Complaining is usually a frustrating experience. We hope it will be cathartic, perhaps even effective. The BBC is among those grand institutions that, when they respond at all, make clear that your views are wrong, irrelevant, and that you are so infinitesimally small a concern that one should be grateful for any response.
When the BBC first responded to my complaint about their coverage of the European Election results on the 25th May, they managed to ignore my every point. Going by responses to previous complaints, I wasn’t entirely surprised.
I wrote about their ignorance of the politics of the European Parliament, their focus on Westminster (yet again) despite the large public interest in recent European matters such as the ban on fishing discards (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s fish fight).
I wrote about their scant coverage of the Green Party, not interviewing a single spokesperson for the party until 2.30am, having constantly interviewed representatives from other parties in the preceding four hours.
Their first response told me they had received a lot of complaints, and they were right to cover UKIP to the extent, and in the manner, which they did.
At least the irony of their first response made me laugh, managing not to mention the Green Party or European politics in response to a complaint that they did precisely that.
My follow-up complaint pointing this out got a proper reply.
Now there are three ways to respond to a complaint: humbly apologise, robustly defend, or distract and dissemble. You can judge which they opted for.
They first told me:
The amount of airtime the BBC gives to a party in the run up to an election is based on evidence of past and current levels of support. This can include the number of candidates a party is fielding, how it performed in the last equivalent election and other evidence of current electoral backing.
This calculation was informed by Ofcom’s decision in March to downgrade the Green Party to an also-ran, despite running a full slate, being part of the fourth largest grouping in the European Parliament, having substantial achievements under our belt, having coming third in the most recent London elections (in 2012). The decisions by Ofcom and the BBC wrote us out of the script, even as our polling picked up (as it always does) weeks away from the elections as we pulled up alongside and even went ahead of the Lib Dems.
We showed the Greens as part of the permanent on screen tally from the first result of the night. We also took care to mention the Green share of the vote after every declaration – even where the party did not win a seat.
It is true that the Green result was always on the screen, but it was rarely on the lips of the presenters and guests. The usual refrain, “the Lib Dems have been pushed into fifth place”, made clear that we were an invisible nuisance to the Westminster party they were interested in. The constant interviews with Lib Dems about falling into fifth place only confirmed this.
So why weren’t Green Party people also being constantly interviewed about beating the Lib Dems, and even winning seats?
Natalie Bennett was interviewed towards the end of the results flow at 2.30 am. The reason for such a later interview was in part because we were waiting until the full picture for the Greens was known. Every extra seat matters for smaller parties and we wanted to know how close they would come to their prediction (made on our local election programme) of 6-7 seats. The other reason is simply that this was an election results programme and later interviews are not unusual.
By that logic, they would have waited until the night was over before interviewing any Lib Dems. Surely the story was, will they lose all of their seats or will they hold on in any region? What of UKIP? Why not wait until 2.30am before interviewing them about the “earthquake” the BBC kept on about?
The truth is that the BBC’s editorial team simply aren’t interested in the Green Party. We aren’t an attraction in their Westminster bubble. Nick Robinson admitted at one point that he had only ever been to Brussels once, to cover a Cameron trip there. Journalists who, if they ever leave the gossip in the Gothic halls of Westminster struggle to adjust to the notion of politics at a different level of government, inevitably see the Green Party as nary a threat to either of the Big Three. UKIP are not doted on so much for their support across the country, but for their ability to pull the Conservative Party every-which-way, even to panic the Labour leadership or dictate the tone and focus of the Liberal Democrat campaign.
Regional BBC journalists are quite different. In London, for instance, they fully understand that we are on a level pegging with the Lib Dems, that we have interesting contributions to make in debates on policing, housing and transport as well as the environment. But at a national level the BBC just don’t understand that, yet.
Thankfully the petition organised by Portia Cocks was handed in with almost 50,000 signatures, and the BBC was forced to respond to mine among 1,200 other complaints about their election coverage, prompting several discussions on TV and radio as to whether their coverage was appropriate.
This discussion with Nick Robinson shows them covering their backs.
Perhaps, over time, we will be able to persuade those editors and journalists that the Green Party does have some interesting contributions to make to their debates. I suspect that we will struggle, though, so long as the Beeb frames everything in terms of the narrow consensus of the Westminster bubble.