David Cameron is gearing up this week for another attempt at telling us that leaving the EU will be disastrous for the UK and to outline more of his sham ‘renegotiations’.
Meanwhile, under far less media scrutiny, the House of Lords has been debating much more crucial work: whether special steps should be taken to ensure that the BBC is impartial in its coverage of the EU referendum.
Here, there was a bit of a surprise. Baroness Anelay, the government spokeswoman, responding to the calls for tough new measures, was unexpectedly tough on the BBC. She acknowledged that the Corporation’s EU-related coverage is a major cause for concern, and also that in the past there had been justification for worries about the BBC’s impartiality. She added that on that basis Culture Secretary John Whittingdale had written to the BBC in June, and revealed that he had now received a reply outlining the BBC’s approach to coverage which promised great vigilance.
But don’t hold your breath. Baroness Anelay did not reveal to their noble lords what the steps were, but it’s likely that they are on similar lines to the approach outlined by News Director James Harding when he appeared before the European Scrutiny Committee last month.
Basically, Harding risibly said that talking to audience councils, having a referendum hotline for campaigning groups, and a programme of half-day seminars for BBC journalists will do the trick. At the same time, he set his face against any kind of independent academic monitoring of BBC content. He and David Jordan, the Director of Editorial Standards, claimed that such methodology was ‘unhelpful’, expensive, confusing, and too much based on number-crunching for their liking.
How could something as sacred as BBC journalism be subjected to such unrefined analysis was their indignant tone. Harding also went so far as to claim that the conducting of such research threatened editorial freedom and hem editors in. He did not outline why. Did he mean that if editors knew that they were being watched, they would not be able to perform their duties?
If so, that’s astonishing. The whole point of the public service journalism broadcast and published by the BBC is that it is continually subject to scrutiny in terms of fairness and balance. If editors feel constricted by that, they should be doing something else.
Harding’s and Jordan’s snooty claims about monitoring, however, are, on further investigation, frankly bizarre – because they are sharply at odds with existing BBC practice. Why? Well, for years, the BBC Trustees, and before them, the BBC Governors have been holding what they call ‘Impartiality Reviews’.
That’s actually a total misnomer, because the reality is that most – like the 2011 review of Science coverage, or the 2012 Prebble Report into the EU, or the 2014 equivalent into rural affairs – are actually conducted by BBC lackeys who confirm what the Trustees want to hear: that almost everything in the garden is rosy.
Putting that aside, however, considerable effort is made to making these exercises look genuine. It is here that where academic monitoring of output comes in. And in at least nine of the Reviews since 2004, such surveys, conducted usually by university media departments, have been an integral component of the review process.
Moving up to the present, a Trust review into the use of statistics in news coverage is currently underway, and in that connection, content analysis from Cardiff University has been commissioned.
The various surveys have been clearly used by the Trustees to convey to the outside world that the Reviews are conducted on an impartial and independent basis, and then to bolster the claims of overall impartiality. For example, in the most recently published Review, into rural affairs, the BBC Trust, after the official panel report had been received, declared:
Overall, the BBC’s coverage of rural areas in the UK is duly impartial. There is no evidence of party political bias, and a wide range of views is aired.
Analysis of the various review documents shows this claim can only be based on the academic survey work, in this instance conducted by Loughborough University.
That is why Harding and Jordan’s remarks about monitoring can truly be described as bizarre. The Trustees, who are the ultimate guardians of BBC impartiality, use such surveys as proof of editorial balance. But the News department think and do otherwise.
In fact, investigation of the archives reveals more contradictions. A key finding in the Lord Wilson of Dinton Impartiality Review (2004) was that rigorous monitoring of output was essential to achieve impartiality. The then news management (under Helen Boaden), responded that they agreed, said that internal monitoring systems were already in place, and pledged that they would be upgraded.
Similar promises about monitoring were made after three further reviews (covering business, Israel-Palestine and the four UK nations) between 2005 and 2008.
Jordan’s response to the European Scrutiny Committee confirmed that these promises have now been jettisoned by the news executive.
This was BBC business as usual. It boils down to that Harding and the rest of the BBC arrogantly believe that the only people who can measure news impartiality are those from the BBC itself through what they call ‘editorial judgment’.
John Whittingdale may have a letter from the BBC pledging impartiality in coverage of the EU referendum. It’s not worth the paper it is written on.