BBC bans the word 'reform' in debate over voting reform

Andrew Grice
Monday 24 January 2011 01:00

The BBC has banned the use of the phrase electoral "reform" in its coverage of the referendum on whether to change the voting system. "Reform" is apparently too positive a word, the corporation has decided, and so should be avoided by its journalists ahead of the referendum due on 5 May – angering supporters of change and bewildering wordsmiths.

In an internal BBC memo leaked to The Independent, Ric Bailey, the corporation's chief political adviser, says: "Please can we make sure that we don't describe this – in our own scripts, headlines, etc – as the referendum on 'electoral reform'. When the [BBC's] Guidance is published ahead of the referendum period, it will make clear that, in the context of the referendum, that is not an impartial term – 'reform' explicitly contains a definition of 'improvement'."

"This is ridiculous, but consistent, behaviour from the management of the BBC," said Paul Sinclair, the director of communications for the 'Yes' campaign, set up to lobby for a switch from the current first-past-the-post system to the alternative vote (AV).

"If BBC managers are suggesting that by using the word 'reform' in 'electoral reform' they are implicitly recommending it to viewers and listeners, then by their own standards they have spent the last week advocating the Government's NHS reforms and the Government's education reforms before that because that is what they have called the measures."

Mr Sinclair added: "Adopting the alternative vote is electoral reform. There is no other way to describe it.

"We have consistently had problems with the BBC where they have refused to take our spokespeople. They even allowed the 'No' campaign to dictate who we could put up against them. A 'No' campaigner was allowed to insist that they didn't face a Labour MP who was representing the 'Yes' campaign. This cannot be described as impartial or even-handed behaviour."

The BBC sacrifices considerable resources on the altar of accuracy. Last year it revised its Editorial Guidelines in October 2010, as it does every four or five years. Keen, or possibly bored, journalists can take twenty training modules on issues including, but not limited, to Accuracy, Impartiality, Strong Language, Violence, Consent, Secret Recording, Conflicts of Interest and Children.

In 2006 it published a style guide on Israeli/Palestinian coverage. Among many recommendations was the advice to journalists use the term “West Bank Barrier” to describe the system of fences, walls, ditches and barbed wire which Israel is currently building. The official Israeli term is “Security Fence”, the Palestinians call it an “Apartheid Wall”. Individual reporters were told that, when standing in front of a particular section they were still free to refer to a “fence” or “wall” behind them.

For the Oldham and Saddleworth byelection, producers were asked to ensure the three main parties receive similar levels of coverage, with the BNP and UKIP being entitled to “some coverage, over and above those candidates or parties with little evidence of electoral support,” which may go some way to explaining the barely double figure votes receive by Loz Kaye and David Bishop, of the Pirate Party and Church of the Militant Elvis Party respectively.

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