A new detailed survey conducted by News-watch of the BBC First complaints handling process shows that the procedure is unfit for purpose. It expands on the submission made by News-watch to the DCMS at the invitation of then Secretary of State Nadine Dorries in July 2022 in connection with the BBC Mid-term Review.
MICHAEL Grade – Baron Grade of Yarmouth – becomes chairman of Ofcom today.
He takes over days after Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries published Up Next, her White Paper on the future of broadcasting.
Main points include that the current BBC licence fee funding regime will eventually come to an end, Channel 4 will be privatised and that ‘TV-like’ content will be subject to ‘harmful content’ restrictions regulated and policed by Ofcom.
Lord Grade – who takes the Conservative whip in the House of Lords – has a formidable industry track record, from being director of programmes of the former ITV company LWT in the 1970s, controller of BBC1 and chief executive of Channel 4 in the 1980s and 90s, to chairman of the BBC and then executive chair of ITV in the noughties.
It is rumoured in Westminster that he intends to be especially tough on the BBC and in particular to use Ofcom’s regulatory leverage over the BBC to ensure impartiality. He apparently has the full backing of Mrs Dorries, who, it is understood, pushed hard for his appointment.
On issues such as diversity and climate alarm, BBC troops see themselves as warriors of change and activists rather than chroniclers of events.
Changing the licence fee could have a powerful corrective impact, but there is no definite date or detail as yet. So in the short term, the only hope of rooting out bias is through Ofcom.
Against this background, in the 22,000 words of the White Paper, there are only six mentions of impartiality. The key passage at Chapter 2, section 1 states:
‘Looking forward, the government also wants to see the BBC taking steps to reform over the next six years. This includes taking action to improve on its impartiality, which is central to the BBC’s Mission and to maintaining trust with audiences. In that context we welcome the BBC’s 10-Point Impartiality and Editorial Standards Action Plan, published in October 2021, which aims to raise standards by ensuring that BBC programmes and content are fair, accurate, unbiased, and reflect the UK public. Alongside this, the BBC adopted the findings of the Serota Review into the BBC’s governance and culture in full. While the Action Plan is a good start, changes are necessary and they need to be delivered.’
Does that suggest definite action of the sort required? Only time – and Lord Grade – will determine.
His task, though, is Herculean.
Ofcom’s track record as BBC regulator – which it became at the start of the current Charter in 2017 – can only be described as complacent and inept. One of its key tasks in this domain is as appeals body on complaints. But in the four years since it took over, the Content Board has decided to investigate only six of the hundreds referred to it; none has been upheld. This chart illustrates vividly how dire the position is:
Also in Lord Grade’s in-tray related to impartiality is the Jewish bus incident on December 1 last year. A party of Jewish youths innocently celebrating Hanukkah in Oxford Street were terrorised and spat at by racist thugs. The BBC initially claimed they had evidence which showed that the attack had been at least partially provoked by an anti-Islamic insult from someone on board the bus. The Jewish community was outraged, and eventually the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit issued a highly-qualified apology of the sort routinely deployed to make issues go away.
More than three months on, the Content Board has not yet published its findings. This defies belief. With the board having never yet ruled against the BBC, the suspicion is growing that that the inquiry announcement was a PR ploy to deflect criticism.
This is just a starter in the list of mammoth tasks Lord Grade will face in the coming months.
News-watch is battling the Information Commissioner and the BBC about the Corporation’s refusal to release basic information about how it collects data about impartiality and the subjects of complaints made by the public about programmes.
The long drawn-out fight was the focus this week (2 February) of an appeal before a first-tier tribunal by News-watch against the Information Commissioner. A ruling on the matter is expected within 28 days.
The process began in March 2020 when News-watch requested further information about a survey contained in the BBC’s annual reports and accounts for 2018/19 showing that 52 percent of respondents to an IPSOS MORI poll commissioned by the BBC thought the Corporation provided ‘impartial news’ but only 44 percent turned to the BBC if they wanted impartial news.
The extra information requested under FoI included the details of the brief given to IPSOS Mori, the nature of the sample who were asked and the details of how the results were collated and interpreted. This was considered by News-watch to be a matter of major public interest because such data is used by BBC as proof that its output – despite claims to the contrary – is indeed impartial.
In parallel, News-watch also asked for the release of all complaints made to the BBC from 2015 to the present about impartiality on the ground that the Corporation only makes public the topics of those which it deems fit to do so.
The BBC refused the application point bank, principally on the ground that it has a derogation from the FOI Act which allows a refusal if the material involved is held for the purposes of ‘journalism, art or literature’. News-watch appealed to the Information Commissioner against the ruling, but he broadly upheld the BBC’s stance and it was at that stage that News-watch appealed against him.
David Keighley, Managing Director of News-watch, commented:
“The BBC claims to be making efforts to be more impartial, so it is a matter of huge concern to licence-fee payers that it is so secretive about how it gauges that it is not biased, and also will not tell the public the content of the majority of complaints it receives about impartiality.
“News-watch has demonstrated that the BBC complaints process as it currently operates is not fit for purpose and stonewalls the vast majority of audience concerns. The purpose of this legal action is to force the Corporation to become more open and to stop this absurd claim that this sort of data should be confidential.”
News-watch monitored the 18 hours of original programming broadcast by GB News between 6am and midnight on 6 July 2021 and compared its coverage of the government’s Nationality and Borders Bill on eleven of the BBC’s main television and radio programmes, along with the BBC News Channel, amounting to 27 hours and 10 minutes of BBC airtime.
The survey set out to assess whether the BBC was meeting its public purpose obligation to provide ‘a range and depth of analysis and content not widely available from other United Kingdom news providers.’
In October 2020 News–watch began reviewing, cataloguing and fully transcribing all content published online by BBC Ideas. By the survey’s end, on the third anniversary of the service’s launch, 11 January 2021, this amounted to 599 individual films with a combined running time of 37 hours 13minutes, generating over 371,000 words of transcription.
News-watch monitored ten BBC news and current affairs programmes for eight days, from Monday 6 July 2020 to the launch of the government’s ‘The UK’s New Start: Let’s Get Going’ campaign on Monday 13 July. The BBC Radio 4 broadcasts in the survey were: Today; The World at One (including The World This Weekend on Sunday); PM; The Six O’Clock News; and The World Tonight. The television programmes comprised the main BBC1 bulletins (News at One, News at Six and News at Ten and the Weekend News); BBC 2’s Newsnight; and three daily editions of Newsround on the CBBC channel.
News-watch monitored Radio 4’s Today programme in full from the dissolution of Parliament on Wednesday 6 November until the eve of polling on Wednesday 11 December 2019, an interval of five weeks and one day. This coincided with the period in which the BBC’s Election Guidelines were in effect, applicable to all the Corporation’s outlets, which set out its obligation to ensure that political parties are covered ‘proportionately’ during the campaign.
News-watch monitored all editions of Today over a seven week interval, starting on the day campaigning for the 2019 European Parliamentary Elections began, Friday 12 April 2019 and culminating on Thursday 30 May 2019, a week after the UK vote. The 42 consecutive editions of Today were recorded and listened to in full, and a detailed running log was compiled of all the items broadcast. Each was timed and categorised by theme, and all sequences relating to the EU, the European Parliamentary Elections or Brexit were fully transcribed, generating almost 333,000 words of text.