An ex-editor at the BBC has explained why, and when, bias at the public broadcaster is acceptable, according to the Media Reform Coalition (MRC). The justification was discussed during the first event of the Real Media Tour. And it shows that, while licence fee payers cough up for the entire year, some working at the broadcaster seem to believe true ‘impartiality’ is only necessary at certain times.
The BBC’s newsroom standards
Real Media’s first stop on its tour was Manchester. The event featured a line-up of speakers including its own Kam Sandhu, and author of The BBC: A Myth of Public Service, Tom Mills. The MRC’s Des Freedman also spoke at the event.
Freedman explained that the MRC had carried out research into the BBC’s coverage of the Labour leadership election. And it found “clear and consistent bias in favour of critics of Jeremy Corbyn”. Freedman then noted that, consequently, the BBC had dismissed the MRC as a “vested interest group”. Yet the broadcaster didn’t refute any of the findings.
And we heard from the inside – someone rang up anonymously, and has followed it up actually… Some producer – I think it was based in Manchester – who’d been told when they complained about what they saw as overt bias against Corbyn, that a senior Five Live producer said ‘well, it’s alright because we don’t have to follow due impartiality if it’s not an election’.
A leadership battle, not a problem
Freedman is actually referring to a written complaint published in the BBC’s internal magazine Ariel. The complaint was made by the Five Live studio director Eddie Pitman over the “character assassination” of Corbyn in a Panorama programme that had run prior to the 2015 Labour leadership election. The Panorama editor at the time, Ceri Thomas, responded by listing the coverage of the institution as a whole and insisted the programme was “fair” to Corbyn. He dismissed the complaint, partly based on the assertion “we’re not in general election territory” right now.
So, as Freedman acknowledged, although UK citizens pay a yearly license fee, some at the BBC seem to only consider ‘impartiality’ truly important when an election is happening. And seemingly, Labour leadership elections don’t count.
Is BBC bias allowed?
The BBC responded to The Canary‘s request for comment on the Panorama incident with the following statement:
The BBC is editorially independent and our news adheres to clear impartiality guidelines. Corbyn’s team gave Panorama behind the scenes access to his campaign and his views were reflected throughout, including through a lengthy interview.
But although this statement professes a commitment to impartiality by the broadcaster, ample evidence suggests it is not living up that oath. An oath, in fact, that is explicitly written into the broadcaster’s own ethics. The BBC’s values clearly state that:
Trust is the foundation of the BBC: we are independent, impartial and honest.
Furthermore, the Royal Charter and Agreement, which is the constitutional basis for the BBC, asserts:
The BBC will aim to produce high-quality and distinctive journalism that meets the highest standards of accuracy, fairness and impartiality. It will respond to the Trust’s regular reviews of impartiality to ensure strong editorial processes and training.
Does BBC bias matter?
Another speaker, Novara Media‘s Aaron Bastani, pointed out that the BBC has a big voice in the media landscape.
Bastani spoke about the exact amount of influence the BBC has in the news arena:
It has 70% of the TV news market. It has something like 75% of the radio news market. I mean it’s totally ridiculous actually… [The] monopolies commission should be getting involved. You know, 70% of [the] online news market.
So there can be no doubt that the BBC’s bias has an impact. Its negative coverage of Corbyn could have succeeded in elevating the challenger Owen Smith into the Labour leadership position. And that would have directly affected the 2020 general election. Much as its generally derogatory reporting on Corbyn may influence voters in that general election, too.
What can we do about it?
Due to such potential consequences, panellists at the Real Media event offered numerous suggestions on how to ensure the BBC earns its “public broadcaster” label. Freedman voiced opposition to the government having any role in appointments at the broadcaster. He said:
Should the chair of that board be someone the government appoints? No, we shouldn’t accept these things at all.
He advocated that those roles should be elected instead; a suggestion he credited to Bastani. Freedman also encouraged people to complain directly to the BBC about bias, as Ken Loach did at a recent rally in London.
He also talked about the MRC’s current work with the Labour Party, in efforts to add an amendment to the upcoming Digital Economy Bill. This amendment would see those who largely profit from platforming media, such as Facebook and Google, pay a levy on their finances. That money would then be pumped back into “grassroots, independent journalism”.
Money really matters
Bastani suggested something similar should happen to the BBC’s ‘contestable funding‘. This funding is money opened up to outside parties in exchange for creating content for the broadcaster to use. The BBC does not at present offer this funding for outside producers of news and current affairs. But Bastani believes it should do so.
He also proposed excluding tax avoiders from owning any share in a UK media company. And he encouraged the subsidising of local media. Bastani also advocated giving citizens a ‘universal news voucher’, known as the McChesney proposal. Citizens would be able to give the value of this voucher to the media source of their choosing to boost the finances of less affluent organisations.
These suggestions would go a long way to reforming the media as a whole, and the BBC in particular.
The public service broadcaster has lost sight of its role in society. And all of us have a stake in changing that.
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Featured image via Matt Cornock/Flickr