BBC Director General Lord of Hall of Birkenhead, unusually for any big media organisation, is both managing director and its editor in chief. It gives him immense power.
His most important role in a general election is to ensure scrupulous political balance. The BBC Charter and electoral law require him to do so.
He recently told the Commons European Scrutiny Committee that he keeps track of news coverage through a daily briefing meeting and steps in fast if there are any issues of concern.
In this context, the Challengers’ debate on Thursday night was inevitably a key occasion. It is inconceivable that he did not personally discuss and approve the proposed format with his phalanxes of advisors.
So what does it say about Lord Hall and his editorial team that he and they ever thought the framing of this so-called ‘debate’ could be regarded as fair?
There has been much discussion of this in the media already and it has now emerged that Nigel Farage himself is consulting lawyers about especially the composition of the studio audience, which bayed with derision at him and cheered to the rafters the lefty extremism of Sturgeon and Co.
I will address that in more detail later, but there is a much deeper issue here. In crude terms, this ‘debate’ was – and could only ever have been – the broadcasting equivalent of a gang bang. This was predictable from a million miles away. It was four politicians with highly-publicised (especially by the BBC) and very similar anti-austerity, pro-immigration views ranged against one Nigel Farage.
The BBC held the debate because they could, not in the interest of fairness. Could it be seen as an act of revenge on the Conservatives for not agreeing to their desire for a full leaders’ debate? How else could they sign off on a programme that gave an inbuilt totally disproportionate 4-1 bias to the left wingers on the panel?
Senior BBC editors argue in defence of the continual bias against eurosceptics and EU come-outers that Nigel Farage is a big boy who is well able to defend himself against the insults he regularly receives from them.
And, in fact, this was a blue moon occasion on the BBC airwaves. Analysis of the 13,700-word transcript shows that Farage actually had the chance to talk more than few words about some core policies. He seized the opportunity with relish and with calmness under fire.
That said, everything else that followed was a travesty of fairness and balance. It defies belief that Lord Hall approved it. One measure is arithmetic: Farage contributed 2,756 words, 20% of those spoken. That means that those ranged against him commanded 80% of the airtime. Furthermore, time wasn’t apportioned equally between the other leaders as the debate moved on from the leaders’ formal, timed one-minute responses. This meant that Farage’s overall contribution was less than two thirds of Miliband’s 4,274 words, and that the Labour leader dominated the airtime, accounting for 31% of the total words spoken by the five leaders.
But the bias against Farage and the withdrawal perspective doesn’t end there. In this election, the British relationship with the EU is a central theme of the ‘right’. Ukip want to come out and the Conservative party has promised an in-out referendum.
So why on earth as there not a direct question about the EU? Farage would still have been howled down by Miliband and Co, but at least such a question would have forced them to declare their pro-EU stance and back it up with supportive facts.
Instead, the Ukip question was about immigration and housing. That meant that Sturgeon and Co could not only heap abuse on Farage, but also effortlessly frame their arguments in terms of their anti-austerity bleeding heart socialism. The way this unfolded was absolutely predictable: the set-up deliberately gave a platform for the left-wing torrent of anti-Ukip abuse that ensued.
It is here that Lord Hall has been most derelict in his duties. He and his advisors facilitated gross imbalance.
But in addition, this was a glaringly biased audience. David Dimbleby instantly denied this, but it has now emerged that ICM has consistently under-represented both the Conservative and Ukip vote. So why on earthy were they chosen as ‘independent’? The BBC response is that ICM was also used to select the ITV debate audience. This is a risible excuse. .
BBC news chiefs know full well – because the European Scrutiny Committee spelled it out last month – that many believe that their coverage of the EU is deeply flawed and biased. In that context, those who hired ICM should have been aware of their controversial track record and turned instead to an above-reproach pollster. That they did not is an indicator of arrogance or incompetence, or both.
A second issue relates to the use of the audience tracking ‘worm’, which was a feature of the debate coverage on the BBC News Channel last Thursday. This conveys instant audience reaction and – unsurprisingly given the overall composition of the audience – was especially negative when Farage spoke.
Yet In using it, the BBC was flying against the advice of academic research by psychologists at Bristol University who analysed use of the worm in the 2010 leadership debates. They found they have a strong and disproportionate power to sway voting intentions. The House of Lords communications committee considered the findings in depth and decided the fears were well-founded. As a result, they warned broadcasters that they should not be used in election debate coverage.
The BBC, of course, considers itself to be above any such strictures. They ignored the research itself, the House of Lords advice and a letter from the Bristol University written to the Guardian on April 13. It opined:
‘Our results….showed that the worm has a powerful influence both on voters’ opinions of who won the debate, and on their voting intentions. An unrepresentative worm poll, based on responses from only 20 to 50 people, has the potential to exert a strong influence on millions of viewers.’
This adds up to that Lord Hall is failing on multiple levels to fulfil his duties as Director General. The only conclusion can be that his organisation is engaged in a systematic effort to shut down elements of democratic debate, especially those related to the EU and immigration.