The UK General Election has raised big questions over the future of accountability and media scrutiny of politicians.
Boris Johnson and the Conservatives won a landslide victory in the UK General Election this week, winning 365 seats, giving them their largest majority since 1987. The victory and its extent answers many questions about the future direction of the country for the duration of the next Parliament, but it also brings up many more questions, including regarding accountability and media scrutiny.
During the election campaign many politicians, but in particular politicians from the Conservative Party, including Boris Johnson, were accused of lying and misleading the public. Independent research has found that 88% of Facebook ads paid for by the Conservative Party in the first few days of December contained misleading claims, compared to 0% for the Labour Party. The Liberal Democrats have also been accused of using misleading polling data in some of their advertising. Parties, including Labour and the Conservatives, have also been accused of having spending plans that are ‘not credible’ by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). Then, there were also rows over fact-checking and misleading websites, including the Conservatives renaming their Press Office Twitter account to ‘Factcheck UK’.
While all this was happening, the leading candidate to be Prime Minister, Boris Johnson refused to complete an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil, failed to attend a Channel 4 Climate Debate, dropped out of a BBC Radio 2 interview, took an ITN reporter’s phone and hid in a fridge to avoid an interview by ITV’s Good Morning Britain. It would seem that some politicians have been consciously trying to avoid media scrutiny, making it harder for them to be challenged on their policies and pledges. Yet, despite the avoidance of questions, Boris Johnson and his party overwhelmingly won the election. Politicians from other parties, including Jeremy Corbyn, have been accused of avoiding interviews, but to less of an extent – like Mr Johnson, Mr Corbyn said he would go on Good Morning Britain but has not done so in the election campaign.
For politicians to repeatedly avoid media scrutiny and to then get away with it when it comes to the public voting at the polls sets a potentially dangerous precedent. If politicians can mislead the public and then avoid scrutiny and not be held accountable, how is the public meant to get a true representation of who they could be electing?
It’s possible that some of the public just don’t care about the stunts of political parties which could quite easily prove misleading. Dominic Raab seemed to suggest in an interview on BBC Breakfast that people didn’t care that his party had renamed their press account on Twitter to ‘Factcheck UK’, despite the row it caused. And given the election victory for the Conservatives, maybe people really didn’t care – or at least not enough for it to have a detrimental impact on the party. As we’ve judged in this analysis, it appears that Brexit was by far the number one issue on people’s minds at this election, so much so that other policies and campaigning incidents didn’t really matter. The question is, now that the election is done and the Conservatives have their majority, what happens next?
It would be fairly simple to assume that now the election is done, it would be normal service resumed in terms of media scrutiny of politicians and that politicians would no longer hide in fear of a bad interview impacting their election chances. In terms of other accountability, it would now seem to be considerably harder for Labour, still, the official opposition in Parliament, to challenge the government on too many policies given the Conservatives’ sizable majority, but they and other parties will still try.
However, it seems the assumption over ‘normal service resumed’ may not translate to reality.
In the last 48 hours, Boris Johnson has attacked the BBC for their election coverage, has suggested that his party will decline some future interviews with the state broadcaster, and has even threatened to make changes to the TV licence fee which keeps the BBC operating. Downing Street also pulled ministers from BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday, as it claims that the broadcaster exerts an anti-Tory bias. The BBC has been criticised from both the left and the right over their election coverage, with others claiming the broadcaster is clearly pro-Conservative and anti-Labour. The BBC edited out laughter aimed at Boris Johnson in a news bulletin and reporters have often uncritically repeated Conservative sources, leading to criticism from the left. The BBC has rejected criticism of its election coverage and that it may be biased.
The BBC is largely funded by the licence fee, which is set in negotiations with the government and passed through Parliament. The next set of negotiations over the cost of the licence fee are due to take place between 2022 and 2027, and the government has indicated that it may wish to make changes to the fee. Downing Street has also said it is seriously considering decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee, something that could cost the BBC £200m a year.
The government has also aimed criticism at Channel 4, which although funded through its own commercial work, is publicly owned. During the election campaign, the government said it could push for the review of the scope of Channel 4’s broadcasting licence after it replaced Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage with ice sculptures after they failed to turn up to a Party Leaders Debate on the Climate Crisis. The Conservatives also claimed that Channel 4 had breached its responsibility to give due impartiality to all parties and was in breach of the Broadcasting Code for not letting Mr Gove speak in the leaders’ debate.
It is, of course, possible that all these arguments between the government and broadcasters could blow over, especially while it is focusing on Brexit negotiations. But if they don’t, there are some very big questions that can be asked and the answers are currently uncertain.
The idea that politicians can avoid accountability for their words and actions may not be too much of a concern to Conservative supporters while the party delivers on their promises. It will likely though be a frightening prospect for the millions of people up and down the country that did not vote for the Conservatives. And while this article focuses largely on the Conservatives as the party in power, the avoidance of accountability and of scrutiny by broadcasters who don’t give all favourable coverage of politicians could well become normalised for any party.
The 2019 UK General Election has seen many things change in politics and has certainly left all sides of debates with plenty to think about. On the issue of the current nature of accountability and scrutiny, it seems it could be something that continues comes under threat and is a topic of discussion for some time to come.
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