The 2017 BBC Charter bestowed for the first time supervisory regulatory powers on Ofcom, which had previously been in charge of only the independent sector. Its first review of BBC news and current affairs performance shows that this has achieved nothing except to confirm that the broadcasting ‘establishment’ is deeply biased and complacent, and that there is an urgent need to cleanse the Augean stables.
The naive aim – based on recommendations by Sir David Clementi, who subsequently, of course, became BBC chairman – was to create independent scrutiny of complaints and impartiality.
In March 2016, when the Clementi proposals were first published by then culture secretary John Whittingdale, I wrote on TCW:
‘Disaster! The malaise of the BBC is principally that it is run by broadcasting establishment figures with no desire to think radically or independently – and Ofcom is no different. It is a quango, peopled by liberal left quangocrats cast from exactly the same mould as the BBC Trustees . . .
‘Even worse is Sir David’s suggestion that Ofcom becomes the final court of appeal. . . nearly every. . . member of the [content] board has cosy links to the BBC and has spent considerable parts of his or her career in the BBC orbit. Thus, the handling by Ofcom of BBC complaints will not make one iota of difference to the current regime.’
Sadly, the predictions have proved to be spot-on. Recent examples of folk appointed to the Ofcom advisory committee for England are:
· Paula Carter, whose career has been principally at Channel 4 and the BBC;
· Aaqil Ahmed, the former head of religion ethics at both the BBC and Channel 4, and famed, for example, for mounting a BBC Songs of Praise from the Calais migrants’ camp and claiming that inmates could be likened to Joseph, Mary and Jesus nhttp://isthebbcbiased.blogspot.com/2015/08/songs-of-displeasure.html;
· Matthew Littleford, who is a trustee for the theatre companies Frantic Assembly and Paines Plough. He was previously a joint managing director of the TV production company Betty, editorial director for digital at BBC Worldwide, controller of UKTV (joint-owned by the BBC), and controller of entertainment for ITV’s digital channels.
Despite the relentless tide of anti-Brexit bias, the Ofcom content board – eight of the 13 members are ex-BBC – has dismissed the vast majority of BBC complaints appeals referred to it with the same cavalier liberal-Left disdain as the BBC itself.
Most strikingly, a meticulously researched complaint about the anti-Brexit bias of BBC1’s Question Time was dismissed on the basis that a single contribution from Theresa May crony Damian Green proved that the ‘hard’ Brexit perspective had been adequately represented in 25 editions.
Ofcom has now completed at significant expense – it includes a glossy focus group report from PwC – a year-long review of the BBC’s performance in the news and current affairs domain. Is there any sign that its approach to its new responsibilities might be improving?
In a word, no. I will analyse in more detail the huge inconsistencies of the findings in a second blog, but for now, an outstanding feature of this so-called review is that while it was designed to examine impartiality, it has in reality done no such thing.
As well as the PwC report, Ofcom commissioned the School of Media, Journalism and Culture at Cardiff University to undertake content analysis of elements of BBC output.
That in itself was a biased decision, because Cardiff, as has been demonstrated by News-watch, is deeply biased towards the BBC. For example, its director of journalism is Richard Sambrook, the BBC’s former director of global news. Irrespective of the personnel, Ofcom unbelievably asked the academics to focus mainly on the depth and range of coverage rather than impartiality.
One of their areas of investigation was Brexit. But none of it was about potential bias and its only finding, from a minuscule sample size, was that in terms of range and depth there might not have have been enough speakers from the EU. Given that most of the Remainer Parliament was made up of those who spoke passionately about the need to stay within the EU, this defies belief.
So how did the wise people of Ofcom decide that output was impartial? A main plank was that they had considered 300 complaints about BBC bias in 2018-19 and upheld none of them. Well, that’s okay then. Or maybe – more likely – it confirms the need for an urgent external investigation of Ofcom itself into confirmation bias – the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that affirms one’s prior beliefs or hypotheses.
The second main plank of their approach was the PwC report mentioned above. A key element of this was based on 13 interviews and workshops around the country, each attended by a dozen consumers of BBC output. How precisely these were framed is not disclosed – it is assumed by Ofcom that PwC knew what they were doing. But a striking feature of the exercise, at a time when the news agenda was dominated by Brexit, was that those with strong views about the topic were deliberately excluded.
Finally, what were the recommendations of the Ofcom report? News and current affairs is largely tickety-boo – with one major caveat, the ‘D’ word. Wait for it: not enough diversity!
Cardiff University’s journalism department has strong links with the BBC other than Richard Sambrook. One is that Ian Hargreaves, who is Professor of the Digital Economy at the university, was Professor of journalism there from 1999-2010, and is now on the BBC board of management (the body which replaced the former Trustees), and according to the BBC is is ‘responsible for upholding and protecting the independence of the BBC by acting in the public interest and exercising independent judgement’
Further, the BBC is currently moving into a new £100m HQ building in Cardiff. Joining them there is the Cardiff University media department – and students there are offered placements by the BBC. In that context, it is hard to see how the Cardiff report for Ofcom can be considered even remotely ‘independent’.