All around the world, eyes are on Scotland’s historic independence referendum. Catalonia watches closely,with hopes for their own vote. Pro-Russian protestors have reportedly beenwaving Scottish flags in Sevastopol, Crimea (having perhaps missed the point a bit).
But there’s one place where you absolutely will not find any in-depth discussion of the referendum today: The British Broadcasting Corporation. The BBC’s referendum-day rule is clear: “There will be no coverage of any of the referendum campaign issues on any BBC outlet.”
For example, when Andy Murray, Britain’s first male singles winner at Wimbledon in a lifetime, announced this morning that he would vote Yes, it was ignored. Three days ago, Vivienne Westwood got a whole interview with the beeb.
This means that the BBC is reduced to reporting the most bare, incontestable facts. The number of people registered to vote, or the colour of the sky in Edinburgh. Nothing about any of the issues, the questions of Scotland’s currency, the EU, or any of the previous polling.
There might be some logic to not running opinion polls on the day, in case they warp the outcome. But having four polls announced the day before could also do that, and it’s not illegal. As a result, some people think there might be a case for banning them all the time.
Of course, these rules don’t affect other online content (like Business Insider), but broadcasters and the BBC especially still make up a huge chunk of the UK’s media. All broadcasters are covered, which is why Sky News also has such weirdly bland coverage today. When we tuned in, Sky was obsessing over last night’s sports scores rather than today’s potential breakup of the nation.
Thirty years ago, there were only three TV channels in the UK, and two of them were the BBC. You can see why regulators would be afraid that the BBC might move votes in an election. Today, the UK’s media watchdog calculates the share of news consumed across all platforms, giving the BBC 44%. In comparison, uncensored social media comes in with just 5%. The BBC is still the country’s overwhelming source of news, and it basically ignores any developments from midnight on the day before polling, to 10 pm when polls close.
But UK citizens also have choices. Even those without cable TV subscriptions can get dozens of “Freeview” channels, including Sky News. So the current rules rather imply that somehow, giving voters less information is better than giving them more information.
This may all seem strange from a US perspective, but the UK is not the only country with “electoral silence” laws. Until 2002, for example, French media were not allowed to report any polling data for the whole week preceding an election.
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