Wednesday, April 17, 2024
HomeNewsDavid Keighley: Ofcom shoots down Rona Fairhead’s smug defence of the BBC

David Keighley: Ofcom shoots down Rona Fairhead’s smug defence of the BBC


Chairman of the BBC Trustees Rona Fairhead, appointed last year to safeguard licence-fee payers’ interests, has proclaimed in the pages of The Independent that the Corporation is damned near perfect.

Her protectionist pro-BBC polemic is, in effect, a warning to nasty Tory MPs and the Government – as the consultation on Charter renewal gets underway – to back off from any attempts at significant reform, changing in funding arrangements or cutting back.

The core message is that the splendiferous, fabulous, marvellous BBC knows what the public wants and is delivering it in spades. Auntie might be a tad bureaucratic and may need a slightly different form of governance,  but hey!….anyone who does not believe it is the pinnacle of national achievement is deluded, unpatriotic, and blind to the multi-layered £8 billion bonanza the Corporation brings to the country.

Her medium of choice for the delivery of this smug, self–regarding sermon?  A left-wing newspaper, which regurgitated with awe the political points she made in the chapter in a forthcoming book published by an outfit called Abramis, whose titles are written by ‘meejah’ academics who mostly idolise the BBC. Oh, and, of course, the EU.

Leaving aside why the Chairman of the BBC should choose such a partisan conduit, a central assertion of her homily is this:

‘We have set – and effectively policed – the highest editorial standards in broadcasting, putting complainants and the BBC on an entirely equal footing in the hearing of appeals’.

Excuse me?  These scrutiny processes are set by the BBC to favour blatantly the BBC. Every aspect of the BBC complaints process is set in the BBC’s favour. The claim is risible even by Fairhead’s gone-totally-native standards.

With splendid timing, a very rare example of the BBC output being subject to outside scrutiny was published the following day.

For technical reasons to do with the labyrinthine world of public service regulation, Ofcom were allowed to investigate whether current affairs programme codes were breached by hundreds of programmes broadcast by BBC World News (the inquiry was narrowed to a few sample claims, presumably for reasons of cost).  The report in full is here.

The Ofcom inquiries are inextricably linked to a Politburo-style ruling by the BBC Trustees that, in effect, there is no doubt that alarming and potentially catastrophic climate change is happening, and that it has been caused by filthy capitalistic enterprise. BBC output should and must therefore reflect that.  This declaration was made in 2011, and is now pursued with zeal by every BBC outlet as an integral part of Fairhead’s ‘high journalistic standards’.

BBC World News (BBCWN) adopted the climate alarmist creed with particular relish. As it is a 24/7 service, it had a voracious appetite for cheap content that also reflected the right-on international development agenda.

The television service turned to a range of outside producers, including an outfit called TVE (The Television Trust for the Environment). They could offer  their wares at very little cost because they receive buckets of cash to make their propagandist bile from sources such as the EU and the World Wildlife Fund. Is it a surprise that TVE’s managing director is a former BBC journalist?

The accusation investigated and upheld by Ofcom  was that these films  breached programme codes because they were ‘funded factual programmes’ – that is, paid by a range of sponsors with axes to grind – and viewers were not told. In other words, the BBC seriously misled their audiences about a key component of what purported to be current affairs output.

The BBC’s defence against the charge in a section about one of the TVE programmes shows how bull-headed, bigoted and closeted the Corporation’s ‘high editorial standards’ actually are.  In effect, in the Corporation’s holier-than-thou universe, climate change is beyond doubt; it is proven science and not, therefore, current affairs. It stated (p57 of the rulings):

“In 2009 (when the programme was transmitted), as now, there was broad international consensus (both scientific and governmental) that global warming exists and that it is linked to carbon dioxide emissions. In regulatory terms this has consequences for both current affairs and impartiality… In this programme global warming is not dealt with largely as a political or international governmental matter. It is examined very much from a scientific angle (e.g. the consequences of burning peat and its effect on carbon dioxide emissions) and the battle for saving the environment…. Dealing with a programme that accepts, as its basic premise, that global warming and its effects exist does not mean that the programme becomes current affairs…”

Ofcom most certainly did not agree. Its frustration that the BBC did not understand such elementary journalistic principles – and defended its actions in this way – is evident in every word of its damning verdicts.

Fairhead’s claims about those ‘high editorial standards’ are shot to smithereens. So is her claim that the BBC complaints procedure is fair. The reality is that, because of how the Trustees interpret their role and issues such as balance, huge swathes of BBC output (In controversial fields such as climate change) are just as untrustworthy and biased as TVE’s programming was judged to be by Ofcom.

When complaints are made to the Corporation, the vast majority of them are dismissed by BBC staff using exactly the same lame defences as they also deployed with Ofcom.

This was a rare example of the BBC being subjected to rigorous outside scrutiny. What price Fairhead’s claims of perfection now?

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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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