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David Keighley: In eight years, the BBC Trust has not upheld a single complaint about EU coverage


What will it take for the BBC to admit that anything it ever does is wrong or biased?

New Chairman Rona Fairhead and Trustee Richard Ayre – a BBC career man to the core for almost 30 years, but now, after a brief spell in the outside world on a quango, transformed miraculously into being ‘independent’ – have given evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee.

Chaired by veteran Eurosceptic Sir Bill Cash, this 10-man committee is seldom of heard of – especially on the BBC – but its crucial and heroic job is to sift through the blizzard `of regulation and law emerging from Brussels and to advise Parliament which measures should be debated or examined further before they pass into law.

One of their current tasks is probing whether the very important question of whether the BBC – as the UK’s main public service broadcaster – gives this task adequate coverage and whether it is biased in the reporting of EU affairs.

Almost two years ago – after senior BBC news executives obdurately told the committee that everything was perfect – my organisation, News-watch was invited to appear. Our submission painted a very different picture: that overwhelming evidence from almost 15 years of monitoring BBC output showed conclusively that not only was the Scrutiny Committee virtually ignored – but also there was massive ‘bias by omission’ by the Corporation in not reporting properly issues such as withdrawal and the true federalist purpose of the EU ‘project’.

The then chairman of the BBC, Lord Patten, was subsequently summoned to attend to answer some of these points, but he refused point blank, on the pompous ground that this would ‘compromise’ the independence of the BBC. In spring last year, Lord Patten was then forced to retire through ill-health and the invitation was re-issued to Fairhead, his successor. .

Her appearance last week with Ayre therefore represented a significant climb-down by the Corporation. But did it mark a change in attitude? Of course not.

Fairhead told the Committee that since the Wilson report in 2005 – which she accepted had rightly slammed the EU output for its failures, bias and omissions – the BBC had pulled its socks up completely.

Bias? Certainly not. Omissions? Not at all, everything was there. Range of voices on the subjects that mattered? Yes, of course. Sufficient reporting to allow audiences to know what Brussels was up to? Move along there, nothing to see.

Her evidence was seemingly from the BBC Politburo textbook on how to stonewall. Yes, we have listened, yes we have looked and yes, we have learned our lessons. But now everything is perfect. Maybe we don’t achieve balance in every programme, but overall – absolutely no problem.

Fairhead’s main defence was thus the classic ploy of ‘Find the Lady’. Some misguided folk have claimed to have spotted bias, but, oh dear, they had been looking in the wrong places. Did they not know about the European Parliament programme on the BBC’s Parliament Channel? Or Europe Editor Gavin Hewitt’s blog?

Well, no.

According to BBC figures, the 24-hour Parliament Channel has 2.7m viewers cumulatively over a month. That means that there are only 90,000 ‘hits’ (of more than three-minutes) a day, and that the peak audience for any show is therefore likely to be a few thousand at most. Even with the most optimistic gloss on the figures – assuming that most hits are different people – less than 5 per cent of the UK population tunes in during a month. And how many of those actually see the half-hour EU programmes?

The subject switched to complaints. Here, credibility was stretched even further. James Clappison MP asked the perfectly reasonable question of how many complaints focused on EU coverage had the Trustees upheld.

Ayre pompously explained how the Trustees’ role in the handling of complaints is ‘quasi judicial’ and, in effect, the court of appeal.

But how many about the EU had been upheld? Ayre finally admitted that in the three years he had chaired the Editorial Standards Committee, the Trustees had condescended to examine only eight complaints centred on EU coverage. Six had been thrown out without them actually holding an appeal. Two had been taken to appeal but – surprise, surprise – both had been rejected. So that would be none, then.

Under further questions, Ayre then admitted that since 2007, not one single complaint about EU coverage had been upheld by the Trustees.

No one among those working at the BBC seem to grasp the enormity of the contradiction here. The Trustees are their own judge and jury and are supposed to be uphold BBC impartiality and independence. The Corporation receives every year tens of thousands of complaints. Yet as far as the EU is concerned, they believe everything is the garden is totally rosy.

One fact in the latest News-watch report undermines the whole of this elaborate facade -that in the entire BBC coverage of the recent European elections across seven key flagship programmes , not one question by was put to a supporter of withdrawal about the subject of withdrawal. Dozens of questions and insinuations about incompetence, racism and venality – but zilch about the topic that mattered most.

Which planet do the BBC Trustees live on?

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David Keighley
David Keighley
Former BBC news producer, BBC PR executive and head of corporate relations for TV-am. Director of News-watch.

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