European elections: Dutch exit poll dilemma

Geert Wilders, PVV leader Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Geert Wilders has made highly controversial statements about immigrants and Islam

When the polls closed in the Netherlands last night after a day of voting in the European elections, Dutch broadcaster NOS published an exit poll of how people said they had voted.

There was particular interest in the election fortunes of Geert Wilders, leader of the controversial anti-Islam, anti-immigration Freedom Party (PVV).

The exit poll gave estimates of the share of the vote each party had achieved and suggested how many seats each would get in the next European Parliament.

The poll was reported widely in the Netherlands and provoked considerable comment and reaction on social media sites such as Twitter.

But you won't see, read or hear any of that on the BBC. Why not?

Here's the relevant section of UK law from the European Parliamentary Elections Regulations 2004:

30. - (1) No person shall in the case of a European Parliamentary election publish before the close of the poll -

(a) any statement relating to the way in which voters have voted at the election where that statement is (or might reasonably be taken to be) based on information given by voters after they have voted, or

(b) any forecast as to the result of the election which is (or might reasonably be taken to be) based on information so given.

(2) If a person acts in contravention of paragraph (1), he shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months.

(3) In this regulation -

"close of the poll" means, in the case of a general election of MEPs, the close of the polling in the Member State whose electors are the last to vote in the election;

"forecast" includes estimate;

"publish" means make available to the public at large, or any section of the public, in whatever form and by whatever means;

and any reference to the result of an election is a reference to the result of the election either as a whole or so far as any particular registered party or individual candidate at the election is or are concerned.

With this in mind - and the fact that most countries in the EU do not vote until Sunday - several UK-based news organisations including the BBC concluded that it was not possible to report details of the Dutch exit poll and remain within election law.

Others, including at least one prominent British newspaper, decided differently and have written stories based on the poll. Anyone with an interest, and the most rudimentary understanding of internet and social media searching, will be able to find out about it if they wish, within a matter of minutes.

It all feels uncomfortable and there may well be pressure for a review before future European elections. And in the short term, similar issues are likely to arise on Sunday as the European Parliament itself has said it plans to release details of national exit polls while other countries are still voting. Watch this space.

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