Thursday was ‘the big day’ at the BBC, and yesterday morning’s Today was all over Mr Whittingdale’s Charter Review report.
Did the BBC treat the story impartially?
Well, on Today there was Lib Dem peer Lord Lester QC sticking up for the BBC. And Labour’s Tessa Jowell sticking up for the BBC. And former BBC, Sky and ITV employee Professor Lis Howell half-criticising and half-sticking up for the BBC. And BBC presenter Nick Robinson not exactly firing, in ‘devil’s advocate’-style, on all impartial cylinders either.
They did have the SNP’s John Nicholson, for ‘balance’ though, demanding a Scottish News at Six – and getting a rough ride from Mishal Husain in the process. ‘Who wants that?’ was Mishal’s basic point. (A fair point, probably).
And then came The World at One on BBC Radio 4. And that was even worse.
After a short review of events in Parliament came a discussion between the BBC’s Martha Kearney and Steve Hewlett of the Guardian/BBC Radio 4’s Media Show, which suggested the Charter review wasn’t as bad as the BBC and its supporters feared, but that there are still issues of concern for them.
Then came a much shorter interview with Peter Bone MP, a BBC critic. It was the ‘balancing item’ -even though it lasted barely more more than a minute (the shortest interview by far).
Astonishingly, Martha forcefully stopped him in his tracks as as soon as he raised what he described as his “main concern”: BBC pro-EU bias. Martha clearly wasn’t going there for anything in the world. Realising that, Mr Bone just laughed.
Then came Jesse Norman MP saying that the government’s plan is great and the BBC is great.
Then came Labour-supporting former BBC Trust boss Sir Michael Lyons (not that Martha even hinted at such a thing) attacking the Government for going too far but saying that there is a problem with BBC bias: bias against Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn. A somewhat-startled-sounding Martha Kearney not only didn’t cut him off when he raised it (in contrast to how she treated Peter Bone when he tried to air his concerns about pro-EU BBC bias) but actually went on to press his pro-Labour ‘BBC bias’ point with Lord Hall.
And Lord Hall was the big WATO interview.
He didn’t agree with Sir Michael about the BBC’s anti-Corbyn bias (you won’t be surprised to hear), saying that the BBC is impartial (you also won’t be surprised to hear) and that the BBC brings “light to controversy”.
Lord Hall sounded pleased with what the Government has announced. The BBC’s Martha (gently) pressed him largely from a pro-BBC, Wolf Hall director Peter Kosminsky-type standpoint rather than an anti-BBC Andrew Bridgen MP-type standpoint.
And that was that: Lots of pro-BBC types having their say, plus (very briefly) Peter Bone.
Meanwhile over on BBC One’s News at One bulletin we got more of the same, plus three items on the EU referendum: Mark Carney of the Bank of England’s dire warnings of the economic dangers of voting to leave the EU came first. A little later came the Vote Leave/ITV spat over whether Nigel Farage should be involved in a TV debate with David Cameron. And finally, immediately before the sports news (i.e. as the last ‘serious’ news item), came the news that the ONS has finally conceded that immigration from the EU has been massively under-represented in the government’s official figures (not that the short BBC news item put it like that) – a point that many people have been saying might well give a huge boost to the Leave campaign.
So why did BBC One choose to ‘bury’ that story as a very short new item near the end of its lunch time news bulletin?
Wasn’t that Peter Bone’s point being proved?
And then came BBC’s News at Six.
BBC One’s News at Six began with another pro-Leave point: Bank of England governor Mark Carney’s dire warnings about a vote to leave the EU:
A warning from the Bank of England: Leaving the EU could trigger a recession.
The bulletin’s reporting was ‘impartial’ in the BBC sense, in that:
- (a) the bulletin kept using words like “stark” and “strong” to describe the governor’s comments.
- (b) the BBC’s economics editor Kamal Ahmed, after laying out Mr Carney’s anti-Brexit case in detail, said that “many economists agree with the Bank’s gloomy prognosis” and then featured one such economist doing just that…
- ‘…balanced’ by (c) a clip of Norman Lamont saying, very briefly, that Mr Carney is wrong…
- and then (d) BBC political reporter Alex Forsyth setting the context by saying that Mr Carney’s intervention is “undoubtedly a boost” to the Remain campaign as Mr Carney is “a senior, credible figure once again warning in no uncertain terms of the economic risks of leaving.
ITV’s early evening news bulletin also led with that pro-Leave point and, like Kamal Ahmed, ITV’s deputy political editor Chris Ship also laid out the governor’s concerns in some detail.
Unlike the BBC, however, Chris Ship also said “the truth is” that the economic forecasts aren’t great at the moment whichever way we vote, and his ‘talking heads’ included two people who disagreed with Mr. Carney: John Redwood and Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin – both making substantive points against the BoE governor.
ITV struck me as taking its ‘impartiality’ responsibilities far more seriously than the BBC there. The BBC felt outrageously one-sided in comparison.
And after giving us its Mark Carney coverage ITV then moved straight onto the EU immigration question – for many Brexiteers the big story of the day – and those ONS figures with Chris Ship giving us James Brokenshire on one side and Liam Fox on the other, plus talk of economists claiming immigration is good for us on one side and Leave supporters saying we can’t control our border on the side, plus mention of the “true scale” of immigration and the figures taking us into “unprecedented” territory.
The BBC, in contrast, didn’t move straight onto the EU immigration story. It moved on to other stories instead. And we had to wait until nearly the end of the bulletin again for the EU immigration story to appear. And, again, it was given short shrift.
The BBC newsreader, George Aligiah, introduced it as being a case of Leave campaigners “saying” and the ONS “clarifying”. It’s “quite complicated”, said George. Yes, it’s “not very easy”, said the BBC’s Tom Symonds. Tom said that “Eurosceptics say” it’s an underestimate but “the nation’s number-crunchers” have “tried to explain it today” as being just a matter of short-term migrants. He elaborated somewhat on the the ONS’s explanation, explaining their case in a tone of patient reasonableness. Then he said: Eurosceptics say this, the government says that.
‘BBC impartiality’ duly fulfilled. Story duly downplayed. For those who think that the government shamelessly ‘managed’ this story today (the ONS figures being released on the day the BBC was fixating on itself), this might suggest the government was ‘aided and abetted’ by the BBC here.
Is ITV biased? Is the BBC biased?
On the strength of this I’m definitely going with the latter.
Maybe the Charter review should have focused more on that.