BBC election coverage became 'infected' by speculation of Labour-SNP coalition, head of news admits

James Harding said the corporation would review the weight given to opinion polls in future campaigns

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The BBC’s coverage of the general election was likened to “hell on wheels” by the Corporation’s Director of News, who admitted he was “astonished by the ferocity and frequency of complaints from all parties”.

James Harding said it was an “unhappy coincidence” that BBC Charter renewal followed hot on the heels of the election after the Coalition decided that discussions on the future of the Corporation should wait until after the election, allowing politicians to link the two during the campaign.

The BBC also became “infected” by widespread speculation over the prospect of a Labour government propped up by the SNP, he admitted, adding that a review will also be conducted into the weight given to opinion polls in future campaigns following the surprise outcome of last month’s general election.

Politicians from all parties threatened to cut the BBC’s future funding during the campaign, he revealed, although he vowed that the independence of BBC News would not be compromised as negotiations over a new Royal Charter begin.

Reflecting on the election in a speech to broadcasting pressure group Voice of the Listener and Viewer, Mr Harding said: “We and all other media organisations allowed the poll numbers to infect our thinking: there was too much ‘coalitionology’ as a result.”

“The BBC did better than others but, with the benefit of hindsight, we would have been better off with less discussion of deals and allowed the dissection of policy – from defence to social care, housing to education – to speak for itself.”

The BBC does not lead bulletins on opinion-poll results under its guidelines. But Mr Harding said the extent to which polls direct the narrative of news coverage would be reviewed before Scottish Parliament elections next year and the EU referendum expected in 2017.

Mr Harding said Labour had been “angry about the focus on the SNP”, in the campaign’s final days but the Corporation batted off grievances, sometimes accompanied by menaces, from all parties.

“All parties made the connection between their dissatisfaction with the election coverage and the fact that the next government will set the licence fee and the terms of the Royal Charter,” he said. Nigel Farage explicitly said he was unhappy at Ukip’s treatment by the BBC and proposed cutting the licence fee by two-thirds.

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James Harding with Ed Miliband in the run up to the election (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

“The BBC, I’m proud to say, resisted any pressure but how do we ensure the public remains confident that it is independent of politicians and the Government?” The Charter renewal debate should be separated from a general election in future, Mr Harding hinted.

He also rounded on claims of the BBC’s “fabled left-wing bias”. He said: “In the light of the Conservative victory, what’s the argument? That the BBC’s subtle, sophisticated left-wing message was so very subtle, so very sophisticated, that it simply passed the British people by?”

Mr Harding also questioned whether the BBC did enough to “hold in check the political machines of each party”. With no morning press conferences and information restricted to “embargoed stories, dropped just before the… 10 o’clock news went on air. Sometimes, the result wasn’t news, but messaging.”

However Mr Harding, who said the BBC News website attracted a record 31.2 million global browsers on the day after the general election, welcomed the appointment of John Whittingdale as Culture Secretary, since the politician had demonstrated a long-standing expertise in media issues.

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