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Craig Byers: Make any joke you like on the BBC. As long as it’s against the knuckle-dragging anti-Europeans

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(This post was first published here)

This week’s Feedback on BBC Radio 4 featured a clip from the first episode of the 47th series of the station’s eternally somewhat less than side-splitting Now Show– a comedic ‘team rant’ in favour of the EU and against critics of the EU.

And I’m not just talking about the 46 previous series of the Now Show either. I’ve heard many a pro-EU rant on BBC Radio 4 comedy shows over the years – or, more accurately, many a rant against critics of the EU – especially Ukip supporters and right-wing Conservatives.

Left-wing bias on BBC comedy programmes is, of course, hardly news. Even Nick Cohen’s recent robust defence of the BBC, which saw very little evil in the Corporation, contained this brief aside:

“And, yes, thank you for raising it, I know, there is BBC bias. I accept that Radio 4 will give us left- and extreme left-wing comedians, but never their right- or far-right equivalents.”

But, still, on it goes.

What is the BBC going to do about it, especially as the EU referendum approaches? Cue Roger Bolton and the BBC’s chief political adviser Ric Bailey – whose conversation I transcribe below.

I can’t say that Ric Bailey’s tone overly impressed me, and he seemed quite evasive at times as well. (And all credit to Roger Bolton for pressing him somewhat here).

You might also note yet another instance from a senior BBC boss of the Corporation’s outright refusal to carry out statistical studies – even very simple, routine ones – in order to help monitor and regulate its bias.

Quite why it’s so obvious to Ric Bailey that doing such studies, or even doing a basic count, is absurd isn’t explained. He simply caricatures the whole idea, making it into a straw man (or several straw men) and repeatedly sneering at it (as you’ll see).

Frankly, if someone were to listen to all episodes of The Now Show over each series from now until the referendum – as people at the BBC will inevitably do, including the show’s producers – it’s hardly either time-consuming or rocket science to make a quick note of whether there are pro-EU-biased sections or anti-EU-biased sections in each episode, and then keep a tally. If there are, say, 17 pro-EU-biased sections (of the kind we heard last week) across six series between now and the referendum and 0 anti-EU-biased sections, then there’s bias! And simple, cost-free counting will have proved it, won’t it?

Anyhow, here’s the transcript of the Bailey defence.

Roger Bolton: Ric Bailey, will The Now Show be told to make anti-EU jokes in future?

Ric Bailey: Look, comedy and satire are absolutely part of what the BBC has to do when it’s covering politics and, of course, when it’s covering this referendum. The idea that you do that by numbers and that you count the jokes and then have a sort of grading system for how funny they are…you only have to say it to think how ridiculous that is.

Roger Bolton: But will it require some form of balance? You don’t say it’s got be 5 for, 5 against, but does there need to be some sort of balance?

Ric Bailey: So, the BBC…every genre has to be impartial. And the word that everybody always forgets when you talk about impartiality is the word “due”. And that means thinking about the context in which you are doing the programme. So, a referendum clearly is a very particular context. Now, that’s why we have guidelines to spell out what those particular circumstances are, what the context is. But also, different genres give you a different context for how you achieve impartiality.

Roger Bolton: So in comedy is there any requirement for balance over a period over a controversial subject?

Ric Bailey: Well, like most programmes, there’s a long way to go before the referendum. It’s a topical satire programme, so its job is to take the Mickey out of politicians. take the Mickey out of what they say and so on. But the idea that you have to do it in one single programme in a beautifully, perfectly mathematically-balanced way would be ridiculous. And the word that gets used in the guidelines for the actual referendum period itself is “broad balance”.

Roger Bolton: But over a period there should be jokes about all sides, not just one side?

Ric Bailey: I always take the view, particularly in comedy, the more the merrier. So, the more you are looking at the whole range of politicians, a whole range of views, and subjecting them to your biting wit the better. Of course, if week in week out any comedy show only took lumps out of one side of an argument or only took lumps out of one particular political party that would not be impartial. But those are the judgements that all programmes make, including comedy, day in, day out, and this is no different.

Roger Bolton: Well, let’s suppose it’s 10 or 16 weeks, Before the period starts, when we know the date of the referendum but the so-called campaign period hasn’t started, nothing will change? No extra requirements on people to be fair, balanced, to be duly impartial?

Ric Bailey: Roger, my view is: the BBC has to be duly impartial about this referendum. It has to be duly impartial about it today. It has to be duly impartial about it the day before the referendum. There is no difference. Part of the idea of the guidelines is not only to be clear about what impartiality means during that referendum period but it’s also to set our the parameters so that programme makers, on behalf of the listeners and viewers, can scrutinise the arguments properly. Sometimes often people think, oh, the guidelines are there to stop broadcasters doing things during these periods. Actually it’s the opposite. They’re there to set out a broad territory in which broadcasters have the freedom and the editorial judgement. That’s the first principle. Editorial judgement must dictate how you approach it.

Roger Bolton: How well qualified do you think BBC journalists are to cover this issue? Because it seems that James Harding, the director of news, thinks they need some mandatory training. He’s going to introduce that. Do you think that’s a reflection on the fact that, in the past, the journalists have not been particularly well qualified?

Ric Bailey: Absolutely not. No, I mean…

Roger Bolton: So why might there be training?

Ric Bailey: Before every election I, as part of the guidelines, talk to journalists right across the board about the particular circumstances of any election or referendum. This is a very important referendum and, whereas most of the time there will be a specialist number of journalists who are likely to cover Europe, this is something that’s going to….you’ve already pointed out, it’s already in The Now Show. So lots of people who may not normally be covering this sort of story…It will be part and parcel of their journalism for up to two years. Now, it’s really important in those circumstances that we know that everybody understands the issues, the arguments and the very particular context of this referendum.

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Craig Byers
Craig Byers is a blogger about the BBC, focusing on the issue of BBC bias while living in Britain's finest traditional seaside resort: Morecambe (the one with the Eric Morecambe statue).

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