An open letter to the BBC:
Tony Hall, BBC Director General
Rona Fairhead, BBC Trust
James Harding, Head of News
I am deeply unsatisfied with your pro forma response to my letter of complaint regarding BBC Bias/ Tory spin. Aside from the fact that it did not address my specific examples it did so by claiming that bias is studiously avoided with guidelines designed to ‘achieve due impartiality’ by aiming to:
‘ensure that the parties are covered proportionately over an appropriate period, taking into account levels of past and current electoral support. This means it is not the case that each and every item or programme needs to provide an equal amount of air time to political parties. Rather, daily news programmes would aim to achieve proportional and appropriate coverage within the course of each week of the campaign.’
This conflation of the idea of bias and spin, in parallel with the entirely irrelevant defence about equal air time across the board, perfectly illustrates a complete failure to understand what impartiality actually means, in the first instance, and which also fails to understand, or acknowledge, that audiences vary for the different outputs so the notion that by averaging the amount of bias in individual programmes over the whole news output somehow equals impartiality is one of the most crass and unbelievably stupid responses ever given and the BBC needs to show greater responsibility to the license fee payer than showing such disrespect. The same audience that listens to the Today programme does not necessarily listen, say, to news at ten or specialist programmes on BBC2. Since the audience is not, and cannot be the same across the output, the argument of bias being offset by averaging air time out across the piece is an utter nonsense – aside from the fundamental truth that giving different parties equal air time across the piece, whilst it might fulfil an election rules requirement, has nothing whatsoever to do with bias.
First of all, reporters on the news, when reporting the news, should be impartial. This means not that one report can be given a wee bit of a pro-Tory spin because somewhere along the line another report will have a wee bit of a Labour spin. All that means is that spin is being allowed in – more than that: permission is being given for reporters to use spin.
By giving such permission (and by using this averaging out defence that is exactly what you are doing) you are failing your own standards. Impartiality is a skill, even a craft. Reporters need to be trained in the craft and encouraged to be alert to and understand how their own unconscious biases, if unchecked, can be seriously damaging overall. Impartiality is something that many of the BBC reporters work very hard to achieve and by allowing the spin in key programmes via senior reporters you undermine them too. Editors and senior journalists need to be made to understand by the senior management that spin in any programme is unacceptable.
Journalists are allowed opinion too, of course, but the standards of impartiality need to be met by separating out opinion from reporting.
There are many instances of spin allowed to appear across key news outputs. Frankly, I don’t really care if it is in favour of any particular political party or not. What chiefly concerns me is the fact that spin is increasingly present in the reporting of news across the outputs and the averaging out defence you use is encouraging such.
I am fully aware that the BBC suffered a serious and sustained attack from Labour after Andrew Gilligan reported on the dodgy dossier and Kelly, very sadly and shockingly, killed himself. We know so much more about that now, and we know, in retrospect that that the BBC was right to report that story and that that Gilligan had no idea how vulnerable Kelly was when he used him as a source given that there was so much more going on with regard to Kelly than anyone knew – to quote Gilligan from his reflective piece in the Telegraph in 2013
‘What a lot I didn’t know. Even now, almost precisely 10 years since David Kelly’s last journey, we are still learning just how extraordinary and inexcusable the behaviour of our rulers was – both towards him, and in the wider cause, defending the Iraq war, for which he was outed and died. On July 18 2003, I did not consider myself a shockable person; I was an experienced, sceptical journalist with, I thought, a realistic idea of how politicians, intelligence officers and civil servants behaved. But over the months and years that followed, my views, and those of most of the country, changed. To borrow the famous words of David Astor over Suez, we had not realised that our government was capable of such folly and such crookedness.’
Gilligan went on to say that
‘What we now know is that at precisely the same moment as the Government was launching hysterical attacks on the BBC and on me for reporting this, Whitehall had quietly conceded that it was true. In July 2003, literally as David Kelly was outed, MI6 secretly withdrew the 45-minute intelligence as unreliable and badly-sourced.’
Prior to that, of course, the BBC had been under a sustained attack from, largely, Murdoch funded anti-BBC lobbyists who didn’t, and still don’t, like a public service broadcaster having sufficient funds to compete for those core audiences which commercial broadcasters’ huge profits depend on. We know that the lobbyists had much support in the Tory party and that Labour had been key in supporting the BBC against such potentially disruptive profiteering. The Labour attack, therefore, held all the more power because of this anti-BBC lobbying context and place the BBC in an extraordinarily difficult position.
It couldn’t have been clearer to all that if the BBC hoped to survive in the long term it needed to play a political game too, but the ultimate aim of this should have been to maintain standards of impartiality in its news reporting but, unfortunately, it now seems that this has been the baby thrown out with the bathwater. It would appear that a key element of that political game the BBC had to engage in a bid to ensure its long term survival was to deploy an employment strategy that sought to address the perception that the ranks of staff were largely left wing and very antu-Thatcher.
Since the dark days of the Labour attack, the BBC has filleted its core creative staff. It has carved off production and, to all extents and purposes, privatised it as BBC Studios. It doesn’t take much brain power to realise this is a precursor to its total privatisation. Perhaps you don’t care about that but many of the UK citizens do and many of it believe that a successful UK is dependent on it. The election results begin to show that younger audiences aren’t influenced so easily by the spin on key news programmes and the right wing tabloids that used to hold such sway but the problem with this is that the BBC also risks alienating the generation that might save it.
In this context, it also doesn’t take much brain power to see that by allowing spin into reports, and damaging the BBC’s reputation for impartiality so comprehensively, there is a rising tide against the BBC in its audiences. This will rather smooth that complete transition to the complete privatisation of the BBC with as little protest as possible.
The anti-BBC lobbyists are now working behind closed doors to a great extent and having a huge impact on this process. Perhaps there is nothing I or those like me can do but I could weep about it and I want my complaints properly addressed and I want license fee payers to be shown the respect they deserve.
For reference I include my initial complaint and the response below.
BBC Complaints – Case Number CAS-4409431-85TGGT
There have been so many instances of outrageous pro-Tory spin across a range of BBC News output that I am forced to complain. I am a former BBC producer/director and the BBC means a great deal to me. I also think it is hugely important to the nation as a whole and we rely on the many hard-working reporters and news teams who do their very best to report the news. However, I am deeply troubled by the recent examples of outrageous spin in favour of May and I list a few here.
Today, May has a privileged position as PM as she can comment on terror as PM. The Today programme played her comments today about police numbers and kept in, at the end, her comment against Corbyn. He had no right of reply and there was no comment from Corbyn aired. There as also absolutely no need to keep that comment as the statement made sense without it. Yesterday, Today programme also spent much time on May’s ‘enough is enough’ comment yet did not report on the substance of Corbyn’s speech, only the element that criticised May which was tagged with the snide comment that the campaign has restarted. Today at lunchtime on TV news, May given lots of time for her rehearsed speech in the library and Corbyn given much less time under an umbrella in the rain answering questions. The first 5 paras of a report online at appalling spin against Corbyn. This is in no way reporting but pure and simple bias, even going so far as to resurrect the shoot to kill policy position misrepresented by Laura Kuenssberg. An interview that is still up on the BBCwebsites with the false representation in the headline. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2017-40153536 Laura Kuenssburg repeatedly has an agenda in her reporting and although she makes sure to ask challenging questions of May now and then her reporting overall lacks any real understanding of actual policy. Her agenda is always about aspects of leadership and seldom does she show any real understanding or ability in reporting policy
Dear Ms Kemp
Thank you for contacting us regarding our recent news coverage about the upcoming general election. We understand that you feel that our coverage has been biased in favour of the Conservative Party.
The BBC has in place clear guidelines to ensure that political parties receive an appropriate level of coverage during an election period and our editors are required to follow them carefully.
To achieve due impartiality, we aim to ensure that the parties are covered proportionately over an appropriate period, taking into account levels of past and current electoral support.
This means it is not the case that each and every item or programme needs to provide an equal amount of air time to political parties. Rather, daily news programmes would aim to achieve proportional and appropriate coverage within the course of each week of the campaign.
Thank you again for contacting us.
BBC Complaints Team