The BBC Trust recently embarked on an eight-week consultation on draft Editorial Guidelines for its coverage of the EU in/out referendum. This is News-watch’s submission. The proposed guidelines are here.
News-watch has been monitoring the BBC’s EU-related output for 16 years. Detailed research based on systematic analysis of relevant BBC programming using established academic principles has shown that the Charter requirements on impartiality have been serially breached. Most importantly, the case for withdrawal has been seriously under-reported, and those advocating Brexit have been pervasively cast as xenophobic, disorganised extremists from the ‘right’ or ‘far-right’. The archive of News-watch reports and elements of engagement with the BBC can be found at www.news-watch.co.uk. Over the entire period, the BBC Trustees have undertaken to examine the News-watch findings only twice. On each occasion, the Trustees adopted a highly biased approach to the research and clear evidence of breaches of impartiality were rejected on spurious grounds that suited the BBC but flouted rules of fair inquiry.
This submission is an attempt to persuade the Trustees to adopt in the proposed Editorial Guidelines a much more rigorous and demonstrably independent approach to ensuring impartiality during the referendum campaign.
The BBC Trustees and those tasked with investigating impartiality on their behalf have sought to cast monitoring as ‘unhelpful’ and based on ‘metrics’, and implied that such investigations concentrate solely on counting speaker appearances and calculating airtime allocation. This is a wilful misrepresentation of News-watch’s approach, which investigates impartiality using a range of analytical tools, both quantitative and qualitative, and has never focused on statistical data in isolation. The News-watch corpus of work provides abundant evidence that illustrates that the Trustees, by contrast, do not have in place adequate processes for properly ensuring that Charter requirements are met.
And indeed, the draft Referendum Guidelines reduce impartiality to achieving ‘broad balance’ – a simple metric focusing on headcounts – and ignore the vital consideration of how guest speakers are actually treated, including interview tone, question content, the number of interruptions, the positioning of speakers within individual reports, within programmes or within the overall schedule. Also, who is chosen for each side, and how well informed and articulate are they. Impartiality rests on a multitude of complex, interlocking factors, and News-watch is concerned that the measures outlined in the draft Referendum Guidelines for monitoring content will be ineffective in ensuring a fair hearing for both sides.
This EU referendum will result in a decision of immense constitutional importance. The proposed Guidelines document is too vague to deliver demonstrable impartiality. It leaves too much to the BBC’s own ‘editorial judgment’ applied in the loose and imprecise framework of ‘due’ impartiality. It has been written from the inside to accord with and defend the BBC’s own operational practices rather than as a rigorous framework to ensure genuinely independent regulation of content.
A major over-arching concern is whether the Trustees – who are the final arbiters of impartiality – are themselves sufficiently independent. Of course members of the Trust are appointed by DCMS and a condition is impartiality. But special considerations apply here. Only two of the five members of the Trust Editorial Standards Committee, Richard Ayre, and Mark Damazer, have extensive experience of working in a national newsroom. Yet both spent the majority of their careers at the BBC and have been and are major champions of the Corporation. They may claim to be ‘independent’ but this is not credible, and yet they will inevitably play a crucial role in determining issues of impartiality that arise during the campaign. We spend several years trying to persuade Mark Damazer to take a less Europhile approach, without success. Also, as far as we can see several of the Trustees are firmly in the ‘man-made climate change’ camp, an issue clearly linked to the EU, and we see no counterbalancing members. The Guidelines, in the exceptional circumstances of this referendum, should provide detail of how genuine independence of outlook will pertain to key judgments.
There is nothing in the Guidelines about transparency of process. Whilst obviously elements of the BBC’s decision-making are confidential for good operational reasons, public confidence in the editorial processes would be boosted if there was a greater degree of openness in how key judgments are going to be made through the referendum campaign. The output can only formally be challenged through the complaints procedure. It is a fact that since the Trustees first became the BBC’s regulatory body, they have not upheld through the ESC a single complaint about EU coverage. The BBC is judge and jury in terms of its own editorial balance. Against that background, measures should be included in which decision-making is open to retrospective scrutiny and which demonstrate that legitimate outside concerns about balance will be taken into account.
The key provisions contained in section 3.1 of the draft document are too vague to provide a reliable framework to ensure impartiality. The BBC should be aiming in this historic constitutional debate to achieve genuine impartiality (not just ‘due’) between the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps. News-watch has provided extensive evidence to the Commons European Scrutiny Committee that the ‘due’ word has been the justification for major imbalances within EU coverage. As things stand, nothing in the Guidelines will redress this. A further problem is that the requirement for impartiality is framed in relation only to a ‘broad balance’ and the need for the inclusion of a ‘range of voices’. This gives editors enormous leeway in exercising their judgment and makes outside challenge almost impossible. The ‘broad balance’ principle is further extended because it is stipulated in the Guidelines that it can potentially be achieved across strands or channels. This could lead, for example, to the 8.10 Today interview being ‘balanced’ by something much lower down in the running order. This is clearly wrong.
A major issue relating to EU-related coverage that is not spelled out in the Guidelines at all is the need for exact terminology. In one particular area this is absolutely crucial. The News-watch archive demonstrates that in BBC programming, the term ‘European Union’ has very frequently wrongly been used interchangeably with ‘Europe’. The inaccuracy has even extended to the Trustees’ own annual poll about whether the BBC informs audiences about ‘Europe’. Of course this looseness reflects to an extent colloquial usage. But in the referendum campaign terminological precision will be vital. Those against the EU, for example, are frequently cast as xenophobes who are against ‘Europe’. Such lines of attack will need to be rigorously challenged, but there is no requirement in the Guidelines that there must be heightened, constant vigilance to prevent breaches of impartiality in this way.
The BBC has ruled out in evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee the inclusion of monitoring as a means of assessment during the referendum campaign. This is confirmed in the Guidelines in that they make no mention of any monitoring processes other than through internal editorial judgment. That is a gaping hole in the assessment process. Without rigorous, structured monitoring based on academic principles, impartiality cannot demonstrably be achieved. For example, how can the editor of a daily programme, who is charged under the Guidelines with achieving such balance over the course of the week, keep track? With the Today programme (for example), that means running analysis of dozens of items. Who is going to do this work? Will it be a separate responsibility for the duration of the campaign with personnel allocated accordingly? 3.1 rules out ‘stopwatch’ and ‘mathematical’ measurements but what other ways of assessing impartiality between two sides are there? It is not spelled out.
A major unanswered question is how the trap of covering the campaign through the Westminster bubble will be avoided. Polls show that public opinion is heavily anti-EU in its apparent support for mass immigration. How are such views (for example) going to be taken into account? On the other hand, the leadership of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties are all likely to be in the ‘stay in’ camp, and possibly the majority of MPs (most Labour plus all SNP, all Liberal Democrats, and half of the Conservative PLP). How will this lack of accord between public opinion and their Parliamentary representatives be reflected and dealt with? And how will UKIP be handled in that it is the majority party in the UK contingent at the European Parliament, but has only one MP, and three peers who support the party, and yet commanded 4m votes at the general election. These are just a sample of the issues involved.
The Guidelines stipulates that ‘broad balance’ requirements will not apply to some coverage, for example if there is ‘an internal disagreement over tactics’. It makes the Chief Political Adviser the arbiter of suspension of ‘normal rules’. Analysis by News-watch has shown that such coverage of rows within UKIP, and especially with regard to its immigration-related policies, has led to substantial disproportionate coverage. If this happens during the referendum campaign, it could have a significant damaging effect on the ‘no’ campaign. The Guidelines actively give license for this coverage to continue, and decisions in this arena will be entirely at the BBC’s discretion, and not subject to monitoring.
The BBC accepts that its journalists are not currently informed enough about the EU to ensure impartiality during the referendum campaign. News Director James Harding has announced that compulsory training courses to remedy this are being planned. Mention of this training is not included in the Guidelines, however. Will members of staff who have not undertaken the training be allowed to work in frontline programming covering complex and sensitive areas of the referendum campaign? Can we see this training programme, to comment on its objectivity – the BBC’s last training programme addressed none of the fundamental EU issues.
Related to this, the Lord Wilson of Dinton report on the BBC’s EU coverage specifically spelled out that special measures should be taken during a referendum campaign to inform audiences better about issues relating to the EU. There is no mention in the Guidelines of such special programming in the news arena or of any measures to ensure that it is properly impartial. This month (January 2016), a Radio 4 programme about Brexit, projected the process as something of unprecedented difficulty. This – in the context of a vote that could be less than six months away – showed strong bias against the case for withdrawal. The Guidelines should contain provisions that prevent this.
 http://news-watch.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Independent-Editorial-Advisers-Report-on-Lord-Pearsons-Appeal-to-the-ESC.pdf and http://news-watch.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/2.-Editorial-Standards-Committee-decision-on-Newsnight-Complaint-17-November-2013.pdf
 European Scrutiny Committee, Oral evidence: Scrutiny inquiry: follow up, HC 918, Wednesday 14 January 2015, p5