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

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

I see no bias…

I hear the BBC have found a novel way of combatting claims of bias in Reporting Scotland – they’re reviewing the news output for themselves by using staff from the referendum unit. So the £5,000,000 allocated to pay for extra staff to bring us better programming about independence is being used to subsidise the BBC’s PR response to the UWS bias report. There’s value…

This looks like another act of desperation as they battle to save face. Remember these are all novice broadcast people who are being trained on the job, having never worked in the industry before. Now some are being asked to make judgements about the content, tone and balance of programme output when they simply don’t have the experience in journalism to know if a news item is being personalised, if it’s weighted to one side and has enough independent content or indeed if an expert can fairly be described as independent. These are judgements only an experienced professional could make and, as I have written before, this work needs to be monitored by an independent academic source. Otherwise how can any information the BBC produces be said to be impartial – landing them in exactly the same quandary they accuse Dr John Robertson of creating. These trainees were specifically brought in using the additional budget in order to aid programme-making, not as crisis management assistants.

When the BBC suits have finished this latest stage of the Rescue Plan, who will the public be more likely to believe – the BBC’s own in-house, staff-adjudicated version or the year-long independent, disinterested academic study by a university professional and his research team? I don’t see how the BBC can win this. With complaints raining in to the Trust and the MSPs gearing up for an inquiry, they needed to find an elegant point of exit and retreat tail between legs. Instead they’re in full war cry, determined to prove Dr Robertson wrong and or biased himself. They need corporate strategy help to save themselves otherwise I think there must be a real chance that someone is sacrificed. How they must rue their decision to write such an objectionable letter of complaint in the first place.

Great news about Lucy Adams joining the BBC for the referendum…a real reporter and nobody’s patsy and a grievous loss for the Herald. She will really add intelligence and fire to the BBC Scotland effort. Sarah Smith is a good catch and the press will love it but I always worry a bit about people who have missed key years in our modern history – she missed all the devolution years and its really hard to know the detail if you weren’t around…makes it tougher to have perspective if you don’t have the hinterland. The appointment of Marcus Ryder to the replacement for Newsnight will cause a few smiles at PQ where his reputation is to put it mildly less than stellar. Still…things looking up at the Beeb and maybe now we’ll get some meaty journalism. Again though, why no word to the audience about their plans for Gordon Brewer? They’re happy to crow about new recruits and rightly so but you can’t airbrush all those years presenting programme like Newsnight out of the picture. I can’t see any mention of him or the existing team I worked with. It is disrespectful to say the least to them and dismissive of the audience. Where are their communication skills?

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

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?

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather