A snap election looks highly likely in the coming months. The UK’s rules for election campaigns have widely been branded as ‘not fit for purpose’, yet they will not be changed in time for an early poll. The Constitution Unit therefore convened a seminar to examine what else can be done. Jenny Holloway summarises the discussion.
The Constitution Unit held a seminar on 12 September asking ‘If there is a snap election, what can we do to improve the campaign?’ Focusing on ways both to tackle misinformation and to promote greater availability of good information, the event brought together four leading authorities in their respective fields: Dorothy Byrne, Head of News and Current Affairs at Channel 4; Ed Humpherson, Director General for Regulation at the UK Statistics Authority; Joe Mitchell, director of Democracy Club; and Will Moy, Chief Executive of Full Fact. It drew on many of the themes addressed in the Unit’s March 2019 report Doing Democracy Better, co-authored by Alan Renwick and Michela Palese. Given that changes to the legislative framework for election campaigns will not happen before a snap election, it focused particularly on strategies for improving the campaign within existing rules.
Building on her recent McTaggart Lecture, Dorothy Byrne argued that politicians and journalists both have crucial roles to play in improving the state of democracy and increasing public trust in politics. Politicians must be willing to submit themselves to scrutiny through the media. Broadcasters have a responsibility to actively call out lies and untruthful statements made by politicians.
Byrne highlighted a swift decline in senior politicians’ willingness to appear on television and subject themselves to scrutiny. She suggested that in recent years party leaders, including Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, have only been doing the ‘bare minimum’. Noting a recent Channel 5 survey, which found that 77% of respondents feel that their trust in politicians has fallen since the Brexit vote, she argued that politicians could make an important step towards regaining the public’s trust if they actively chose to appear on trustworthy media outlets. Television is particularly important in this regard as it remains the main source of news for 75% of the population, and is subject to stringent regulations that help to ensure accurate and duly impartial reporting.
Broadcasters, meanwhile, will have an important and challenging job in keeping the public informed during an election campaign. Fact-checking must be quick and reach mass audiences: it will need to be embedded in mainstream programming, not limited to venues where relatively few will see it. Similarly, given the complexities of many of the issues at stake, broadcasters will need to explain the technicalities regularly and consistently, not just occasionally. And they will need to be brave in standing up to misinformation.
Ed Humpherson introduced the role of the UK Statistics Authority as dealing with the ‘nuts and bolts’ of information provision. The UKSA aims to ensure public confidence in statistics, an important endeavour as statistics aid our understanding of the world and inform many of the choices that people make. It is forthright in criticising the misuse of statistics, including by election campaigners, and in identifying inaccuracies in government statistics. For example, it recently removed the ‘gold standard’ qualification from ONS statistics on migration, signalling that these figures are not as reliable as previously thought.
The UKSA is guided by three core concepts in its efforts to create public confidence in statistics: trustworthiness (addressing the competency and reliability of organisations producing statistics); quality (whether the data are good or not); and value (whether statistics are useful and informative).
How politicians, parties, campaigners and other actors talk about statistics can debase the ‘currency of good information’. One problem is ‘inequality of access’ to statistics, which means that facts and figures employed by politicians may not be easily verifiable by the public or other experts. A further problem is the tendency to misrepresent what statistics tell us about a certain issue.
Given that such threats to the good use of statistics may be particularly visible in times of electoral campaigning, the UKSA – unusually for a public body – continues its work throughout election periods. In addition, however, Humpherson emphasised that the provision of accurate and trustworthy statistics is important in ‘peace time’ as well as in the ‘war time of elections’. The Authority’s job is thus a continuous one.
Joe Mitchell discussed the work of Democracy Club, a non-profit organisation that seeks to ensure voters are well informed leading up to an election. Democracy Club looks at its projects through a lens of ‘user need’, trying to identify crucial information that will help members of the public engage in the democratic process. Mitchell pointed out that data on internet searches from the day of the 2015 general election reveal that the most commonly searched questions included ‘who should I vote for?’, ‘how do I vote?’, and ‘where do I vote?’ As many as 90% of the public think, incorrectly, that a form of ID is needed in order to vote, potentially discouraging people from heading to the polls. Such examples highlight, he argued, some of the basic information gaps that exist at present and that need to be plugged.
Additionally, Mitchell emphasised the importance of developing a ‘digital infrastructure’ for democracy, an area that is currently neglected in British politics. Democracy Club offers an open database of elections and candidates, which is available online to voters as well as for other companies to use and disseminate to the public. But this relies on the contributions of volunteers, and Mitchell suggested that much more funding should be invested in democracy to ‘bring it into the twenty-first century’. Mitchell offered the Federal Agency for Civic Education in Germany – which promotes political literacy amongst adults as well as schoolchildren – as an example of the role that institutions can play in providing political education and good information. As things stand, this body has no UK counterpart.
Will Moy argued that bad information ‘promotes hate, damages people’s health, and hurts democracy’, describing the role of Full Fact as being fact-checking and countering the harm done by bad information. For example, he suggested that false or misleading information can result in the stigmatisation of certain religious groups or disadvantaged communities.
Moy echoed Byrne’s view that the upcoming election will be ‘peculiarly difficult’ when it comes to preventing misinformation. The uncertainty of the next election is reflected in the current lack of clarity over numerous questions, such as what the party landscape will be, what pacts will be made between parties, and whether there will be a Brexit deal on the table. The level of uncertainty complicates the process of fact-checking, but makes countering misinformation all the more important.
Further, Moy argued that electoral campaigning has already begun. Electoral campaigning in the absence of an official election date means that campaign regulations are not yet in force. The task of scrutinising the current campaign tactics and statements made by politicians therefore falls to non-profits and small organisations.
Moy offered practical proposals to prevent democracy from being damaged by false information, such as incorporating fact-checking into mainstream media, and the adoption of AI technology to assist in fact-checking, making it possible to identify factual inaccuracies within seconds. He concluded by urging voters to consider what they expect of politicians and what they will accept. Voters have the power to hold politicians to account and demonstrate that there is an expectation that politicians treat democracy with sufficient respect.
Despite the panellists’ diverse professional backgrounds, they all agreed that the misrepresentation of facts, and a lack of scrutiny of political leaders’ use of facts during electoral campaigning, poses a serious threat to well-functioning democracy. The sentiment that recent electoral and referendum campaigns have been particularly problematic in terms of widespread misinformation was also shared.
Nevertheless, there was optimism in the numerous solutions available, including fact-checking in the media, monitoring of statistics for accuracy, and the provision of information to voters in order to encourage participation in democracy. The panel also served to highlight the important role that individual voters can play by being aware of such issues, reporting misrepresented information to relevant authorities, and maintaining high expectations for what politicians say and how they behave.
A key conclusion of the evening was thus that much can be done to protect the democratic process from current threats, but that this requires concerted action from a range of organisations as well as positive engagement from citizens at large.
This post is a summary of the presentations at the Unit’s September seminar, ‘If there is a snap election, what can we do to improve the campaign?’. The event was recorded, and our video of the event includes a lengthy and lively Q&A. To see videos of past events on subjects such as referendums, Brexit and parliament, visit our YouTube channel.
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About the author
Jenny Holloway is a Research Volunteer at the Constitution Unit.