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We have found no evidence of deliberate bias…

Posted by Richard Friday, January 28, 2005

So says the Independent Panel in its report to the BBC on "BBC news coverage of the European Union".

Having expressed considerable reservations about the make-up of this Panel, we cannot express any great surprise at this finding. All we can say of it is that the Panel cannot have looked very far, or very thoroughly. Even on this Blog – which is not dedicated systematically to monitoring the BBC – we have been able to come up with some very clear instances.

Not least, we have reported on Nick Clarke, the interviewer for BBC Radio 4’s World at One, and his expression of sadness that public sentiment was against the EU constitution. Then there was that extraordinary episode when the "You and Yours" programme quite deliberately ignored the EU involvement in the ruinous "Part P" amendments to the building regulations, requiring registration of electricians.

However, the Panel is not a total whitewash – more like a "greywash" - as it does "a widespread perception that it suffers from certain forms of cultural and unintentional bias." The problem is complex, it says.

In essence it seems to be the result of a combination of factors including an institutional mindset, a tendency to polarise and over-simplify issues, a measure of ignorance of the EU on the part of some journalists and a failure to report issues which ought to be reported, perhaps out of a belief that they are not sufficiently entertaining. Whatever the cause in particular cases, the effect is the same for the outside world and feels like bias.
We take issue with this. Intended or not, it does not feel like bias. It is bias and there is no comfort in knowing that some of it might be "mindset" – which we have long suspected. This would be best represented by the "rave" uncritical reporting of the recent Airbus A380 unveiling.

As did the MacPherson Report in 1999 find the Metropolitan Police "institutionally racist", in effect what this Panel is reporting is that the BBC is "institutionally biased" when it comes to EU coverage.

But it is not only bias that the Panel finds, and for that it has to be commended. It notes that senior managers "appear insufficiently self-critical about standards of impartiality."

They seem to take it as a given, with little serious thought as to how it applies in practice. This attitude appears to have filtered through to producers, reporters and presenters in the front line. There is no evidence of any systematic monitoring to ensure that all shades of significant opinion are fairly represented and there is a resistance to accepting external evidence. Leaving decisions to individual programme editors means that if there is bias in the coverage overall, no-one in the BBC would know about it.
Furthermore, the Panel continues:

Nor would BBC managers be in a position to accept or reject external allegations of bias and act accordingly. For example the written evidence from the Conservative Party says: "Conservative MEPs are under-represented. Packages from Brussels predominantly contain Labour and Liberal Democrat MEPs but no Conservative. Given that the Conservatives are the largest party within the European Parliament, this cannot be justified." Without a reliable monitoring system the BBC has no way of knowing whether such allegations are justified.
And then…

In the absence of such a system, the BBC finds it hard to defend itself against charges of bias. For instance we struggled to gain comprehensive information about complaints received, upheld or rejected. Such evidence as there was overwhelmingly found in favour of complaints from eurocritics. That evidence was also supported by admittedly imperfect evidence from external monitoring, although in the absence of any other sources that is all that was available to us.
In other words, after all these years of the BBC blandly denying that anything so vulgar as bias could taint its holy portals, we find that no systems are in place either to measure bias or prevent it occurring.

This is evidence of gross unprofessionalism – of which my colleague reported recently - and, of the BBC’s arrogance. They think they are soo perfect, so there is no need actually to check anything.

Much is also made of the coverage being focused through the "Westminster prism", with the EU issues predominantly being expressed in domestic terms, an issue which the Telegraph picked up in its recent report, based on leaked material.

But what is also stunning – if not unexpected - is the finding that "ignorance" plays a large part in the dreadful performance of the BBC. Says the Panel:

Journalists are unlikely to be able to explain the issues clearly unless they understand them themselves. There is much evidence that the public do not get the clear and accurate explanations they need because there is a lack of knowledge of the EU at every stage of the process from the selection of an item to the conduct of the interview. Presenters often appear to be ill-briefed and insufficiently armed with the facts necessary to challenge assertions made by interviewees in live interviews, reflecting not just pressure on them but a lack of understanding by programme researchers and producers.
This is something Lord Pearson noted and it is a very serious indictment of the BBC - that an organisation which parades its own "professionalism" is so dismally inadequate.

In the long list of failings, there is also the sin of omission, of which there is no end of examples, affirmed by the Panel which states that: "All external witnesses pointed out that the BBC News agenda understates the importance and relevance of the EU in the political and daily life of the UK."

"A stated aspiration of BBC journalism" the Panel says, is to "make the important interesting" but there is a danger that instead that "they make the interesting important."

The Panel then goes on to make detailed recommendations, the thrust of which is that there needs to be better and more impartial coverage of the EU to explain major issues to a wider audience.

Therein lies the problem. Having failed to identify deliberate bias, the strategy for dealing with that problem is different from dealing with "institutional bias". There will be no strategy for the former. And, in any event, as we have observed, the central issue is the BBC culture which will take more than a simple strategy to address.

Much will rely on the goodwill and capability of the BBC's new director of news, Helen Boaden. Her leadership in the dire coverage of the tsunami (and here) is hardly encouraging, and her response to even the limited criticism was complacent and arrogant.

Yet this is the official who has been charged by the BBC governors with formulating a response to the Panel, to be presented to the BBC's journalism board and the board of governors next month. With Boaden at the helm, the signs do not look good.