Choosing Sides: The BBC's Coverage of the Venezuelan Election Race

It's not hard to get the impression (however misrepresentative) from the BBC portrayal of the presidential election as a battle between the ideas of a fresh, hopeful government and old, tired, political stagnation. That this is far from the reality of the situation, and it doesn’t answer the question of why Chavez is leading in the polls, which is seemingly irrelevant to the BBC reporters.

By News Unspun

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The BBC’s reportage of Venezuela’s presidential race fails to explain Venezuela’s political reality, where incumbent Hugo Chavez enjoys a strong lead in polls. (archives).
The BBC’s reportage of Venezuela’s presidential race fails to explain Venezuela’s political reality, where incumbent Hugo Chavez enjoys a strong lead in polls. (archives).
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In the upcoming Venezuelan presidential elections, to be held in October of this year, the electorate will choose between current President Hugo Chavez and opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, former governor of Miranda state.

BBC coverage of the run-up to the presidential elections to date has depicted a situation in which one 'youthful', 'energetic' candidate who 'likes to stay in touch with voters, visiting shantytowns, often on his motorbike, to supervise projects and play basketball with the locals' has preached 'a message of inclusivity and unity' while 'criss-crossing Venezuela on a "house to house" tour'. The current government's candidate, however, is 'seeking a third term at the age of 57 but physically weakened after a battle with cancer' and has been accused of 'planning to hang on to power by force if Mr Chavez loses the election' by unnamed opposition sources.

It's not hard to get the impression (however misrepresentative) from this portrayal of a battle between the ideas of a fresh, hopeful government and old, tired, political stagnation. That this is far from the reality of the situation, and it doesn’t answer the question of why Chavez is leading in the polls, which is seemingly irrelevant to BBC reporters. This battle, it seems, is one of ideology: our news can’t see a problem with a pro-business and pro-market candidate, yet it will happily disgrace candidates who reject this ideology. In Europe recently, democratically elected heads of government were replaced with unelected leaders. Their pro-free-market credentials, earned them the label ‘technocrats’ in the news media, which fretted little about this degradation of democracy. There is a plain and simple explanation for the starting point to the bad press surrounding Hugo Chavez’s government: Western governments do not appreciate heads-of-state whose policies are unaccommodating to the interests of international business. The debate of course becomes far more complicated beyond this starting point, but this should be kept in mind when reading news reports on Venezuelan politics.

One of the central themes recently propagated is that Hugo Chavez should be afraid of a challenger. In September last year, when Leopoldo Lopez was running to stand for the opposition, he asked at a rally: "Is it true what they are saying all over Venezuela, that you are afraid of me?" BBC News obediently emphasised this, running with the subtitle “Afraid?” within their report. In the last few months, numerous references have been made to the ‘strong challenge’ that Capriles presents. The idea that Chavez should be afraid, coupled with the accusations that he would ‘hang on to power’ if he loses the election, invokes the idea of a power-hungry leader that needs to fear democracy. Interestingly, Hugo Chavez has promised the opposition that he would respect the result of the election (though this story was spun and presented by the BBC as some sort of fascinating revelation – Hugo Chavez in respect for democracy shocker – at the time), but the opposition parties have not yet promised the same.

That news about Venezuela may not always revolve around Chavez seems an unknown idea in British news. Chavez is presented as a central figure to stories with which he often has nothing to do. A clear example appeared last month when television station Globovision paid a fine for its coverage of the El Rodeo prison riots. The media regulator CONATEL fined the channel for ‘replaying interviews of distraught prisoners’ mothers 269 times over four days and adding the sound of gunfire to reports.’ All in all, the story had nothing to do with Hugo Chavez. Yet the BBC headline referred to the station as the ‘Anti-Chavez Venezuelan TV Globovision’, opening the article by pointing out that the station is ‘highly critical of President Hugo Chavez’. That the story had nothing to do with Hugo Chavez only later became apparent, potentially leaving readers with the implied connection from the start that the station was fined because it was critical of Hugo Chavez.

In terms of coverage for the opposition, we generally see only positive news about Capriles. So that we can sympathise with his plight, we are told of ‘state media, where Mr Capriles is normally mentioned only in insults’. The audience share of state television in Venezuela grew from 2% to 5.5% between 2000 and 2010, yet we are told in a BBC article that ‘state-owned media has expanded dramatically since Mr Chavez took office in 1999’. In the UK, incidentally, ‘state media’ has a 36% share of the market, according to figures from the Broadcasters Audience Research Board.

There is a case to be made that present-day Venezuela is an example of a healthy democracy which has made huge social progress. This social progress is something that the opposition parties can no longer deny, and Capriles is promising to continue some of these social reforms if he wins the election. The BBC will happily tell us that Chavez has a two-digit lead over Capriles in the polls, but will not explain why, as it continues to relay praise for Capriles. What is apparent is that those gathering news are spending a lot of time listening to opposition politicians and the representatives of business – who will of course be critical of a government that refuses to let markets run the country – and very little time listening to those who actually choose between the candidates.

In a previous study, we have found that the BBC has used terms such as ‘dictator’, ‘autocrat’, etc. in descriptions of Chavez more often than it stated that Hugo Chavez was democratically elected. Now we see overwhelming favour for the opposition candidate. This isn’t balanced reporting, this is an assault on a form of sovereign governance dressed up as a love of democracy. And when someone rejects ‘our’ ideology and gains the popular vote, our news struggles to tell us the full story.

For a detailed study of the BBC's reporting of Hugo Chavez, see our report '13 Years of BBC Reporting on Venezuela's Hugo Chavez'. For more of our analysis of the UK media on Venezuela, see 'Venezuela in the UK Media' Part 1 and Part 2.