BBC: Balance the Bias

It looks like BBC Scotland is compounding its overreaction to the Bias in Broadcasting report. It is now embarked on a course of forensic examination to challenge the detail of the UWS work in an attempt to claim that it is wrong to suggest bias in favour of the No campaign. The letters currently going out give some detail of the areas they object to – the first time the BBC has publicly acknowledged to licence-fee payers what its concerns are.

“It took us several days to review the research available to us within the report and when doing so we identified a number of inaccuracies within it. In addition we would also question the methodology as well as the fundamental validity of the conclusions it reached. 

It is our view that the report consistently fails to support its contentions with factually accurate evidence; for example there are several substantive factual inaccuracies within the references it makes to Reporting Scotland news output. We are also concerned, for example, with the inclusion of a number of non-referendum stories within the data outlined in the report. 

We also believe that the report failed to define terminology used within it; for example ‘fairness’, ‘insulting language’ etc. or whether any account was taken of what the BBC’s own Editorial Guidelines or the Ofcom Broadcasting Code have to say in this respect.

The report concludes the authors have “evidence of coverage which seems likely to have damaged the Yes campaign.” Our strongly held view is that there is no evidence whatsoever, as contained within the report, that supports this contention. It is no more than an assumption, based on the report’s findings which, themselves, we contest.”

Previous descriptions of their concerns were put in the public domain via the letter sent to Dr John Robertson, the author, from the head of public policy Ian Small, a letter seen by Dr Robertson’s university colleagues. This is a change in tactic after the PR mistake of replying to all correspondents with a standard letter of rebuff advising them where to make complaints. Dr Robertson, I understand, is not for backing down and stands by his research and is ready to counter the BBC’s assault on his work. In the meantime some questions arise.

Who drew the BBC management’s attention to this research since the news department did not report it? Or did the news department not report it because it was asked not to by management – a serious breach of editorial rules?

Does BBC Scotland routinely check the methodology and credibility of academic reports? Or is this the only time this has happened? If so, is it just a remarkable coincidence that the report they decide to challenge is critical of the BBC itself?

Will all academic studies which come across the BBC’s desk be subject to the same credibility check from now on and if not, why not? Does the BBC take at face value all other research from other sources or only research pointing out BBC shortcomings?

One of my correspondents said he was interviewed by a pollster asking about bias in BBC news coverage. Why is the BBC commissioning survey data on this subject if they are convinced they are treating both sides equally? And if they now have that data would they like to publish it? It is after all paid for by the audience who have a right to see it. It may well back the view that there is no perception of bias in which case it would be interesting given most peoples’ views. But how revealing would it be if it turned out to support Dr Robertson’s contention of bias? The BBC should be asked to publish this polling material. (If any of you do write in, don’t be fobbed off with claims it doesn’t exist. I know of a case where a national newspaper asked for listening figures from the year 2005 when Jeff Zycinski became head of radio in order to compare them with up-to-date listening figures. The BBC press office was instructed to tell the reporter than the data didn’t go back that far…a blatant untruth…RAJARS as they are known, which measure audiences, have been going since 1992. Who would instruct such an untrue statement to be released?)

The BBC really need to win this or they will not only be guilty of bias but of overreacting and making themselves looks very silly. The trouble is that all they’ve got is an attempt at undermining the university work when what they really need is their own internal assessment of the first year of output. Only then will they be able claim a victory. First they must get enough voices to agree the UWS work is not good enough and then they have to prove their own programming was not biased. This they can do by repeating the exhaustive work carried out by Dr Robertson and reviewing all of their early evening news output for the year in question and doing so under the professional eye of an independent adjudicator. If they don’t trust John Robertson, why should he trust them? They cannot claim they don’t have the base material – it’s all in the archive.

Meanwhile it would be helpful if the MSPs started to wind up another inquiry into the operation of BBC Scotland and tease out why they are so scared of Dr Robertson’s work and if there has been interference in editorial decision-making over his report.

By the way…there’s another issue of bias underway…BBC Scotland is taking keen interest in the latest House of Lords pantomime which of course is entirely one-sided, like the Scottish Affairs Committee. We already heard Ian Lang on Radio Scotland this morning – not debating of course, one doesn’t do on-air debates – and no doubt there will be equal time for an SNP person tomorrow but how do they cover a debate in which every overblown, self-important anti-democratic windbag says the same thing? Personally I’d ignore it. Does any Scot care what unelected party placemen say about anything – apart from the forelock-tuggers awaiting their own ennoblement. I’d say Darling and Tavish first…any others?

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