An Open Letter to Helen Boaden on BBC Bias
Dear Ms Boaden,
Growing up in Greece, I came to view the words “reported by the BBC” as synonymous to “this story is solid, factual and impartial”. Perhaps this was partly due to my youthful naivete. I believe, however, that it was also an illustration of the superb worldwide reputation that the BBC had built. I am greatly saddened to see a fear of cuts (not savings, but cuts) ruining that reputation.
The seed of my concerns was planted in the well-publicised editorial dictate that “cuts” should be referred to as “savings”, which closely followed the BBC’s DG being summoned to 10 Downing Street and the appointment of ex BBC executive Craig Oliver as no.10’s Director of Communications.
My concerns were further compounded by BBC News’ bizarre insistence on inviting representatives from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, to discuss issues on which the Tories and LibDems are in complete agreement and toeing the Coalition line. The effect of this constant “double-teaming” is to marginalise and drown opposing voices in a gaggle of coalition ones. It cannot have escaped your notice.
I was further dismayed to see your coverage of the TUC rally on the 26th March. I participated in that peaceful, family-oriented, good-natured event. When I returned home, what I saw on BBC News was so skewed and sensationalistic that it described a day which I did not recognise. And I was there!
A few days later, you published a blog on the BBC website which claimed that:
“[T]he BBC finds itself criticised by one prominent MP and several newspaper columnists for being biased towards the protestors – at exactly the same time as fielding complaints from people who thought that we were too hard on the demonstrators and their cause. This was a big news story and feelings about the Government’s economic programme run high on both sides.
It is perfectly true that it is sometimes difficult to strike the correct balance and I hold my hands up when we don’t get it right. On this occasion, though, I think the BBC did serve its audiences appropriately and thoroughly.”
I disagreed with your assessment. Splitting the screen while the Leader of the Opposition was making his speech to show a tiny group of hooded protesters throwing paint at shop windows made an explicit and very unsavoury link between the main march and the violence. I expressed my concerns and, naturally, I received no response.
I then wrote to you on 6th April asking who were the “prominent MP and several newspaper columnists” who had criticised the BBC “for being biased towards the protestors“. Your response, received more than a month later, was:
“[W]e are happy to disclose that the MP was Conservative Philip Davies and the press coverage that criticised the BBC included Peter Hitchens in the Mail on Sunday (Mar 27); the Daily Mail leader column (Mar 28); Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail (Mar 26) before the march; and the Daily Telegraph also ran a critical news piece (Mar 28).”
Really? Tha Mail, The Telegraph and a distasteful, marginal, right-wing backbencher whose only claim to “prominence” is the regular attention-seeking expression of distasteful, marginal, right-wing views? This is the ballast on the other side of the scales which acts as an indication that your coverage was balanced? Auntie Beeb trepidatiously scanning the pages of the Daily Mail to find out whether they got it wrong?
I also made a FOI request for a couple of things. I asked for any documents which gave guidance as to how the demonstration of the 26th of March was to be covered and the figures of how many complaints were received arguing bias in favour of the protesters and how many arguing bias against. You dutifully refused to supply these documents.
You did so on the basis that these are documents excluded from the Act because they are “for the purposes of ‘journalism, art or literature.’” and explained that “[t]he BBC has chosen not to volunteer information relating to the subject of editorial complaints for several very good reasons, chief amongst them being a desire to maintain our independence and impartiality.”
You did so without spotting the circularity, absurdity or irony of your argument. Apparently, it is OK for you to reference the complaints you have received on your blog to justify your view that your coverage was independent and impartial, but cannot disclose their aggregated statistics, in order to preserve your independence and impartiality. We should just take your word for it. And all this from an organisation which cries “foul” every time a government department uses a thinly veiled excuse to refuse their FOI requests.
You are in danger of becoming marginalised by twitter and blogs. You are doing this to yourselves. I watched the hysterical coverage of the Obama visit, agog. Hours of Michelle at Oxford making inspirational speeches, without a mention of the tuition fee fiasco which is making inspirational speeches irrelevant. Hours of Dave flipping burgers and Barak barbecuing sausages without a single mention that, in breach of a long-standing political convention, Cameron had actively supported McCain in the presidential election. Meanwhile #CameronBackedMcCain was the top trend on UK twitter.
If an alien intelligence received your 24 hour cycle on the day of the Royal Wedding, they would be unaware that anything was going on with the Economy, with Politics, with Syria or Lybia. Instead, you had cake experts – plural – CAKE EXPERTS, trying to guess the precise flavour of the wedding cake and whether it was moist or not. For twenty minutes. Remember the FOI excludes documents held “for the purposes of journalism” not tittle-tattle. Stop treating your entire viewing audience like “Hello” magazine readers. You cannot report “Men Stuck in Cave for Six Hours” under the heading “Northern Ireland Politics”. You cannot go on actively avoiding real news in the hope that, if you keep your head down, you will be all right.
Do not think Ms Boaden that I am not sympathetic. I get it. You and the rest of the staff there are afraid for your jobs. Auntie’s bloomers are a little soiled. The future of BBC Wales is in peril. BBC World Service has already been severely affected. But you have a function to perform. Every time this savage Coalition government refers to the millions of public sector workers as useless, lazy loafers, it includes you. By not doing your job, you are making it easier, not harder, for them to cut it. You have a staff of the bravest men and women in the world – happy to stand yards away from shell-fire and burning buildings to report the news. Not Pippa’s arse. Not the consistency of barbecue sauce. Not the largest penguin pool at the Zoo. News. I suggest you use them.