and welfare reform for the first time in more than three decades and this has forced an unprecedented rate of government U-turns on policy. The fact that the Tories have embraced so much of Jeremy Corbyn’s rhetoric (eg “The Conservative party is going to deliver for everyone across the whole country; a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few”) as well his policies, could be seen as further testament to the effectiveness of his opposition. Yet Tim Farron was allowed to repeat his soundbites incessantly without challenge or scrutiny.
Instead, Sarah Montague chose to focus her line of questioning exclusively on the issue of deal-making. This again plays directly into a narrative established by the Tories that the only alternative to a Conservative majority in this election is a ‘coalition of chaos’ made up of progressive-leaning parties. The problem is not that the presenter was wrong to adopt this line of questioning, but it should have been balanced by different lines of questioning that did not allow Tim Farron an unchallenged platform to claim that Labour was not a credible opposition, and that only his party could now fulfill that role both practically and ideologically.
There was also one significantly inaccurate statement by Farron regarding the position of both the Tories and Labour on Brexit, namely that both parties were “planning to take Britain out of the single market”. There is no evidence of this and Labour especially has repeatedly made clear its preference and commitment to remaining in the single market.
The BBC must learn the lessons of the EU referendum after which it was widely critiqued both in academic research findings and by its own senior reporters of failing to adequately scrutinise claims by both campaigns. It is not enough simply to give equal or proportionate air time to different party leaders, and probe them during interviews. Greater care and attention must be given to the basis of questioning which can reinforce the framing of public debate and systematically marginalise alternative viewpoints.
Note: we are partly crowd-sourcing our election media monitoring. If you see, read or hear something on the news that doesn’t sound right, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject heading “election coverage alert”. We will do our best to respond to all submissions and will publish those that we think carry the most weight, along with our own analysis.