It isn't a beauty contest

Among the problems facing the BBC, none are so persistent as the question of news neutrality. This was an issue as the BBC was being established in the 1920s and, as Julian Petley points out in this reprint from a book published today (IS THE BBC IN CRISIS?*), it is as far from a solution as ever.

Julian Petley
4 March 2014

From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel

In July 2013, the BBC Trust published a review of breadth of opinion in BBC output (BBC Trust 2013). One of its main purposes was to examine the extent to which the BBC had adopted the recommendations of John Bridcut’s 2007 report From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel. This argued that impartiality was a matter of reflecting a wide spectrum of opinion and not simply achieving a balance of left- wing and right-wing views. According to Bridcut: ‘Impartiality must continue to be applied to matters of party political or industrial controversy. But in today’s more diverse political, social and cultural landscape, it requires a wider and deeper application’ (BBC Trust 2007: 33). The report notes that the political and cultural landscape has changed dramatically in recent years: the main Westminster parties are less sharply differentiated, party membership has dropped, voter turnout declined, and parliament is widely held in low esteem and now competes for attention with alternative forms of political discourse in the new media. Consequently, Bridcut argues:

“There are many issues where to hear ‘both sides of the case’ is not enough: there are many more shades of opinion to consider ... parliament can no longer expect to define the parameters of national debate: it can sometimes instigate it, but more often it has to respond to currents of opinion already flowing freely on the internet and in the media. The world no longer waits on parliamentary utterance, and parliamentary consensus should never stifle the debate of topical issues on the BBC – because it does not always correspond with the different strands of public opinion” (ibid: 34).

For those who have long argued that the terms of political debate on the BBC are too narrow and dominated to a democratically unhealthy degree by political discourse from inside the ‘Westminster bubble’, this was a welcome development, although it is also one which is fraught with difficulties, as we shall see.

The Cardiff University content analysis

To help it assess the extent to which Bridcut’s recommendations had been adopted, the Trust commissioned a content analysis from Cardiff University which, among other things, examined breadth of opinion in BBC coverage of immigration, religion, and the UK’s relationship with the EU in one month in each of 2007 and 2012. In its discussion of the content analysis the Trust noted that:

Cardiff found no clear statistical evidence of a change of approach between 2007 and 2012 but there was a slight increase in the breadth of opinion across the years in the samples regarding the three topics. A significant finding of the content analysis was the dominance of political voices. Political voices have become more, not less, dominant in coverage of the EU and immigration between 2007 and 2012 (BBC Trust 2013: 5).

As far as it goes, this is an accurate summary of part of the Cardiff analysis, and, judged in Bridcut’s terms, is surely disappointing. But when one digs down into this part of the analysis, another, equally worrying, picture emerges. This concerns partiality in a straightforward political sense, and this aspect of the research is entirely ignored by the Trust in its report.

Political partiality

Thus in the relevant period in 2007, when Labour was in government, Labour accounted for 45 per cent of all sources for which a political affiliation could be determined, and the Tories for 41 per cent. But in the relevant period in 2012, when the Coalition was in government, the Conservatives accounted for 48.4 per cent of all politically affiliated sources, and Labour 26.3 per cent. As for the Liberal Democrats, the figure for 2007 was 9.0 per cent and for 2012 it was 6.0 per cent, although it needs to be noted that in the latter year the figure for Coalition sources was 5.0 per cent. Similarly, although in 2007 and 2012 the Prime Minister was the most newsworthy single source, Gordon Brown was used 46 times in 2007 and David Cameron 53 times in 2012. Meanwhile, Cameron was used 27 times as leader of the opposition in 2007 and Ed Miliband 15 times in 2012. In 2007, there was an almost equal number of references to ‘Conservatives’ (28) and ‘government’ (26). By contrast, in 2012, ‘government’ was referred to 35 times and ‘Labour’ only 22 times. Similarly, sources representing the Shadow Cabinet and Ministers went down from 3.9 per cent of all sources under Cameron’s opposition leadership in 2007 to 1.5 per cent under Miliband in 2012 (Wahl-Jorgensen et al 2013: 15-16). These figures clearly point to a distinct bias towards the Conservatives. Of course, this is a bias only in quantitative terms, but it is surely consistent enough to merit further investigation in qualitative ones.

The EU as a problem

However, the Cardiff analysis also uncovers something which goes beyond the Conservatives receiving more airtime than other parties for their views. In broadcast stories concerning the EU, in the relevant month in 2007, Labour spokespeople were actually sourced more frequently (32 times) than the Conservatives (21), but the only thoroughly Europhile party, the Liberal Democrats, was sourced only twice. Given that the two largest parties contain considerable numbers of Europhobes, privileging those parties as sources would almost inevitably have the effect of amplifying anti-EU sentiment on the BBC. The Trust does, in fact, acknowledge that ‘the content analysis indicated that the EU was more often treated as a problem in BBC content than otherwise’ (op cit: 9) in both years, but this does not adequately convey the extent to which the BBC’s broadcast news coverage can justifiably be considered as presenting the EU in a negative light, as a consequence of the main sources on which the BBC drew in its coverage of the issue. Thus, for example, in 2007, as the Cardiff analysis explains:

The reporting of the Lisbon Treaty was largely dominated by the perspectives of the two main parties (Conservative and Labour) and the debate was focused around the procedural issues of ‘red lines’, ‘opt-outs’ and referendums. There was very little extra-parliamentary opinion from areas of civil society or substantive debate about what the Lisbon Treaty actually involved. There were also limited attempts to actually make the case for Europe making a positive contribution to Britain. Instead, most of the debate focused on the Conservatives stressing that the EU was further encroaching on British sovereignty and Labour insisting that this was not the case. So despite the limited presence of UKIP there was a greater proportion of opinion which framed Europe as a threat than an opportunity. On the whole, it appears that the way in which the story of the Lisbon Treaty was told in BBC programming tended to reflect a narrow range of opinion, strongly focused on issues of national sovereignty, and tensions between the two main Westminster political parties (op cit: 46).

The Cardiff researchers conclude that in both years:

The positive case for Europe tends to be framed solely in terms of economic benefits and political influence. There is very little room for sources presenting a broader range of views, and for substantive information about what the EU actually does and how much it actually costs ... The reliance on Westminster sources means that the relationship of the UK with the EU is usually covered within a framework where the EU is seen as a threat (ibid: 52).

Adding still further to the anti-EU discourse was the fact that, although in 2007 UKIP was sourced only twice, ‘the party’s political views were amply represented by other sources’ (ibid: 43). It is also notable that in 2007, of the ten references to newspaper coverage of the Lisbon Treaty on the Today programme (presumably in its round-up of the day’s main newspaper stories), no less than seven were from anti-EU papers, and at least three of these were straight editorialising: ‘This act of betrayal will haunt Mr Brown till the end of his political days’ (Sun, 19 October); ‘The Sun says that Gordon Brown has rolled over in abject surrender’ (Sun, 23 October); ‘The new treaty is 96% identical to the defeated constitution. Don’t let Britain down by signing up’ (Mail, 18 October).

Why the BBC feels the need to amplify, on a daily basis, propaganda (and not simply on the subject of the EU) posing as news stories in hyper-partisan newspapers, the vast bulk of which lean heavily to the right, is a question which it needs urgently to ask itself – not least given these newspapers’ incessant onslaughts on the Corporation itself. And yet, in spite of the dominance of sources which were either frankly hostile to the EU or simply viewed it in a negative or sceptical light, the BBC Trust seemed to take the view that the Cardiff findings suggested that not enough of such voices had been heard, noting that in 2012:

The low coverage given to UKIP on the sample of programmes that were the subject of the content analysis looks at odds with the levels of support the party was receiving in public opinion polls at this period, though the sample period was shortly before the 2013 local elections and the rise in UKIP coverage associated with those elections (op cit: 11).

(For an account of the Cardiff analysis by one of those actually responsible for carrying it out, one which paints a very different picture from that presented by the Trust, see Berry 2013.)

For and against immigration

A similar line was taken by the Trust with regard to the Cardiff analysis of coverage of immigration. This showed that ‘while political sources were less prevalent in the immigration sample than in coverage of the UK’s relationship with the EU, they still accounted for more than half of all sources in 2007, declining to two out of five in 2012’ (op cit: 54). As a consequence:

Stories on immigration frequently focused on political infighting over the management of immigration, as well as reactions to official government reports and statistics. However, our analysis demonstrates that though political sources once again strongly framed the debate, stories about immigration also occasionally gave voice to a broader and more diverse range of sources, including immigrants and asylum seekers, as well as members of the public (ibid: 53).

In the Cardiff researchers’ view, sources for stories on this topic were carefully balanced, but in such a way as to present immigration ‘primarily as a topic on which there were arguments for and against, rather than a broader range of views’ (ibid: 59). Such stories tended to focus on specific cases rather than on how ‘the larger story of how immigration may affect British society for better or worse. Just as in the case of the EU debate, the broader context, in terms of both information and opinions, has limited presence in the BBC programming we examined’ (ibid: 63). However, the lesson which the Trust chose to draw from this part of the research was that:

Whilst the choice of stories can never be expected to be chosen in proportion to public interest the Trust was interested to note that Cardiff University’s research suggested that the number of stories on immigration did not appear to reflect the level of public concern on the issue, which has consistently appeared in the top five when people are asked by Ipsos MORI to name the most important issue facing the country. The BBC executive will wish to reflect on the nature and amount of its coverage on this subject (op cit: 10).

A range of people and organisations’

The main questions raised, albeit in different ways, by the Bridcut report and the Cardiff research are: if a wider spectrum of views is to be represented across BBC output, how wide should that spectrum be, and to what extent should political views which fall outside the Westminster consensus be included? Although this is nowhere stated explicitly, these questions inform the independent assessment undertaken by Stuart Prebble for the Trust and included in its breadth of opinion review. Prebble explains that in order to compile his report he identified

... a range of people and organisations operating within the subject areas which provide our focus – the EU, immigration, and religion and belief; people with a point of view who might not feel that their own or similar voices had been sufficiently represented on the airwaves. I would contact as wide a range of opinions as I reasonably could, and invite them to tell us whether they felt their views were represented appropriately, or under- represented, on the BBC. Then I would do what I could to investigate individual concerns (BBC Trust 2013: 25).

On the topic of immigration he argues that although mainstream politicians have been reluctant to raise the issue (a judgement with which many would strongly disagree), it is a subject of widespread concern within the community, so much so that ‘only the economy is seen by the public to be a more significant issue’. However, he argues, ‘despite the demonstrably high levels of popular concern, advocates of the need for a public debate on the subject have felt that the BBC has been hesitant in the past in raising it’ (ibid: 27).

So, what range of people and organisations outside the BBC did Prebble contact to discuss immigration? Those quoted either directly or indirectly in his report are Sir Andrew Green and Alp Mehmet (both of Migration Watch), Robin Aiken (author of the book Can We Trust the BBC?), Rod Liddle, University of Lincoln academic and former BBC correspondent Barnie Choudhury (in the context of a controversial Today piece, commissioned by Liddle, on no-go areas for whites in Oldham), and Frank Field and Nicholas Soames (in their role as co-chairs of the Cross Party Group on Balanced Migration). Sir Andrew, according to Prebble, who mentions him no less than thirteen times, ‘has struggled over many years ... to get an appropriate hearing on the BBC’ (ibid: 28). Yet we discover that in February 2005 Helen Boaden (Director, Radio, and until recently Director, BBC News) invited him to speak to BBC editors, and that he was invited again a year later by Boaden’s then-Deputy, Stephen Mitchell, to address editors in BBC Radio (ibid: 29). Field and Soames, who are mentioned four times each, ‘claim that their appearances, or indeed of anyone representing their point of view, are few in relation to the importance of the topic they are raising. When they or colleagues with the same views do appear, they claim, they are sometimes treated by the interviewer in a more combative fashion than are their opponents’ (ibid: 29).

Muted voices

In other words, not a single figure from among the BBC’s many critics who claim that BBC news programmes are far too prone to follow the anti- immigration agenda set daily by much of the press, and that the BBC should spend more time probing the bona fides of Migration Watch as a self-proclaimed independent and non-political body and less in giving it a platform for its far- from-disinterested views. Thus it is hardly surprising that Prebble ends up asking: ‘Is it fair to say, as some of the BBC’s critics do, that its coverage assumes a disposition sympathetic to immigration, and that it excludes from the airwaves a range of the voices which might oppose aspects of it?’ (ibid: 32), when one could equally well ask if its coverage assumes a disposition unsympathetic to immigration, and if it excludes voices which are in favour of it. Such critics most certainly exist, but, particularly given the nature of the British press, their voices are considerably more muted than critics of the kind with which Prebble has concerned himself. Indeed, at one point Prebble himself lists a number of Panorama programmes which might well back up these critics’ views: ‘My Big Fat Fake Wedding’ (sham weddings involving immigrants); ‘Breaking into Britain’ (routes followed by those trying to get into Britain); ‘Britain’s Child Beggars’ (the exploitation of children by criminal gangs from Romania); ‘Britain’s Secret Health Tourists’ (foreigners coming to Britain to use the NHS); ‘Britain’s Crimes of Honour’ (so-called ‘honour crimes’).

Given the above list, even Prebble is forced to conclude that, ‘taken in conjunction with other coverage of the subject on TV and radio, it seems difficult to sustain the charge that the BBC is suppressing voices critical of aspects of immigration into the UK’ (ibid: 34). Nonetheless, he seems to be constantly at pains to suggest that such a charge is, indeed, sustainable.

The full context’

Take, for example, his analysis of a Today piece by BBC Home Editor Mark Easton, which suggested that the phenomenon known as ‘white flight’ is not necessarily the result, as is habitually suggested by most newspapers, of white people moving out of neighbourhoods as non-white populations move in, but may also be explained in terms of working class aspiration and economic success. One of the participants in the item, Professor Danny Dorling, is described, entirely unnecessarily, as having been dubbed by Simon Jenkins as ‘Geographer Royal by Appointment to the Left’, and the presence of the former Labour MP Oona King as the other participant in the item calls forth the judgement that this was ‘perhaps not a perfect example of balance between differing points of view, or of a range of opinions’ (ibid: 37). But for Prebble, the main problem appears to be that, judging from comments on the BBC website, a section of the audience strongly disagreed with Easton’s analysis. Another dissenter was the ubiquitous Sir Andrew Green, whose letter to Helen Boaden is quoted as ‘expressing disappointment at the handling of this topic today which seemed to be blind to the real concerns of the public’ (ibid). Prebble concludes that this episode ‘underlines the need for BBC reporters to take even greater care than usual to anticipate potential responses and provide the full context when reporting on these sensitive areas’ (ibid: 38).

However, it’s by no means clear what is meant by the ‘full context’. But perhaps a clue can be gleaned from a comment about other Today items on immigration, of which he remarks that ‘if there is a criticism to be made, it is perhaps that the coverage is largely dry and clinical, and more about statistics and the performance of the official agencies, than it is about the impact of all this on the wider community’ (ibid: 34). He continues:

What may be missing from the Today coverage is much sense of what the impact of immigration is on the ground. In the period reviewed, the people mainly expressing concern about immigration levels are Sir Andrew Green from Migration Watch, Jon Cruddas (Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham) and Peter Lilley (Conservative MP for Hitchin and Harpenden). Given its importance as an issue to the country at large, perhaps Today’s reporters might have been used more extensively not just to illustrate and enliven but to examine and underpin the stories. Longer pieces about pressure on services, on land, on cultural stresses and changes would also create their own, off-diary, stories, allowing the programme to rely less on following the newspaper or newsgathering diary agenda (ibid: 35).

Prebble does not actually use that patronising phrase ‘ordinary people’, but the gist of his argument does appear to be that the BBC should air more of their views on why immigration is such a bad thing. However, anyone looking at the comments under immigration stories on the BBC website will see that these views are present in such abundance, and with such vehemence, that it might be mistaken for the BNP website. Indeed, it could be argued that, rather than seeking out more anti-immigration views (not exactly a difficult job) to put on air, the BBC would be better employed moderating the comments on its website – not as an exercise in censorship but in the kind responsible editorial judgement to be expected of a public service broadcaster.

Knowledge and belief

The real problem here for the BBC is that every single reliable piece of research which has been carried out in the UK into public perceptions of issues related to immigration shows a lamentable degree of ignorance about the subject. For example, in its end of year review for 2013, Ipsos MORI found that respondents calculated that black and Asian people made up 30 per cent of the population, whilst the actual figure is 11 per cent, whilst the proportion of the population who are Muslims was thought to be 24 per cent as opposed to 5 per cent (see http://www.slideshare.net/IpsosMORI/ipsos-mori-great-britain-the-way-we- live-now). Given the prevalence of such beliefs, it is hardly surprising that many people do indeed blame stresses on local services and shortages of housing on what they call ‘immigrants’ (many of whom were actually born here). However, even though such an ‘explanation’ is reinforced on a daily basis by most of the national press, that doesn’t make it any the more valid, nor does it detract from the fact that far more plausible culprits are savage cuts in local authority spending and regressive housing and land policies (all of which are vociferously supported by most of the national press). So, the question for the BBC is: should the fact that a particular point of view, however ill-informed, is widely held, guarantee it a place on the spectrum of views regularly represented across BBC output?

An impressively wide range of programming’

Prebble follows a similar line on Britain and the EU, noting that the dominance of mainstream political sources ‘meant that there were fewer opportunities for non-party political opinions to be expressed’ (op cit: 41). As a consequence:

Those in favour of a vigorous debate on the subject of British withdrawal from the EU believe that the BBC, in the past at least, has not given it the coverage it merits. Such debate as there has been, they claim, has been weighted to discussion between those who generally agree that the UK should remain in the EU, albeit with renegotiated terms. The ‘withdrawalist’ tendency has, it is claimed, had more popular support within the country than has been reflected either by politicians, or in the news (ibid).

However, when Prebble himself goes on to produce a list of BBC programmes in order to point to the ‘impressively wide range of programming in which it has examined the EU from different angles’ (ibid: 45), those he cites all fit into the problem/threat category identified by the Cardiff research, whilst several have a distinctly Eurosceptic tinge. The list includes television programmes in which Robert Peston ‘examined the costs of the dream of monetary union’; ‘self-confessed “confirmed Eurosceptic”’ Michael Portillo went to Greece and interviewed ‘a very broad range of local opinion and which questioned the survival of the EU’; John Humphrys interviewed ‘a wide variety of Greek voices’; Andrew Neil questioned Britain’s application of European human rights laws; and Panorama looked at whether the EU’s vast farm subsidy system was working, broadly concluding that it was not doing so, at least as far as Britain was concerned – the programme’s introduction asking: ‘Why are we paying out millions of pounds in public money and asking for virtually nothing in return?’ Meanwhile Radio 4 programmes included a File on 4 which examined the cost of the EU; The EU Debate, in which former UK Permanent Representative to the EU Sir Stephen Wall ‘faced the arguments of four persuasive Eurosceptics’; an edition of Analysis entitled ‘Eurogeddon’; a programme which asked how widespread Euroscepticism was in the Labour Party; and This Eurosceptic Isle, which examined the reasons for the rise in British Euroscepticism (ibid: 45).

Specifically with regard to UKIP, he notes that in 2012, Today sent Evan Davis to the UKIP conference in Birmingham and carried ‘an unusually long package’, in which he interviewed a ‘healthy mix of conference attendees’ (ibid). UKIP representatives appeared on Question Time five times in the six months from October 2012 and twice on Any Questions? EU budget negotiations, increasingly strident calls for an in/out referendum in the UK, and the Eurozone crisis, put the EU high up the news agenda in the final months of 2012, and Nigel Farage was back on Question Time in January 2013. After that, as Prebble correctly observes, ‘coverage of the Eastleigh by-election in February and of May’s local elections led to a noticeable increase in UKIP appearances’ (ibid: 46).

It’s thus extremely hard not to read Prebble on the subject of the BBC and the EU without coming to the conclusion that anti-EU voices actually receive an extremely fair (some might say distinctly over-generous) hearing on the BBC. These are not simply ‘Eurosceptic’ voices from the two largest Westminster parties, but, as noted above, ‘withdrawalist’ voices from UKIP, which currently has no MPs at all. Now, if one agrees with Bridcut and Prebble that political voices on the BBC should not be confined to those of the main Westminster parties, then this is not in itself problematic. But it does immediately raise the question of why, among the minority parties, UKIP should be singled out for special treatment.

Party political imbalance

For example, why should not the Green Party be treated equally generously? This has one member in the Commons, one in the Lords, and two in the European Parliament. At the 2010 General Election it polled 265,187 votes (0.96 per cent of the total), and at the European Parliament Elections in 2009 it secured 1,223,303 votes (8.7 per cent of the total). Meanwhile UKIP has no members in the Commons, three in the Lords, and nine in the European Parliament. At the 2010 General Election it polled 919,471 votes (3.1 per cent of the total) and at the European Parliament Elections in 2009 it secured 2,498,226 votes (16.5 per cent of the total). In terms of local authorities, UKIP holds 135 seats on County Councils and the Green Party 19; the figures for Unitary Authorities are UKIP 23 and the Green Party 35; for the London Borough Councils UKIP 11 and the Green Party two; for the Metropolitan Borough Councils UKIP four and the Green Party 21; for the District Councils UKIP 44 and the Green Party 62; for the Scottish Unitary Authorities UKIP none and the Green Party 14; and the Welsh Unitary Authorities UKIP two and the Green Party none. Overall, at local level, UKIP have 219 seats and the Green Party 153 (see http://www.gwydir.demon.co.uk/uklocalgov/makeup.htm).

By this token, the Green Party should be sourced almost as frequently as UKIP by the BBC, but this manifestly is not the case. In its defence, the BBC might argue that UKIP’s policies are of greater popular concern than those of the Green Party, but this could be at least partly because the BBC has given a great deal more space to UKIP than to the Green Party.

The knowledge gap

Furthermore, if the BBC really is determined to give yet more space to the ‘withdrawalist’ perspective, it will need, as in the case of the anti-immigration views discussed above, to come up with a very convincing answer to the question raised by what, for the sake of politeness, we will call the knowledge gap regarding the EU. According to Eurobarometer 75 (Spring 2011), of all the members of the EU, the British are the most ignorant about it. In 15 of the 27 EU Member States a majority claim to understand its nature and workings. In the UK, 58 per cent of respondents claim not to understand how it works, representing, along with Malta, the highest level of ignorance in the EU. Two- thirds of Europeans know that the EU consists of 27 members. With the sole exception of the UK, at 48 per cent, an absolute majority in each of the EU countries calculated the number of member states correctly. 62 per cent of Europeans think of themselves as citizens of the EU. This is a minority opinion in only four states, the UK, Greece, Bulgaria and Latvia, with the UK scoring lowest at 41 per cent. Hand in hand with ignorance of the EU goes hostility to it. In 22 of the EU’s 27 members, a majority believe that EU membership is beneficial. In the UK this is a minority view, since only 35 per cent of those questioned thought it was beneficial, whilst 54 per cent took the opposite view. 40 per cent of Europeans state that they have a positive image of the EU. The percentage of positive opinions is equal to or above the EU average in 13 member states, and below the average in fourteen states, especially the UK at 22 per cent. In the EU as a whole, 41 per cent state that they tend to trust the EU whilst 47 per cent express distrust. In the UK the corresponding figures are 24 per cent and 63 per cent (see http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/eb/eb75/eb75_publ_en.pdf).

Now, rather than inviting yet more Europhobes on to the airways, the BBC should seriously ponder its own contribution to this knowledge vacuum. As a start, it should ban locutions such as the following, which are absolutely habitual across its services: ‘Talking on The Andrew Marr Show, Mr Cable agreed with Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg that a proposed cap of 75,000 people coming to the UK from the EU would not work’ (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-25484056). This should of course read ‘coming to the UK from elsewhere in the EU’, but this infuriating semantic tic in BBC stories about the EU serves only to reinforce the profoundly mistaken belief (see above) that the EU is some kind of alien imposition upon the UK rather than an organisation of which the UK is a member. No doubt there are those British (or rather English) people who believe that they are not European in any sense at all, but since such a belief flies firmly in the face of at least two millennia of history and culture, there is no more reason to give it airtime (other than to interrogate it) than regularly to air the views of those who believe that the earth is flat and that the sun revolves around it.

A matter of opinion

The real question for the BBC here is whether it should be giving space to a wide range of informed views, or to ill-informed views which happen to be held by a significant number of people and are amplified daily by ideologically-driven newspapers. In this respect it should be noted that, in response to Professor Steve Jones’ assessment of the accuracy and impartiality of BBC science coverage, the BBC Trust agreed that ‘programme makers must make a distinction between well-established fact and opinion in science coverage and ensure the distinction is clear to the audience’ (BBC Trust 2011: 3) and that ‘there should be no attempt to give equal weight to opinion and to evidence’ (ibid: 7). Or as Jones himself put it:

Equality of voice calls for a match of scientists not with politicians or activists, but with those qualified to take a knowledgeable, albeit perhaps divergent, view of research. Attempts to give a place to anyone, however unqualified, who claims interest can make for false balance: to free publicity to marginal opinions and not to impartiality, but its opposite (ibid: 16).

There is surely every reason to apply such an approach to any other topic in which the actual facts of the case contradict mere opinion. After all, if one wants to hear the latter one simply has to go to the pub, pick up a newspaper or get on a bus – not pay a licence fee,

Searching the liberal soul

It’s very hard to read Prebble’s report and the Trust’s remarks about both it and the Cardiff analysis without sensing a pre-emptive defensiveness about the liberal values which the BBC’s numerous and vociferous enemies on the right never lose any opportunity to excoriate. These values aren’t mentioned specifically but are certainly implied in Prebble’s remark that ‘“people like us” work from an assumed consensus, which can have the effect of narrowing debate, and prevent us from gaining a real understanding of points of view we do not share’ (op cit: 62), and by the Trust’s conclusion that ‘we should guard against “group think” by asking ourselves whether we are including the widest possible range of voices and views, and by challenging our own assumptions about the shared consensus within which these debates should be conducted’ (op cit: 66).

But buried deep within all this searching of the liberal soul is actually a very simple and sensible proposition stated en passant by Prebble, namely that ‘perhaps it is not too paternalistic or patronising to conclude that it is the BBC’s job to inform the public of what they need to know in a democracy, whether they like it or not’ (op cit: 41). Indeed, and it’s what any rational person should expect from the BBC, as do those members of migrant communities interviewed for the audience research part of the Trust’s project who stated that they wanted...

... the public debate in ‘flagship media’ such as the BBC to move on from perception and possibly prejudiced emotional ‘opinion’ towards a real debate based on statistics and facts. These groups, particularly Muslim Asians, said that they regarded factual-based debate as their best defence in the dispelling of myths. They saw the role of the BBC as being to help everyone move towards a much fuller understanding of this controversial issue (op cit: 32).

Exactly the same should be true of any other issue with which the BBC deals.

Conclusions: Journalism and the Enlightenment project

If journalism is a modern-day expression of the Enlightenment project, and if the core purpose of that project is rational enquiry in order to explain the society and, indeed, the world in which we live, then the values which journalism must surely embrace are those of objectivity, impartiality, accuracy, truthfulness, and scepticism – particularly towards received opinion and ‘common-sense’ explanations of social reality. These are liberal values, but they are more a matter of methodology than of ideology, which is why it’s perfectly possible to be a Conservative or a socialist journalist and to embrace these values wholeheartedly.

But the problem for the BBC is that it exists in a culture in which these values have been wholly abandoned (if indeed they were ever embraced in the first place) by the vast bulk of the national press. To most of Britain’s newspapers, in which the distinction between news and views has collapsed, readers are told what editors think they want to hear, ‘flat earth news’ predominates, and the ideological compass points to the extreme right wing of the Tory party (and now, in some cases, straight towards UKIP), the BBC’s journalistic values must indeed seem anomalous. In truth, though, it is Britain’s national press which is the anomaly when judged in ‘normal’ (that is, Western European and North American) journalistic terms – indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to call it an aberration. It would be an absolute catastrophe for democratic debate in this country if pressure from this quarter, hideously tainted as it is, were to tempt the BBC to follow such a deviant journalistic path.

*IS THE BBC IN CRISIS? Edited by John Mair, Richard Tait and Richard Lance Keeble.


BBC Trust (2007) From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel: Safeguarding Impartiality in the 21st Century, London: BBC. Available online at
h t t p : / / w w w . b b c . c o . u k / b b c t r u s t / o u r _ w o r k / e d i t o r i a l _ s t a n d a r d s / i m p a r t i a l i t y / s a fe g u a r d i n g_impartiality.html, accessed on 27 December 2013

BBC Trust (2011) BBC Trust Review of Impartiality and Accuracy of the BBC’s Coverage of Science, London: BBC. Available online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/our_work/editorial_standards/impartiality/science_im partiality.html, accessed on 27 December 2013

BBC Trust (2013) A BBC Trust Review ofthe Breadth ofOpinion Reflected in the BBC’s Output, London: BBC. Available online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/our_work/editorial_standards/impartiality/breadth_o pinion.html, accessed on 27 December 2013

Berry, Mike (2013), Hard evidence: How biased is the BBC? The Conversation, 23 August. Available online at http://theconversation.com/hard-evidence-how-biased-is- the-bbc-17028, accessed on 27 December 2013

Wahl-Jorgensen, Karin et al (2013) BBC Breadth of Opinion Review: Content Analysis, University of Cardiff: Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. Available online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/our_work/editorial_standards/impartiality/breadth_o pinion.html, accessed on 27 December 2013

 If you want to keep OurBeeb debating the BBC, please chip in what you can afford.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData