BBC has focused more on policy in election coverage, study finds

Cardiff University research also finds that David Cameron was granted by far the most airtime of the party leaders in the first two weeks of the campaign

BBC election coverage has focused more on policy issues than the other four main broadcasters over the first two weeks of the official election campaign, according to new research.

Between 30 March and 12 April the corporation dedicated 55.8% of election airtime to policy issues such as tax and the NHS, the ongoing Cardiff University study found.

In contrast Channel 5 spent 71.5% of its time reporting on TV leaders’ debates or campaigning more generally, while the evening news bulletins on ITV, Sky News and Channel 4 have split their coverage more evenly between the campaign and policy.

ITV and Sky, which hosted the full seven-way leaders’ debate, have dedicated more time to covering the debates in their evening bulletins, with the set-pieces accounting for more than a quarter of ITV’s coverage over the two weeks.

There was also variation in which of the most common topics to which different broadcasters have dedicated their time. While taxation took up 17% of the BBC’s total coverage in its news bulletins, it only accounted for 8.1% of Channel 4’s time. In contrast, immigration took up 7.7% of time on Channel 4’s news coverage, which has dedicated a lot of airtime to debating the topic with live audiences, but just 0.1% on ITV.

Airtime spent on top eight issues
Airtime spent on top eight issues

Overall, while the handling of economy has remained a prominent issue in the first two weeks of campaigning, in the second week TV bulletins were more preoccupied with taxation – including debates about “nom dom” loopholes and cutting inheritance tax – and, to a lesser extent, news about jobs/unemployment and welfare.

Stories about the environment, housing, pensions and transport have received relatively little airtime so far in the campaign.

Michael Fallon’s personal attack on Ed Miliband’s character was a story that mixed campaigning with aspects of policy but also revealed how the same event can be reported differently.

The defence secretary suggested Miliband would “stab the country in the back” if Labour did a deal with the SNP post-election – by scrapping Trident – as he had done to his brother after beating him in a leadership contest.

Whereas some bulletins focussed primarily on the negativity of the Conservative’s campaign strategy, others took the opportunity to consider the issue of renewing Trident and Britain’s defence policy more generally.

Fallon’s attack broke not on TV but the day before on the front page of the Times, but it still topped the election agenda at the end of the following day’s news cycle.

The two TV leaders’ debates aired by Scottish broadcasters in the second week of the campaign were widely reported by UK-wide bulletins and explain why it remains the major topic of the election so far. Because the SNP will play a pivotal role in deciding whether Labour or the Tories gain power, “horse race”-type coverage of Scottish people’s voting intentions has also been a recurrent theme.

The minor parties more generally received far less airtime in the second week of campaigning. Of the seven parties featuring in the first TV leaders’ debate, airtime granted to the SNP more than halved, whilst the share of coverage for Plaid Cymru and the Greens reduced to a tiny fraction. This was in spite of the Greens continuing to poll at about 5% in national polls.

It was the Labour party that increased its share of airtime most dramatically – from 25.6% of airtime to 34.9% – roughly on par with the Conservative party.

However, of the seven party leaders David Cameron was granted by far the most airtime. Ed Miliband received proportionally less than his party, with other major figures – such as Tony Blair in a speech about Europe – used in Labour soundbites. Although Ukip’s Nigel Farage and Nicola Sturgeon attracted a greater share than their respective parties, Leanne Wood received no airtime in the second week of the campaign.

Airtime of party sources
Airtime of party sources
Airtime of party leaders
Airtime of party leaders

The UK-wide TV leaders’ debate in the first week of the campaign had a major impact on the airtime afforded to the minor parties. Without David Cameron or Nick Clegg present in tonight’s challengers’ debate, the minor parties not only have the opportunity to air their views live to a prime time audience, but to attract prominent attention in the post-match analysis.

Given the focus of this week’s campaign has been largely centred on the major parties’ manifestos, the BBC debate could be the last chance before election day for leaders such as Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood to connect with a large swathe of voters who rely primarily on TV for their news.

The Cardiff University study examined bulletins on Channel 5 at 5pm, Channel 4 at 7pm and at 10pm on BBC, ITV and Sky News. Research by Richard Thomas, Allaina Kilby and Marina Morani.


Stephen Cushion and Richard Sambrook

The GuardianTramp

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