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Reforming the BBC

November 15, 2014

Perceptions of the BBC appear to vary widely. On the one hand opinion surveys seem to indicate the bulk of the population hold the BBC in high regard, a substantial minority – those who use a variety of sources, especially the internet, to keep themselves informed, are extremely angry about the BBC’s pro establishment bias.

Under the BBC Charter, it has six public purposes:

1. Sustaining citizenship and civil society

2. Promoting education and learning

3. Stimulating creativity and cultural excellence

4. Representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities

5. Bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK

6. In promoting its other purposes, helping to deliver to the public the benefit of

emerging communications technologies and services and, in addition, taking a

leading role in the switchover to digital television.

Although it may do well on the majority of these purposes, in my opinion it dismally fails on the first. The BBC Trust, in setting a remit for this purpose writes,

“The Charter and Agreement note the importance of sustaining citizenship through the enrichment of the public realm and obliges the Trust to ensure that the BBC ‘gives information about, and increases understanding of, the world through accurate and impartial news, other information, and analysis of current events and ideas.’ In doing so, the Trust is obliged to ‘have regard to the need to promote understanding of the UK political system (including Parliament and the devolved structures) including through dedicated coverage of Parliamentary matters, and the need for the Purpose Remit to ensure that the BBC transmits an impartial account day by day of the proceedings in both Houses of Parliament.’ The Trust is also obliged to have regard to ‘the need to promote media literacy’, and the importance of sustaining citizenship through the enrichment of the public realm.”

It then goes onto to define what the BBC will do to achieve this purpose.

In spite of the ridiculous Tory claims that the BBC is left wing, on the contrary it is strongly pro establishment and in particular (in my opinion) fails to:

  • Exhibit ever rising inequality, its causes, and its consequences.
  • Explain that there are other economic theories than neoliberalism – theories which actually have some empirical support.
  • Portray the Palestinian point of view in the Israeli – Palestine conflict.
  • Point out that there are other countries such as Italy with far more of a challenge from immigrants.
  • Cover well informed criticism by doctors of NHS privatisation
  • Cover the failure of governments to do more than pay lip service to climate change
  • Cover adequately the failure of government to regulate banks…

In my view the BBC is not ‘Sustaining citizenship and civil society’. How is it held to account?

Under Section 5 of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code, Ofcom has the duty to enforce, ‘Due Impartiality and Due Accuracy’ and to prevent ‘Undue Prominence of Views and Opinions’. This however does not apply to ‘BBC services funded by the licence fee, which are regulated on these matters by the BBC Trust.’ So how does the trust enforce impartiality? I see nothing on this in the trust’s work plan for 2014/15 found at http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/assets/files/pdf/about/how_we_operate/2014/workplan.pdf

In the section on BBC Trust – Setting Strategy and Assessing Performance in the BBC’s Annual Report for 2013/2014, the bit on Impartiality starts,

Impartiality

Impartiality is central to the BBC’s role as a public service broadcaster, funded by the licence fee. It is one of our principal concerns in terms of editorial standards, particularly in relation to news and current affairs. Each year, the BBC runs a survey of perceptions of the impartiality and trustworthiness of BBC News compared with other media. In this year’s results, released in June, 50% of respondents said that BBC News was the source they were most likely to turn to for impartial news coverage. This is a much higher figure than for any other broadcaster and remains at around the same level as last year…”

50% may be higher than for other broadcasters, but surely it is still a dismally low figure. More importantly I have a problem with a measure of impartiality based on public perceptions, when, as many claim, the bulk of the population is politically illiterate just because they rely on the BBC and the gutter press.

The report went on to say, “The Trust held an impartiality seminar on Africa in November

2013, with guests from inside and outside the BBC. The seminar highlighted some of the tensions felt by audiences about all media reporting of Africa.”. OK fine but why not on Israel – Palestine? Why not on inequality?

Finally the report said, “In June we published an impartiality review, ‘Rural Areas in the UK’, led by an independent author, Heather Hancock. Taken as a whole, it found the BBC’s coverage of rural issues in news, current affairs and factual programming was impartial, with strong specialist output on network TV and radio. It also found that services in the devolved nations and those in Welsh and Gaelic featured a wide range of voices. However, it found that network output relied on too narrow a range of organisations and charities and concluded that the range of rural voices used should be broadened. It also found that many news stories tended not to be considered from a rural perspective and that there was a particular deficit in coverage of rural issues in England. We have therefore asked the Executive to address this, including how it will ensure staff are able to report on rural issues with knowledge and confidence.” Fine but we need more of those.

The trust has also carried out a Breadth of Opinion Impartiality Review, though I could not find their report. The terms of reference were deeply flawed in many respects, the worst being that they said that it [the trust] would assess whether “’due weight’ has been given to a range of perspectives or opinions e.g. minority views should not necessarily be given equal weight to the prevailing consensus.” This is simply appalling. The ‘prevailing consensus’ on key issued is manufactured by corporate lobbying and propaganda, and government prejudice; and the BBC helps to propagate the message. The relative weights given to orthodox and heterodox views should be determined by the quality of the argument and the evidence for them. Regrettably, in too many cases this would mean that heterodox views should be given more weight, not less.

The BBC trust writes the ‘purpose remits’ and because the remit on impartiality is so flawed it cannot be trusted to hold the BBC to account. Could Ofgem be trusted? Section 5 of its Broadcasting Code is so loosely worded, that as a government agency Ofgem is clearly too vulnerable to political pressure to do an honest job.

My remedy would be to set up a new body called the BBC Impartiality Jury, the governing body of which would be randomly selected by the Electoral Commission. It would be responsible for ensuring that BBC coverage gave weight to different view on the basis of the quality of the argument and the evidence, paying no heed to whether or not the view in question was ‘orthodox’. This in my view should be merely be good journalistic practice. The Jury would come into play when the BBC significantly falls short of this standard. A major tool in the work of the Jury would be the analysis of complaints. The existing BBC complaints procedure would not be abolished, but if the complaint went to appeal, the complainant would have the option of referring the matter to the Trust as now, or to the Jury. There would be a parallel procedure whereby complaints could be sent directly to the Jury, but the Jury could refer complaints back to the BBC in appropriate cases.

Where the Jury judged the complaint to be justified, it would attempt to persuade the BBC to mend its ways, but it would have the power to suspend on full pay indefinitely any employee of the BBC in order to enforce its judgement. The Jury would have statutory protection against any civil action resulting from such a suspension. It would be up to the BBC to decide whether the member of staff remains on suspension, is sacked, or any other action taken. The Jury would not be subject to English libel law, though it would be subject to the law of Malicious Falsehood, where the burden of proof lies with the plaintiff.

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