European Scrutiny Committee



This is a guest post from Craig Byers of Is the BBC Biased?

One of the big BBC-related stories of the past week has been the appearance of Lord Hall, James Harding and David Jordan at parliament’s European Scrutiny Committee discussing the BBC’s policies in the light of the upcoming EU referendum.

Two parts of the discussion have dominated the media’s reporting of it:

The first was that “all BBC journalists” will be sent for “mandatory training” so that they become “as well-informed as possible of the issues around the workings of the institutions of the EU and its relationship to the UK”.

(So that’s John Humphrys, James Naughtie, Evan Davis, Kirsty Wark, Katya Adler, Jeremy Bowen, etc?)

The second concerned the meeting’s most heated moment – when Jacob Rees-Mogg confronted David Jordan (director of editorial policy and standards) over EU funding for the BBC – the reporting about which has been somewhat confusing (to my mind).

Mr Jordan began by replying that the BBC “doesn’t take money from the EU” and that the organisation that does take money from the EU (£35 million), Media Action, is “owned by the BBC” but “independent”.

On being pushed further (over a FoI request by The Spectator into EU funding for the BBC), however, things got murkier and Mr Jordan and Mr Rees-Mogg began to fall out:

David Jordan: There are two things you were referring to – the question that you asked last time, which was in relation to Media Action, so I answered…

Jacob Rees-Mogg: Well, I wasn’t actually. Last time I was asking about EU funds broadly, not Media Action.

David Jordan: Well, it’s that £35 million figure which you quoted which relates to the Media Action…

Jacob Rees-Mogg: But you replied about Media Action when I was asking about all EU funding….

Having watched their earlier exchange again, Mr Rees-Mogg is correct. He didn’t ask about Media Action or “quote” that £35 million figure earlier. Here’s how their discussion started:

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I just want to go back to a question we came to the last time you came to the committee, on the money that the BBC receives from the EU, which I know isn’t huge in your overall budget but which is still some tens of millions. One of the standard contractual terms when the EU hands out money is that those receiving money won’t say or do anything damaging to the interests of the EU. Does the BBC agree to those standard contractual terms and will they take money from the EU between now and the referendum?

David Jordan: The BBC as a public service broadcaster doesn’t take money from the EU. The organisation to which you’re referring that take money from the EU is an organisation called Media Action and that’s an independent part of the BBC with independent trustees……..

The committee’s chairman, however, only added to the confusion here by wrongly ascribing that “quote” about the £35 million to Mr Rees-Mogg himself shortly after, so maybe Mr Jordan’s apparent confusion on that point is more understandable:

William Cash: Why do you need to receive the £30 million I think that Jacob referred to…?

The disagreements continued, however, and David Jordan, in answer to pushing on that Spectator FoI request, said that independent companies who make programmes for the BBC also receive some EU funding and that the EU also funds some other things, such as translating programmes made in English into other EU languages (as seemed to have been the case with the highly controversial pro-EU mockumentary The Great European Disaster Movie).

Jacob Rees-Mogg: Look, you are now giving me a really different answer from the one you gave before. I never mentioned Media Action. I only mentioned EU funding. You gave an answer about overseas aid and now you’re saying the BBC does receive money to help with some of its programming and does receive money to translate some of its programming and you are therefore signed up to the contractual agreements from the EU that require you not to damage its interests. Why didn’t you give the full answer the first time.

David Jordan: I gave a very full answer about Media Action and now I’m giving a very full answer about how other funds are occasionally available for other programmes to make use of…

Jacob Rees-Mogg:…which you denied in response to my first question.

William Cash then told them to calm down and moved the discussion on – which is unfortunate, I think, as many issues were still left dangling in the air over the EU money that isn’t spent on Media Action. Mr Rees-Mogg still seemed unclear about that. I’m certainly unclear about it.

And does the BBC sign up to that contractual agreement with the EU when it accepts the funding for innocuous-sounding tasks like translations and those other aspects of programming (whatever they may be exactly), apparently always involving independent companies?

And what if those independent companies only produce pro-EU programmes for the BBC (like The Great European Disaster Movie?) How would that free the BBC from charges of pro-EU bias? Does their independence’ and the apparent fact that the EU money they get goes on things like translations really get the BBC off the hook here?

Such questions need a lot more scrutiny.

Why the BBC doesn’t monitor itself for bias

One of the less-reported things about the European Scrutiny Committee’s encounter with the three top BBC bosses was that it discussed something close to our hearts: monitoring bias.

What I took away from it was that after the Wilson Report into the BBC’s (pro-) EU coverage, the BBC had pledged to put some form of monitoring into place but that, having tried doing so, has now abandoned monitoring again and won’t be re-introducing it in the run-up to the EU referendum.

Sir Bill Cash, repeatedly citing News-watch’s close monitoring of the BBC’s EU coverage, argued that the BBC ought to be carrying out such monitoring and making its finding publicly available for people to check. He wants a Hansard-style logging system, comparable to News-watch’s extensive archive of transcriptions, and, given its huge budget and sheer size, wanted to know why the BBC isn’t doing so?

The most concise statement of the BBC’s position came from David Jordan, the BBC’s head of editorial policy and standards:

I think we gave up the monitoring that the chairman is talking about at the time because we found it to be actually very unhelpful and not helpful at all in even deciding and defining whether we were impartial.

And I think in the context of other appearances and elections we’ve discovered the same thing. For example, if you’re covering an election how do you define somebody who’s on a particular party but it opposing something that party is doing at the time they were appearing on the radio? Are they, as it were, in that party’s column or are they in another column that tells you what they were doing? It becomes very, very confusing and doesn’t necessarily sum up the nuances and differences that exist in election campaigns in our experience.

So that was the reason I think why we gave it up.

It was also very, very expensive and time-consuming too.

And we thought that allowing editors to be essentially responsible for impartiality in their output and having an overall view which we get through a series of meetings and discussions which take place in the BBC, were a better way to ensure we achieved impartiality that through simple number-counting.

I have to say I laughed when he said that such monitoring had proved to be “actually very unhelpful and not helpful at all”. Cynically, I thought, “I bet it wasn’t – especially if it came up with the ‘wrong’ results” (a bit like the Balen report?)

I didn’t buy his example either. For me, it’s hardly rocket science to, say, note in one column that Kate Hoey is a Labour Party representative and in another column to note that she’s anti-EU. I can’t see why that would be “very, very confusing”.

Also, I don’t buy the it’s “very, very expensive and time-consuming too” argument either. If a small number of people at News-watch can monitor and transcribe every EU-related interview on major BBC programmes over many, many years then surely an organisation of the size and resources of the BBC can run something similar for its major news bulletins and flagship programmes too. It’s not that difficult. I work full-time and still managed to monitor every political interview on all the BBC’s main current affairs programmes for nine months (in 2009-10) – and at no expense whatsoever!

Also, if you simply rely on editorial judgement – on both the small and large scales (in individual programmes and at senior editorial meetings) – then many individual biases could result and multiply. In an organisation containing so many like-minded people as the BBC, those biases would doubtless head in the same direction and become self-reinforcing. Therefore, they probably won’t be spotted as biases at all – merely sensible, impartial BBC thinking. Who then would be able to point out that it isn’t being impartial after all?

Given that many people think that this kind of groupthink the problem and that, as a result, the BBC are blind to their own biases, asking us to trust the judgements of BBC editors en masse isn’t likely to reassure us….

….which is where what David Jordan derisively calls “number-crunching” comes in.

If over a year of, say, Newsnight there are 60 editions that deal with the UK-EU relationship in some way. Say 55 of those editions featured a pro-Stay guest but only 35 featured a pro-Leave guest, then number-crunching surely would surely raise a serious question about the programme’s impartiality?

If, say, 9 of those pro-Leave guests came from UKIP and the other 26 came from the Conservatives but no pro-Leave Labour or Green guests appeared then that would also surely indicate a serious bias?

Is it really beyond the ability of programme editors to count and record such figures – and to then make them publicly available?

If their figures show exceptional impartiality (45 pro-Stay, 45 pro-Leave guests), then they will surely win more people over, wouldn’t they?

What would they have to lose?

The full transcript of the committee meeting is available here.

Kathy  Gyngell: In the BBC’s Alice in Wonderland world, criticism by MPs compromises its impartiality

Kathy Gyngell: In the BBC’s Alice in Wonderland world, criticism by MPs compromises its impartiality

Biased Today, biased yesterday and biased tomorrow,  the BBC  has much to answer for over its uncritical and inadequate EU coverage.

More than any other news outlet the BBC shapes and moulds public opinion. Over the years, it has inspired an unwarranted public confidence in the EU. It has been responsible for conveying a sense of the inevitability and necessity of British membership

Had it not so determinedly stuck to its view that the EU was ‘a good thing’,  a fact of life that anyone in their right mind should accept,  Britain might not be in the mess it’s in today.  We might not have uncontrolled immigration; we might be able to deport who we want when we want; and we might still have a vibrant fishing industry. That’s just three of the many areas over which we have lost national authority at great cost.

The  House of Commons all-party EU Scrutiny Committee’s report, published yesterday, which accuses  the BBC of ‘falling down severely’ in its obligation to provide impartial coverage of the EU, raises these questions.

Its findings confirm what many of us have been arguing for years – that BBC coverage of EU matters is deplorable, that it has a ‘concerning’ pro-EU bias, and that Eurosceptics have been given inadequate airtime.  Specifically the MPs criticise Lord Hall for failing in his role as the BBC’s editor-in chief .

All this rings a profound bell with me, just as does the arrogance of the BBC’s response.  The crux of it is that the BBC cannot be criticised because (in their perverse world) any criticism by MPs (however valid it may be) constitutes a breach of the Corporation’s independence. It can’t be seen to follow MPs criticism – no, not even if it is right.

I wonder which Propaganda (sorry Press) Officer there dreamed this excuse up as he pondered the embargoed document before publication? I know that nothing should surprise me but I am amazed that Lord Hall signed off such a response for release. Perhaps for this particular editor-in-chief,  intent and belief are adequate substitutes for whatever is actually broadcast.  During his appearance before the Committee, his claim that the desire for balanced output “ran deep” within the BBC and that he believed that this was being achieved now, sounded like weasel words.  It isn’t being achieved.

This is far from the first time that the BBC has stonewalled criticism about its EU coverage.  I have in my files copies of an ongoing correspondence with Helen Boaden, the then Controller of Radio Four, back in the early 2000s. Like today’s BBC spokesperson, her response that the Corporation provided extensive and impartial coverage of European and Parliamentary issues was (or should be, she thought) sufficient unto the day.

Boaden refused to consider the consistently logged, timed, comprehensive transcript evidence and analysis,  that we (Minotaur Media Tracking) sent her, as evidence.  In her thinking no external monitoring of BBC output could or would ever constitute evidence – however objective or impartial – because the BBC editorial process meant that the BBC was always impartial – and therefore above criticism. It’s surprising to find she has a degree in English literature;  the concept of tautology could not have featured in her studies.

Despite Lord Wilson’s subsequent critical report, despite the cumulative log of evidence of BBC bias by News-watch, despite the fact that this is far from the first time that the BBC has been called to account, the BBC never wavers in it pre-programmed ‘Boaden’-style response. It refuses to harbour any self doubt – not a smidgeon.

Lord Hall has taken a leaf out of Ms Boaden’s book. “As Lord Hall told the committee, we are and will be impartial in all matters concerning our coverage,” the BBC spokesman said.

James Harding, the BBC’s Director of News and `Current Affairs, was not backward in going on the offensive either. His ‘Aunt Sally’ was that if the public was going to trust the BBC to report on politicians impartially it had to be clear that BBC journalists weren’t “asked by politicians to come and account for what they do and in effect do the bidding of those politicians”.

True to form the Today programme thought there was nothing to defend either.

In its own inimitable way yesterday morning’s edition of Today devoted 8 minutes to a Mark Knopfler record plug but nothing to the EU Scutiny Committee’s report that just happened to criticise the BBC on a subject of fundamental importance to every British citizen!

This article first appeared on The Conservative Woman

Photo by John Christian Fjellestad

Liddle: Patten ‘ordered to give EU coverage evidence’

Liddle: Patten ‘ordered to give EU coverage evidence’

Former BBC R4 Today editor Rod Liddle has noted that speaker John Bercow has ordered BBC Chairman Lord Patten to give evidence to the Commons European Scrutiny Committee
about the corporation’s EU coverage.
Liddle picked up in his Sunday Times column that Mr Bercow – responding to a question from Labour eurosceptic Kate Hoey – stated:
“I must say that anybody who is invited to appear before a Committee of this House should do so. No one, however senior, should imagine him or herself above such scrutiny. That is a very important principle.”
Andrew Lansley, leader of the House noted:
“I am aware of what the hon. Lady is talking about. I note from Lord Patten’s correspondence with the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee that he expressly did not rely on the fact that he is a Member of the House of Lords in this regard. I will have conversations with the Committee’s Chair and the BBC on the matter, because there is a difference between independence for the BBC, which we absolutely must respect, and accountability, which should enable this House to ask reasonable questions.”
Mr Liddle, in his column, asserted:
“It (Lord Patten’s response) will be interesting because there is not a single British public figure I can think of – not even Ken Clarke, not even Tony Blair – who was more in thrall to the EU than Fatty Pang (the Chinese nickname for Lord Patten when he was governor of Hong Kong). And it will be interesting, too, because the corporation’s director general until September last year , Mark Thompson, accepted there had been a bias against those of eurosceptic…viewpoints.
“It is par for the course for departing DGs to announce airily that the BBC did exhibit bias on one issue or another , terribly sad, hopefully everything’s tickety-boo now, and so on….But the joy of having Lord Patten appear before a committee is that he will be forced to justify a current bias; forced to defend the corporation’s viewpoint – which was once expressed to me – is that those who oppose the EU are ‘all mad’.”
Lord Patten’s response to the EU Scrutiny Committee is here. 
The full chain of correspondence between Lord Patten and the committee is here.
News-watch evidence about the BBC response to the European committee includes this.

Photo by Nanagyei

BBC Chairman ‘disgracefully’ stonewalls EU Scrutiny Committee

BBC Chairman Lord Patten has refused to give evidence to the Commons European Scrutiny Committee about the BBC’s coverage of EU affairs.
His refusal follows an earlier Scrutiny Committee hearing in which Newswatch gave evidence that the BBC was failing in its Charter duty to report EU affairs to an extent that allowed audiences to understand properly the issues involved.
Scrutiny Committee chairman Bill Cash followed up by asking Lord Patten to appear before his members to explain why the BBC was apparently under-reporting such a vital area of public policy. Conservative MP Philip Hollobone, in a question to Bill Cash on the floor of the House said:
“The British public not only expect us to scrutinise EU legislation in this place but want to see us doing it. Does my hon. Friend find it extraordinary that the chairman of the BBC Trust should refuse to appear before his Committee? Does that not send a very bad signal to all the other Select Committees of this House, and what can we, as the House of Commons, do about it?”
Mr Cash replied:
“This is all covered in the report—we make extensive reference to it and include the correspondence that was exchanged between the chairman of the BBC Trust and me, as Chairman of the Committee. I think that most people would conclude that his not appearing voluntarily before the Committee to give evidence was really quite disgraceful.”
Newswatch primary evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee is here:
And the supplemental evidence is here: 
The report of the European Scrutiny Committee containing reference to Lord Patten’s refusal to appear before
The debate about the European Scrutiny committee containing Philip Hollobone’s question is here: