Saturday, 30 January 2016

EU Referendum: A Letter To The Electoral Commission

Despite the widely publicised recommendation last year by the Electoral Commission over a change in referendum question, many newspapers still refer to the referendum as a "In / Out" option leading to potential confusion. Thus the following letter has been sent to the Commission;

Dear Electoral Commission.

I am writing to you regarding aspects of the media coverage of the forthcoming EU referendum which I feel could be improved.

On 1st September 2015 the Electoral Commission recommended a change to the proposed question from an “In/Out” question to a more balanced “Leave/Remain” response. The Government and Parliament readily agreed to these recommendations.

The reason for these recommendations was highlighted by Jenny Watson, Chair of the Electoral Commission in the press release. She noted:
“Any referendum question must be as clear as possible so that voters understand the important choice they are being asked to make. We have tested the proposed question with voters and received views from potential campaigners, academics and plain language experts. 
‘Whilst voters understood the question in the Bill some campaigners and members of the public feel the wording is not balanced and there was a perception of bias. The alternative question we have recommended addresses this”.
Given that the Electoral Commission’s recommendations were widely reported at the time by the media, it is of some concern that the media and newspapers in particular continue to frame their referendum pieces in an “In / Out” context rather than the actual “Leave / Remain” options on the ballot.

This has potential for confusion for voters which may undermine the very balance that the change of question was attempting to address. As the Electoral Commission revealed in its ‘Media content analysis’ report in August 2011 on the AV referendum in May 2011: “The news media play a crucial role in informing voters about the issues, alternatives and candidates in an election”.

In addition according to the Editor's Code of Practice issued and enforced by IPSO, "the press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information". As the question was changed for the sake of "clarity" continuing to frame the debate as "In / Out" is potentially misleading.

With this in mind I feel there is a case that the Electoral Commission reminds editors of newspapers of their responsibilities, as part of the process of a free and fair referendum, and that they try to avoid unintentional and unnecessary confusion by accurately reporting the question.

I thank you for your attention to this matter.

Yours sincerely


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