BBC: Can We Just Let It Go Now?

BBC Scotland is attempting to extricate itself from the controversy over the UWS Bias in Broadcasting report. In a letter to the researcher Dr John Robertson they repeat accusations that his work is unprofessional and say they now conclude they “must agree to disagree”. Corporation bosses are keen to end the row they started by questioning the validity of the year-long study that found the early evening news displayed bias and was having a detrimental effect on the Yes side.

In another pointed and reproachful letter* the head of policy Ian Small asserts that the findings of bias are variously flawed, inaccurate, misrepresentations, guesses, distorted and value-laden. In a highly subjective assessment, Small offers no evidential base for his accusations, repeating exactly the error he accuses Robertson of committing.

He fails to say how the BBC has reached its conclusions, what methodology it used or evidence to support his contentions. There is no independent assessment, only the value-laden judgement of BBC bosses infuriated at being accused of failing in their duty.

The only attempt at providing evidence is a reference to a health report about a woman whom Dr Robertson said was revealed to be a “Labour plant”. Small says this is complete fabrication – “as the person has confirmed to us.” He doesn’t indicate what else he expected her to say when asked by the BBC the question: “Are you a Labour Party plant?” He then underlines the phrase: “There is no truth whatsoever in your accusation”.  Why would he do that in what is supposed to be a professional and appropriate letter from a major public organisation? To me he again sounds like an angry consumer who has found his bill is too high, rather than a cool and detached executive.

There is no word of conciliation, no offer of a meeting, no explanation why the report was not originally aired and no mention of why this report, alone among the thousands sent to the BBC every year, was singled out for such intense scrutiny and systematic rubbishing, and if it is pure coincidence that it was critical of the BBC.

I think the opening sentence is revealing. He is worried about corporate reputation. You bet he is. Nothing hurts them like the idea that they are biased…it goes to the very heart of why we have a BBC and why we are all obliged to pay for it. But the “impact on corporate reputation of the university” is clearly a threat. It says to me: “We can make all this public and embarrass you and the university and who knows, someone might lose their job”. From the once liberal, open-minded, and self-confident BBC this is nasty stuff and illustrates the decline in the corporate ethos.

Here is a simple answer to the whole controversy. If they had the talent, they would have foreseen what was coming down the track nearly three years ago and immediately instituted a balance checking system to monitor their output and, without viewers even knowing, would have been providing carefully unbiased news reports. It didn’t need to be precise and balanced on a weekly basis but it would have provided an at-a-glance service to producers. It would also have meant that if and when someone like Dr Robertson came along and challenged them they could simply point to their own in-house data and silenced the critics. Now wouldn’t that have been clever? Certainly better than the unedifying, reputation-shredding slanging match they are now engaged in.

This is the latest manifestation of the lack of acuity and imagination to be found in the current BBC Scotland management which has also led them into the worst industrial relations dispute in the whole of the corporation. Behind that there is a deeper institutional problem. The Trust holds no sanction over them. It can admonish but it can’t hurt them and no one ever suffers for the mistakes and miscalculations. They can’t lose business and therefore income. The Parliament has no statutory authority over them. Viewers and listeners have no real choice but to use them. They control the private sector in programme-making and are in effect untouchable. When allied to lack of talent, it makes for a damaging mix and because of the referendum the scrutiny is intense and has exposed them. Let’s hope the investment in new programmes produces the right uplift in quality. (It’s a pity we won’t see the new referendum evening show until May.)

*Dear Dr Robertson

Thank you for your email with attachment.

In your comments you note that your report does not represent the corporate view of the University.  We did not suggest it did.  What we said was that we believe it holds the potential to impact on the corporate reputation of the university in the same way that it does that of BBC Scotland.  We see that it carries the logo of the university on its cover.  For that reason, again, as with all of our correspondence, this email is copied to the University Principal.

I’m  afraid there is nothing within your most recent communication that alters our view that important parts of the research methodology, the report contents and the conclusions are flawed.

Factual errors appear throughout the report (including significant inaccuracies in the number of news hours claimed as the evidence base for the report); it is highly subjective in its approach and highly selective in its choice of ‘evidence’ to support its contentions; many of its contentions about Reporting Scotland have no evidential base and are either misinterpretations or simply wrong; many of its general conclusions appear to be little more than guesses; the interpretation of data in crude quantitative terms, working from transcripts, appears to have resulted in a skewed and distorted analysis of broadcast output; much of the terminology used remains undefined and the language within the report is often, and very clearly, value-laden.

In your most recent attachment you accuse Reporting Scotland (on 27/9/12), in a story on NHS treatment, of including a case study of a seriously ill woman whom you say “turned out to be a Labour plant”. The person in question has confirmed to us that this is a complete fabrication – there is no truth whatsoever in your accusation.

Finally, you conclude, again without any evidence, that the BBC is responsible for “propagandising techniques” and somehow is involved in a “blanket suppression” of your report “across the mainstream media in the UK”.  I’m afraid there is now little more to be said regarding your report and we believe it best, in conclusion, to agree to disagree.

Ian Small

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