Political Balance
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Certain organisations are required by law to maintain a proper political balance, and to that extent their freedom of expression (and consequently that of their members) may be limited. Broadcasting companies are subject to such a requirement, as are maintained schools.

Broadcasting Act 1990 s.6(1)

The [Independent Television] Commission shall do all that they can to secure that every licensed service complies with the following requirements, namely -
(a) that nothing is included within its programme which offends against good taste or decency or is likely to encourage or incite crime or to lead to disorder or to be offensive to public feeling;
(b) that any news given in its programmes is presented with due accuracy and impartiality;
(c) that due impartiality is preserved ... as respects matters of political or industrial controversy or relating to current public policy ...

Broadcasting Act 1990 s.8(2)(a)

A [commercial television] service must not include any advertisement which

  • is inserted by or on behalf of any body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a political nature;
  • is directed towards any political ends, or
  • has any relation to any industrial dispute, other than an advertisement of a public service nature inserted by a government department.

Section 8(3) makes an exception to this rule for party political broadcasts, and s.36 makes it obligatory for independent television companies to broadcast party political broadcasts as instructed by the Commission. A joint committee of broadcasters and politicians establishes arrangements for party political broadcasts (though the content is entirely a matter for the parties concerned). Special rules apply at election periods to ensure balanced coverage as between the parties and candidates.

R (Quintavalle) v BBC (2002) Times 19/3/02, CA

At the 2001 General Election, the Pro-Life Alliance (a registered political party) put up enough candidates to qualify for a party political broadcast. It submitted a videotape which included real pictures of aborted foetuses, but the BBC and other broadcasters refused to screen the programme on the grounds that it offended against the legal requirements of good taste and decency. Granting judicial review, Laws LJ said that in the context of entertainment the courts would pay a high degree of respect to the broadcasters' judgement in such matters. But the common law required that the freedom of speech accorded to accredited political parties, particularly at general election time, should not be interfered with save on the most pressing grounds. Such grounds would very rarely be shown by considerations of taste and decency alone - it would take a very extreme case, involving factors such as gratuitous sensationalism or dishonesty.

Sections 90, 92 and 107 impose similar requirements on independent radio broadcasters, though local radio stations are not required to meet quite the same standards of political balance as national stations so long as the station owners do not use them to promote their own political views. None of these requirements technically apply to the BBC, but there are similar provisions in its charter and its governors have publicly declared their intention of maintaining political impartiality.

R v Radio Authority ex p Bull [1997] 2 All ER 561, Times 21/1/97, CA

Amnesty International sought review of RR's refusal to allow them to place advertisements on commercial radio, drawing attention to human rights violations in Rwanda. The Authority said they were required by s.92(2)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1990 to exclude political advertising, and they interpreted that as covering issue campaigning as well as party politics. AA's application was dismissed by the Divisional Court and the Court of Appeal: the Authority's decision was intra vires and not Wednesbury unreasonable. Given the passage of time, however, AA were entitled to make a new application which RR should consider on its merits.

The Home Secretary has powers to direct that specified matters not be broadcast, or that a particular announcement be made on the air.

R v Home Secretary ex p Brind [1991] 1 All ER 720, Times 8/2/91, HL

The Home Secretary gave directions under the Broadcasting Act 1981 and the BBC Charter that members of certain organisations were not to be permitted to speak on air. A number of journalists sought judicial review of this decision, claiming it infringed the right of free speech. Dismissing the application, Lord Bridge said the European Convention is not part of our domestic law; Parliament had given the Home Secretary power to give directions of this sort, and the courts could not interfere.

In Education too there are a number of statutory requirements.

Education (No.2) Act 1986 s.43(1)

Every individual and body of persons concerned in the government of any [university or college] shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured both for members of the establishment and for visiting speakers. (This provision was a response to a number of incidents in which meetings had been banned because of threats of violent disruption by those opposed to the speaker's views.)

R v University of Liverpool ex p Caesar-Gordon [1990] 3 All ER 821, DC

The University Conservative Association invited a speaker from the South African government; the University initially agreed, but then refused permission for the meeting. The Divisional Court granted A's application for judicial review of the refusal, but upheld a number of quite stringent conditions including restrictions on publicity, a requirement that admission be limited to members of the university, and a requirement that the costs of security be met by the organisers of the meeting.

Education (No.2) Act 1986 ss.44-45

The local education authority, governors and head teacher of any county, voluntary or grant maintained school ... shall forbid the pursuit of partisan political activities by junior pupils, and the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject ... and shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to secure that where political issues are brought to the attention of pupils ... they are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views. 


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