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Election brings record BBC traffic, but news chief ‘quite astonished’ by ‘ferocity and frequency’ of party complaints

By William Turvill

The BBC News website attracted a record 31.2m global browsers on the day after the general election – 8 May – head of news and current affairs James Harding has revealed.

He also revealed that 20.7m of these browsers came from inside the UK, beating the site’s previous best by 7m.

Mail Online, the world’s biggest newspaper website, claimed an average of 14.7m unique users a day in February, a record at the time. National newspaper website ABCs for May are to be released this week.

Speaking at a Voice of the Listener and Viewer conference this morning, Harding also spoke more generally about the BBC’s coverage of the election.

He said that “with the benefit of hindsight” the BBC should have devoted less coverage to potential coalition deals, with the polls pointing towards no overall majority wins, and “allowed the dissection of policy – that we did from defence to social care, housing to education – to speak for itself”.

He added that “we have to ask ourselves whether we did enough to hold in check the political machines of each party”.

“With each election, the political operations of all parties becomes more controlled, there is ever greater effort put into news management.”

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Harding said: “I was, I admit, quite astonished by the ferocity and frequency of complaints from all parties. More often than not, it was some version of a politician saying either I want ‘more me on the BBC’ or ‘my side of the story is the story’. And this being my first election at the BBC, I was struck by how many politicians and spokespeople paid lip service to the idea of the BBC’s editorial independence, but, nonetheless, did think it was their place to say what should be leading the news, what questions should be asked and how, how they wanted audiences to be chosen for programmes.”

He added: “I’ve been asked whether politicians made the link between the BBC’s election coverage and the future funding of the BBC? Mostly, not. But, along the way, there were people from all parties who made the connection between their dissatisfaction with the election coverage and the fact that the next government will set the licence fee and the terms of the Royal Charter. Some did so explicitly. Nigel Farage, for example, said he was unhappy at UKIP’s treatment on the BBC and proposed cutting the licence fee by two thirds. Others left it hanging in the air.” 

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