Belfast Telegraph

Three-minute guide to media law for the 2015 election

By Paul Connolly

Now that Parliament is dissolved and the starting gun officially fired on what pundits are claiming is the tightest general election race for many years, one thing at least is certain: expect many scraps between politicians and the media.

So we're all clear about what is and isn't allowed, here's my guide to the rules. A public health warning - it is my interpretation, and reasons of space mean I can't cover everything.

Television is bound by law to be impartial, not least by Section 5 of the Broadcasting Code and certain BBC rules. For example, UTV-owned Talksport was fined £20,000 by Ofcom in 2008 when presenter James Whale urged listeners to vote for Tory mayoral candidate Boris Johnson.

Contrast this with other countries, for example the US where Fox News has been at times outrageously one-sided.

In the UK, the Press and online publications are allowed to be one-sided. Newspapers - this includes their websites - that subscribe to the Independent Press Standards Organisation, must however also adhere to the Editors' Code of Conduct.

Clause 1 of the code deals with Accuracy, and subsection iii) states: "The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact."

There are two key concepts -the Press is free to be one-sided, but must not misrepresent as fact that which is not.

Anyone remember the Sun's famous/notorious (take your pick) 1993 election splash: "If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights." Totally allowed.

Northern Irish politicians who complain about local newspaper election coverage would do well do scrutinise the Editors' Code and not just act on knee-jerk feelings of unfairness.

If you are a candidate and you believe your local newspaper has breached the Editors' Code, then make a complaint to the paper.

If that doesn't work, make a robust complaint to IPSO.

When it comes to online-only publications not associated with mainstream newspapers or magazines, well sorry to say there is no voluntary code and they are totally unregulated.

As long as they don't cross the line into ordinary civil law matters like defamation and malicious falsehood, they are completely free to say what they want even if it's blatantly wrong.

That said, there are, however, one or two extra special pieces of legislation that applies to all UK citizens once Parliament has been dissolved.

Section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 actually makes it a criminal offence to make or publish false statements about election candidates. This is primarily aimed at rival politicians but also covers the publication of false statements in the media.

The Act states it is a criminal offence to "make or publish a false statement of fact about the personal character or conduct of an election candidate, if the purpose is to affect how many votes he/she will get".

It is a defence if you can show you reasonably believed the statement was true when published, even if it later turns out to be untrue.

It is also an offence in the UK to publish a poll of how people cast their ballot during actual voting. Hence the rush to publish exit polls after 10pm when voting has closed.

So there it is, a brief and incomplete layman's media election guide.

Happy voting!

Belfast Telegraph


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