Sky's Burley and Boulton cleared of election bias

Ofcom has ruled that Sky News did not breach broadcasting guidelines despite nearly 3,000 complaints about its coverage of the May 2010 general election.

The first contentious broadcast was the second party leaders’ debate, broadcast by Sky on 22 April.

Moderator Adam Boulton came in for criticism after highlighted a story in that day’s Telegraph about Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg’s expenses.

He said: ‘Mr Clegg, you’re on the front page of the Telegraph today?”

To which Clegg responded: ‘I am indeed for a complete nonsense story. But anyway, put that aside – complete, complete rubbish.”

Ofcom received 671 complaints about this claiming that it showed bias, because the other two candidates faced no such additional questioning from Boulton, and alleging that it breached the debate rules.

Ofcom received an addition 1,008 complaints about Sky News presenter Kay Burley’s interview with David Babbs on 8 May. Babbs is from an organisation which helped organise a protest march in favour of proportional representation as coalition talks were underway.

Vewers claimed that Burley was biased against electoral reform, in favour of the Conservative party and too aggresisive.

Ofcom notes in its report that ‘for a period of about three minutes (in the six minute interview) Kay Burley repeatedly interrupted David Babbs so that he could not finish an answer”.

The third series of complaints concerned Sky News political editor Adam Boulton’s now infamous exchange with Alastair Campbell on 10 May.

Presenter Jeremy Thompson was interviewing both men live in the wake of Gordon Brown announcing that he would resign as prime minister and that the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties were to hold formal talks about possible cooperation in a government.

Boulton lost his temper whilst talking to Campbell prompting some 1,116 viewers to complain. Some viewers alleged Boulton was biased towards the Conservative party and against the Labour party, that he was confrontational, bullying and aggressive towards Campbell.

Cleared on all counts

Clearing Sky News on all three counts, Ofcom said: ‘We note, in particular, the high level of importance that should be attached to freedom of expression in the context of political debate.”

On Boulton’s questioning of Clegg during the leaders’ debate, Ofcom said: “One brief comment by a presenter during a 90-minute programme (to which Nick Clegg had an immediate opportunity to respond) could not in itself reasonably cause the programme to breach the due impartiality requirements of the code.”

On the Burley complaint, Ofcom said: “There was a period during the interview when Kay Burley appeared to prevent the interviewee from fully responding and he was interrupted frequently. However, such an approach to an interview does not, on its own result, in a breach of due impartiality.”

Ofcom considered whether the Boulton versus Campbell episode breached rules on impartiality and offence.

It said: ‘Given that Alastair Campbell had effectively accused Sky News’ political editor of wanting a Conservative prime minister, we consider that it was not unreasonable, and within the requirements of due impartiality, for Adam Boulton to defend his position. Adam Boulton did become visibly angry – but that does not, in itself, impact on the due impartiality of the content.”

Ofcom said: ‘While the conduct and manner of the discussion was certainly unusual, in terms of impartiality we consider that relevant views and issues were aired.”

On the issue of offence, Ofcom said: “We recognise that the discussion between Alastair Campbell and Adam Boulton may have proved surprising or even to be uncomfortableviewing to some, and we also accept that the exchanges were heated. However, given the nature of the programming (a live 24 hour news service), the important political issues that were being discussed and the overall context of the programme, we concluded that generally accepted standards were applied to this content.

“Two well-known personalities from the worlds of politics and journalism were taking part in a debate about a matter of topical and serious concern. We considered that although the tone and content of this exchange was unusual, it would not have been beyond the likely expectations of the audience for this channel.”

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