The Exit Poll, BBC Election Night and systemic media bias

Accusations of BBC media bias have flowed thick and fast from right and left, but the real scandal of the 2019 Election Night was that seats projections were announced at 10pm, while information on the parties’ national vote shares came along only seven hours later, when almost all viewers had gone to bed. Pippa Norris and Patrick Dunleavy argue that this extraordinary delay formed the centrepiece of a thoroughly over-legitimizing representation of the UK’s election process, exaggerating the Conservative and SNP victories, artificially demeaning Labour’s performance, and ignoring the injustices meted out to the Liberal Democrats, Greens and others. A simple re-framing could easily combat the BBC’s and other broadcasters’ now firmly enrooted ‘bias against understanding’, entailing something of a move back to older and more accurate election night formats.

The main lines of British political culture over the next four and a half years were constituted by the election of 12 December, and especially by how the broadcasters, especially the BBC, represented the results overnight. Election night coverage remains one of the few ‘water cooler’ events in public service television. BBC One’s election night program peaked at 6.1 million viewers as the results of the exit poll were announced at 10pm. It drew in around 4.36 million on average from 9:55pm to 2am, with many others watching online. Millions more people were tuned to ITV, Sky, and Chanel 4 news.

The centrepiece of election night programming across all broadcast channels was the single Exit Poll, conducted in 144 polling stations, with voters recasting their ballots anonymously for Ipsos MORI. From the change in votes since last time (at the self-same sites) an army of skilled analysts then dissects the new results to predict the overall seat outcomes for the BBC, ITV, and Sky. ‘The principal aim of the exit poll’, said John Curtice the BBC guru in overall charge, ‘is to help viewers and listeners to navigate the initial hours of election night as the first results come in. By comparing the actual results with the forecast of the exit poll, we will be able to point to the political direction in which Britain is now apparently headed’.

In the event, the 2019 poll correctly predicted 368 Tory MPs (actual number 365), 191 for Labour (actual 203), 55 for the SNP (in fact they only won 48 of Scotland’s 59 seats, a major gaff for the analysis here), and the Liberal Democrats 13 (actual 11). This precise prediction more or less eliminated all other perceptions, and incessantly dominated all further analysis and discussion for the first many hours of programming. A dominant narrative was established, with no counter-notes of any kind, proclaiming a Tory triumph, Labour wiped out in a historic defeat (widely represented as paralled only by Michael Foot in 1983), and an (as it turns out, overstated) SNP hegemony north of the border.

Only after 5am did the BBC’s Jeremy Vine at last announce an estimated three-party national vote share for Britain, to a residual audience of insomniacs and election geeks.

And what a different story this told. Despite the Brexit Party standing down in their favour, the Conservative vote share increased by just 1.2% on their 2017 performance. And Labour’s 32.1% share of the UK vote under Corbyn was not historically poor, exceeding as it did Ed Miliband’s in 2015 (30.4%); Gordon Brown’s performance in 2010 (29.0%), and Neil Kinnock’s vote share in 1987 (30.8%). Indeed, the 2019 Labour vote was just a couple of points behind their average performance since February 1974, when multiparty competition started to reduce the average two-party share of the vote. Labour’s vote share was down sharply on 2017 (-7.8%), driven by supply-side patterns of party competition which split the Remain camp. The Liberal Democrats under Jo Swinson had actually achieved a near 50% increase in their vote share, despite winning only two handfuls of seats. The divisions amongst the UK’s clear majority of the Remain voters were exacerbated by the UK’s electorally disproportional First-Past-the-Post system. It returned to its typical form in 2019, vesting Boris Johnson with 13% more seats than his national vote share, and awarding four fifths of the Scottish seats to the SNP for 45% of votes there. There was no vast blue tsunami in the grassroots British electorate. Different choices on the ballot simply altered party fortunes, which the electoral system then reshaped and exaggerated.

Why did the broadcasters vest all their national analysis in the Exit Poll, an exercise which since methods were changed in recent years has not been able to generate an accurate estimate of the national vote share? After all, there were plenty of reputable national polls conducted very close to the election day itself which gave a vote share that later turned out to be pretty much spot on, as Figure 1 shows. Any political scientist could have told the BBC that the median result here was highly likely to be accurate on national vote share. And while the BBC had a self-denying ordinance of not really covering polls during the campaign, that all ended at 10pm on election night.

So the vote share information was there to consider – it just could not be managed within the dominance of the Exit Poll ‘frame’, with its implied claim that only seats outcomes count, that only what determines the immediate contours of power in Westminster matters, and that the UK’s biased electoral system captures the ‘will of the people’.

For the BBC especially, the 2019 election night was a gross failure of the Reithian mission to educate and inform citizens at a critical juncture in political life in an open and multi-variant way. It ‘help[ed] viewers and listeners to navigate the initial hours of election night’ only in a one-sided, “only power matters” kind of way . Ironically, this was a complete denial of the BBC’s valuable Election Night heritage – for in the old days of David Butler and Robert McKenzie’s ‘swingometer’, changes in the national share of the votes provided a key focus of discussion and debate across the first hours of every election night. It filled the ‘empty hours’ while the seats results trickled in, and it accurately located watching viewers in an overall view votes and seats within the electoral process.

By 2019, all this was long gone. The fancy graphics were all about seats, seats, and nothing else. Constituency vote swings were occasionally highlighted, but without any background template and only then mainly in seats which experienced a particularly dramatic (and usually untypical) change. The narrative became a dramatic and exciting landslide of seats for Johnson – and the historic defeat of Labour MPs.

Journalistic framing conventions became embedded in the seats-only Exit Poll perspective of the BBC and other channels. It is perceptions like these that largely determine what is covered as newsworthy in public affairs. Frames reflect organized structural conventions in newsrooms, not individual choices or biases by reporters. Independent international media watchdogs have rated BBC news highly for their factual reporting, although perhaps slightly favouring the left in their news story selection. The Loughborough University content analysis of 2019 campaign news coverage found a rough parity in coverage of the two major parties, but around two-thirds of TV news focusing on the Conservative and Labour campaigns. Nevertheless, the Liberal Democrats and SNP were given more attention on TV news than in the printed press – although that is hardly a level playing field comparison.

Appreciating framing bias

A different frame would have been possible if the interpretative frames used by broadcast journalists were only just a little bit more prepared to ‘speak truth to power’. Here is how national vote shares could have been introduced, from the outset of the Election Night broadcast, based on a better-rounded Exit Poll (taken together with well-conducted national opinion polls) – at the same time as the seats projections were announced:

The Conservatives came out top convincingly, gaining their largest parliamentary majority (87 seats) since 1987. Yet their share of all votes under Boris Johnson was 43.6%, up by one percentage point from two years ago under Theresa May.

Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s vote fell back from 40% in 2017 to 32%, a steep decline which saw the party’s MPs fall back towards 200. Yet its vote share was just 3 percentage points below the party’s average performance under successive leaders for the last half century. And Corbyn won a higher vote share than Gordon Brown in 2010, or Ed Miliband in 2015.

The biggest vote gain of the night went to Scottish National Party, up over 8 percentage points to 45% of all votes in Scotland. Against a fragmented opposition, the party gained 48 (80%) of the 59 seats in Scotland under the Westminster election system.

Elsewhere the Liberal Democrats also grew their support by 4 percentage points, reflecting a surge of support from their clear Remain stance. Under Jo Swinson the party achieved their best share of the vote since 2010, but won only 11 seats.

The two parties advocating a hard Leave position towards Brexit were marginalized. The Brexit Party under Farage gained 2% of the overall UK vote, and UKIP just 0.1% support – a dramatic fall since Farage scooped a quarter of the votes in the 2014 European elections, then gained 13% support in the 2015 general election, and since the Brexit Party won a 33% vote share in the May 2019 European elections.

Overall, reflecting the public’s position towards Brexit shown in recent opinion polls, the Leave parties won a combined share of the GB vote of 47%, compared with 53% for the Remain/2nd Referendum camp.

By contrast, here is the BBC’s actual final overall summary of the night’s outcome (focusing only on seats, and still ending with a salient exit poll mis-prediction):

Boris Johnson will return to Downing Street with a big majority after the Conservatives swept aside Labour in its traditional heartlands.

With just a handful of seats left to declare in the general election, the BBC forecasts a Tory majority of 78. The prime minister said it would give him a mandate to “get Brexit done” and take the UK out of the EU next month.

Jeremy Corbyn said Labour had a “very disappointing night” and he would not fight a future election.

The BBC forecast suggests the Tories will get 364 MPs, Labour 203, the SNP 48, the Lib Dems 12, Plaid Cymru four, the Greens one, and the Brexit Party none. That means the Conservatives will have their biggest majority at Westminster since Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 election victory.

Labour, which has lost seats across the North, Midlands and Wales in places which backed Brexit in 2016, is facing its worst defeat since 1935.


About the Authors

Pippa Norris (@PippaN15) is the Maguire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Harvard University and the author of numerous books on British and comparative politics, media politics, and (with Ronald Inglehart), Cultural Backlash (Cambridge University Press 2019).



Patrick Dunleavy is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy in the Government Department at LSE, and Centenary Professor at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra. His most recent books are The UK’s Changing Democracy (LSE Press, 2018) [co-edited], which is free to download; The Impact of the Social Sciences (Sage, 2014) [co-authored]; and Growing the Productivity of Government Services (Elgar, 2013) [co-authored]. His Twitter account is @PJDunleavy.

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