BBC New Broadcasting House

As the crucial referendum vote looms, how DO you complain about the BBC?

The reality is that the Corporation is its own judge and jury in dealing with complaints and has neatly-honed putdowns for almost every eventuality.

The odds are particularly stacked in the EU debate, as the News-watch submission to the DCMS consultation on BBC Charter renewal outlines.  In the nine years since they were formed, the BBC Trustees have never upheld a complaint about EU coverage – even though senior BBC figures have admitted at various times that this aspect of their output has been biased.

Tough cookie MP Andrew Bridgen explained in The Daily Telegraph that he is the latest to try registering a complaint – only to be swatted aside like a tiresome bluebottle.

He very reasonably noticed that in the kick-off to the referendum campaign, the Corporation, as usual, is favouring the ‘remain’ side by, for example, allowing them to dominate the guest list on Newsnight; that coverage is representing David Cameron’s agreement as legally binding when it is not; and that business news on Today is regularly inviting  pro-EU commentators to say what a vital and wonderful institution it is. All of which has been evidenced elsewhere.

Surprise, surprise, BBC Director of News James Harding disagrees. On what basis? Well primarily, it seems that because what poor, naïve Bridgen has observed is only the early days of the campaign and it will all even out in the ‘ebb and flow’ of events. Well silly him for not realising.

Of course, balance is not a precise daily calculation and James Harding is right that there are days when almost inevitably, one side will receive more exposure than the other.

But the problem here is that – as Ryan Bourne of the IEA pointed out on the TCW – the BBC has got form in this respect, lots of it. For example, over 11 years of Today’s output, in monitoring by News-watch  that covered almost half the programmes transmitted, only three Labour or other left-leaning guests favouring Brexit appeared. Was that down to the ‘ebb and flow’ of events? – or was another factor, such as outright BBC bias, in play?  More examples abound on the News-watch website.

What Harding’s letter also underlines is that the BBC has got a neatly worked out answer to almost every situation. Another favourite is that both sides have complained, so the offending item must be balanced. Today editor Jamie Angus recently used this on Radio 4’s Feedback programme (which is supposed to represent listeners, but is mainly a conduit through which BBC executives rubbish them). He stated:

‘It’s a bit glib in a way to say if both sides are complaining volubly then we’re just about in the right place but I do sometimes fall back on that…..Genuinely, my perception is that I’m getting a pretty balanced mailbag.’ 

Any academic researcher would tell you the pitfalls of such crass generalisations.

Another is the ‘find the lady’ approach. When News-watch complained about Newsnight’s coverage of the David Cameron’s Bloomberg speech back in 2013 because the programme that evening contained 19 pro-EU guests ranged against only one definite withdrawalist (Nigel Farage, of course), the response was that we had missed that the previous December, there had been an edition which had debated the exit option and both sides had been evenly balanced.

This was bunk – in reality, the programme did not give the out camp a fair shout – but it was a classic BBC response which is wheeled out regularly: the complainant is wrong because somewhere in the thousands of hours of BBC output is something that miraculously balances the offending item.

James Harding has recently deployed yet another of his classic arguments. Here, the complainant alleged that on Today, Sir John Major had not been challenged firmly enough by James Naughtie (on December 16 last year) when he claimed that Brussels would become hostile to the UK, if God forbid, the electorate decided they wanted to leave the EU.

Harding’s response? He stated:

‘The ebb and flow of political discourse cannot, I think, be reduced to a check list of rebuttals’. 

Clearly, ‘ebb and flow’ is a favourite phrase – but in other respects, too, this was a perennial favourite defence: it boils down to that in the BBC’s book, and especially on EU issues, presenters can do whatever they want, even when a pro-EU guest is getting away with blue murder.

What has now emerged through the response to Andrew Bridgen is that Harding and the high command at the BBC are likely to persist in this stonewall denial against Brexit complainants throughout the referendum campaign. He, Tony Hall, the Director General, and David Jordan, the Director of Editorial Standards, told the European Scrutiny Committee last year that this would not be the case.

Pigs, it seems, might fly.

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