Trust announces independent review of BBC impartiality


By G.A.Ponsonby

Former ITV chief executive Stuart Prebble is to lead an independent review of the BBC’s impartiality.

The review, commissioned by the BBC Trust, is a follow up to the 2007 report by John Bridcut that set out 12 “guiding principles” to help prevent biased reporting at the corporation (see bottom of page).

The foreword of the 2007 report open’s with: “Impartiality has always been (together with independence) the BBC’s defining quality.  It is not by chance that all BBC staff carry an identity card which proclaims as the first of the BBC’s values that they are independent, impartial and honest.”

Mr Prebble will look at how the BBC has dealt with technical and social change and whether the BBC was providing an adequate “breadth of voice”.

Mr Prebble’s impartiality review will be the fifth such review by the BBC Trust, previous review subjects have included coverage of the UK nations, science and the Arab spring.

The review will be particularly interesting given the constitutional debate currently raging in Scotland and the growing calls for more balance from BBC Scotland.  The review is expected to conclude one year before the 2014 independence referendum.

Mr Prebble said: “I am delighted to have been invited to lead this important study for the BBC.

“Having spent most of my career outside the BBC, I look forward to bringing a fresh perspective to examine how well the commitment to breadth of voice – which is unique to the BBC – is being met.”

The state broadcaster’s reputation is under threat in Scotland with many viewers questioning the impartiality of the broadcaster’s Scottish franchise when it comes to the reporting of Scottish political matters.

Scottish government complaints have led to London controllers having to issue guidelines on language after many high profile reporters were guilty of adopting Unionist inspired terms and phrases in political items.

The Glasgow HQ has also been the scene of protests from viewers angry at what they insist is a culture of pro-Union bias.  Many are still angry at the BBC’s closing down of Scottish political blogs, when other blogs in Wales, England and Northern Ireland remain open for public participation.

Meanwhile, Scottish listeners have reacted with anger after it emerged two of BBC Radio Scotland’s news programmes have been dropped from BBC iPlayer for the duration of the Olympic Games.

Flagship morning news programme Good Morning Scotland and evening news show Newsdrive, have both been removed from the BBC’s online digital replay facility.

The programmes were dropped recently despite their Northern Irish and Welsh equivalents Good Morning Ulster and Good Morning Wales continuing to be available, and are not due to return until mid-September.

The axing of the Scottish news programmes coincides with complaints from oversees listeners who have found themselves unable to access Radio Scotland news using the normal online service.

Responding to questions on why the news programmes had been removed from iPlayer, a BBC spokesperson apologised but confirmed the shows, and others, would not be made available until after the Olympics had ended.

The spokesperson said:

“Please note that during the Olympics and until the end of the Paralympics – July 25 – September 12 – many Radio Scotland programmes will not be available on demand.

We apologise for the inconvenience that this has caused.

Nevertheless, I do understand you that you feel very strongly about this issue, so I’d like to assure you that I’ve fully registered your concerns.  This will be included on feedback reports that are available to personnel responsible for maintaining and improving the BBC iPlayer service.

These reports are viewed as important documents that can help shape decisions on future aspects of BBC iPlayer.

Once again thank you for contacting BBC iPlayer.”

The statement though gives no definitive reason for the removal of the two programmes and comes at a time when listener numbers for Radio Scotland are falling.

Yesterday Newsnet Scotland reported that the number of people listening to the Radio station had fallen by over 7% over twelve months.  There were also almost 5% fewer listeners between the first quarter of this year and the second.


Bridcot report’s twelve guidelines to ensure BBC impartiality:

1. Impartiality is and should remain the hallmark of the BBC as the leading provider of information and entertainment in the United Kingdom, and as a pre-eminent broadcaster internationally. It is a legal requirement, but it should also be a source of pride.

2. Impartiality is an essential part of the BBC’s contract with its audience, which owns and funds the BBC. Because of that, the audience itself will often be a factor in determining impartiality.

3. Impartiality must continue to be applied to matters of party political or industrial controversy. But in today’s more diverse political, social and cultural landscape, it requires a wider and deeper application.

4. Impartiality involves breadth of view, and can be breached by omission. It is not necessarily to be found on the centre ground.

5. Impartiality is no excuse for insipid programming. It allows room for fair-minded, evidence-based judgments by senior journalists and documentary-makers, and for controversial, passionate and polemical arguments by contributors and writers.

6. Impartiality applies across all BBC platforms and all types of programme. No genre is exempt. But the way it is applied and assessed will vary in different genres.

7. Impartiality is most obviously at risk in areas of sharp public controversy. But there is a less visible risk, demanding particular vigilance, when programmes purport to reflect a consensus for ‘the common good’, or become involved with campaigns.

8. Impartiality is often not easy. There is no template of wisdom which will eliminate fierce internal debate over difficult dilemmas. But the BBC’s journalistic expertise is an invaluable resource for all departments to draw on.

9. Impartiality can often be affected by the stance and experience of programme-makers, who need constantly to examine and challenge their own assumptions.

10. Impartiality requires the BBC to examine its own institutional values, and to assess the effect they have on its audiences.

11. Impartiality is a process, about which the BBC should be honest and transparent with its audience: this should permit greater boldness in its programming decisions.  But impartiality can never be fully achieved to everyone’s satisfaction: the BBC should not be defensive about this but ready to acknowledge and correct significant breaches as and when they occur.

12. Impartiality is required of everyone involved in output. It applies as much to the most junior researcher as it does to the Director-General. But editors and executive producers must give a strong lead to their teams. They must ensure that the impartiality process begins at the conception of a programme and lasts throughout production: if left until the approval stage, it is usually too late.