Failure at the BBC


By Derek Bateman
It won’t come as a surprise to anyone consuming the news and following the national debate closely but the academic study of broadcast output in Scotland published today is a serious blow to the credibility of our national broadcasters. The numbers make worrying reading for the guardians of balance in the news on our screens and they demand a response.
The work by the University of West of Scotland is exactly what BBC Scotland should have been doing itself as part of its duty to the Scots to provide balanced and fair coverage. If even a token accounting had been started a year ago, they would have realised quickly there was a problem that needed to be addressed.

The BBC is quick to claim people are forming perceptions not based on evidence when they complain about output. But that is disproved in this case and it is revealed as a hard reality that the national broadcaster is favouring one side in the national debate, a breach of its duty under the Royal Charter and a direct contradiction of the BBC’s own producer guidelines.

As a recent and long-term employee, I feel ashamed to learn that a fundamental tenet of BBC journalism lies in ruins while the country seeks the news and help needed to negotiate our biggest national debate.

I can’t find a copy of the actual report [Report now available here] – it isn’t on the university website where it remains listed as an on-going project – but if the research appearing on Newsnet is accurate, as it appears to be, this is a dire judgement on Kenny McQuarrie’s chaotic management and confirmation of the failure of leadership in the news department under John Boothman. I can find no mention of it on the BBC website, presumably because it has not been formally published. But Scots must demand an explanation for being treated to a less than balanced news service at this critical time.

I believe this calls for a Trust investigation. If this isn’t territory for a BBC Trust intervention, what is it for? It should demand answers from BBC management on how this imbalance in coverage occurred, who was responsible for monitoring it and why was nothing done to redress it. They should also question why management failed to grasp the political reality of the referendum as soon as the SNP was re-elected, as I argued in a previous post. That was the time to begin a thorough scrutiny of output to ensure relative balance.

It cannot be scientific because it is to a large degree dictated by the generation of news itself but it means that as soon as a numeric bias is spotted, steps can be taken to correct it in upcoming programmes. This executive failure is the direct result of McQuarrie’s dictum of Business as Usual, meaning no special measures were needed to deal with the referendum which to him would simply be yet another in a steady stream of elections, British, Scottish, European etc. That is fundamentally wrong and he should have been put right by his news managers and political staff.

We now have a situation in which an outside organisation has to point out the BBC’s failure to do its own job properly, reveals that the broadcast output, including STV’s, is having a detrimental effect on the Yes campaign, and will, I believe, be a legacy issue after September. If there is a win for No, especially a narrow one, there will be withering reaction from Yes supporters to the BBC as a public institution. If there is a Yes win, the way is opened up for wholesale changes at the top irrespective of a new Scottish broadcaster being created. They are letting the Scots down.

No doubt they will hide behind yet another of their technicalities – that there is not yet an official period when balanced reporting is legally required – it starts on May 30 -but their repeated statements rejecting any suggestion of bias before that date the ring hollow today. It is their duty to report fairly every day no matter the story.

By their failure to monitor pro and anti items, the management have made it virtually impossible to argue, as I have, that there is no policy of bias in the news. The distinction I always make is between a natural tendency to flatter the power base of the organisation –London/Britain – and the deliberate orchestration of official prejudice in its journalism. I did not encounter – ever – an instruction to a journalist or programme team to angle an item for or against a partisan viewpoint. Nor do I think the producers of Reporting Scotland, which appears to be the main programme under research, sat down and agreed to run an anti-independence story to score a political point.

They have broadcast what was making the news on their agenda and in their timeframe on the day. It is an editorial management responsibility to ensure over time there is fair and balanced output. They have not done so. The result is that, wilful and deliberate or not, it doesn’t really matter. The effect, as proved by the research, is the same…the public, a majority of whom have lost trust in the BBC, can now accurately say that the BBC is biased against independence. To me, that is shameful. To be honest, it hurts like hell that this view is now prevalent across the country and that BBC journalism where so many good broadcasters ply their trade, will be stained from now on.

One of the telling points to emerge was the linking of Alex Salmond in on-air copy with independence. At first glance this seems obvious. But what poor editorial decision-making has done is omit or diminish the concept of a wider Yes movement including Socialists, Greens, Labour and former Tories and turn a mature debate into tabloid simplicity…Salmond=independence. To play that game you need similarly to mark the No campaign with a matching leader/identifier as in “David Cameron’s Unionist movement…” or “Alistair Darling’s No campaign.”

For some reason the No side thinks Salmond is a liability, against all recorded evidence, and attacks his “obsession” when as Jim Sillars points out today, independence is a chance to get rid of Salmond and recreate a Labour-run Scotland. It is not the BBC’s job to play the Unionists’ game and subtly add to their message.

When I first wrote about the need for a review of political balance I said they had to rethink the imbalance of always having three party Unionists against one Nationalist. And here’s the report author, Dr John Robertson on the same point: “One obvious explanation lies in the editorial decision to allow all three anti-independence parties to respond to each SNP statement creating an unavoidable predominance of statements from the former even when these were kept short.”

It is blindingly obvious that this is a problem but when everyone is told by senior management it’s Business as Usual, you don’t get action on the shop floor.

The section on the importance of objective experts rather than partisan politicians strikes home with me because that was the approach we took on Saturday mornings, seeking out those who really did know not the politicians claiming to.

“The use of evidence from sources other than the parties themselves and which might be presented as ‘independent’, ‘academic’ or ‘scientific’ is a measure of quality in political debate. Notably, there was very little use of such evidence in the reporting overall and, where there was, there was clear tendency to use anti-independence over pro-independence evidence.”

Read the rest for yourself on Newsnet, I’m too downhearted…too embarrassed.

My plan is to ask the Trust to look into it, to send a copy to James Harding, the Director of BBC news and I think we should all demand Kenny McQuarrie explain how he let this situation develop and how he as Director will correct this embarrassment for BBC Scotland and BBC journalism.

Courtesy of Derek Bateman