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An Open Letter to Helen Boaden on BBC Bias

May 27, 2011

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.

A penguin upstages Pallab Ghosh during his report about a new penguin enclosure at London Zoo (from the BBC website)

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.

The BBC show where Macedonia is in Greece. Nearly right chaps. Keep trying.

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 perilBBC 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.

Kind Regards

Alex

10 Comments leave one →
  1. paul croft permalink
    May 27, 2011 4:13 pm

    brilliant!: the pope dying was another classic of disproportionate “news” coverage, including a doctor who knew a bloke whose brother knew another bloke [etc etc etc] who knew a specialist who once treated a bloke who had a similar illness to the pope and was therefore able to hazard a guess as to how long it would be before the pope died – viz “Probably not very.”

  2. Peter Rowsome permalink
    May 27, 2011 8:12 pm

    all I can say is that this is an absolutely excellent summary of the BBC’s failures and the larger dangers to it; there are many individuals who are excellent and the World Service is still outstanding, but corporately the BBC seem to be sleepwalking towards disaster. The BBC needs to buck up its act – we’ve all seen what has happened to most of American mainstream TV News. The quality/objectivity of BBC coverage is also of fundamental importance to Britain’s reputation and standing in the world – far more than the Royal Family anyway!

  3. cynicalHighlander permalink
    May 28, 2011 12:17 am

    Sites down just now so have patience.
    Pacific Quay-stone Kops need to change

    The BBC has been letting down all regions in ‘Britain’ for years except London which is their nucleus and where the power lies. In Scotland the BBC’s phrase is “We have learned” which translated means we have been given a press release from our Labour party ‘friends’ to try and smear the opposition no matter its colour.

    That is one of the reasons why newsnetscotland was set up to counter the news writing rather than reporting that swamps our air/visual media put out by our national broadcaster. We in the west back democracy in other nations yet this sort of media propaganda is endemic within these isles where we are impotent.

    Media Bias The BBC has become so large and politically motivated that it is endangering all of our freedoms in getting the truth in all things.

    ps. be patient with newsnet to come back online as it is funded by public donation not by a criminalised tax collection system.

  4. cynicalHighlander permalink
    May 28, 2011 12:22 am

    Meant to post this link as well What is going on in the BBC’s Little Britain?

  5. May 28, 2011 10:29 am

    Excellent. Thoroughly agree. The BBC has possibly passed the point of no return in terms of integrity and quality, I’m not sure. Regardless, though, the attitude it has to friendly critics is appalling.

  6. Jamie permalink
    May 28, 2011 10:30 am

    The telegraph has also this week disabled the comments function on any stories with negative coverage of the economy.

    The BBC has also limited blog entries to 500 characters.

    The attacks on the government e onomic policy were becoming easy and we were winning the argument and persuading the DT and BBCs majority readership. The DT journalist were even forced to accept the arguments from commentators.

    We need forums to discuss in a voncensual democracy. This is dangerous stuff.

  7. Phil permalink
    May 28, 2011 12:11 pm

    Yes, the beeb does seem to have lost it’s neutrality recently. Also. it seems to be favouring ‘Heat’ style journalism. I couldn’t give a monkeys if Obama and Cameron were cooking up ‘British sausages and burgers’ as the Breaking News tag line said on on Wednesday or that Michelle Obama was wearing a dress designed by whoever. As for the ‘have your say’ option on the news pages, I have at least 2 responses blocked for having the nerve to question the coalition governments policies, free speech. The same organisation that reports on the rise of the freedom movement in the Middle East states, but, won’t facilitate it here, only if its does not upset their paymasters, double standards.

  8. May 29, 2011 12:03 pm

    Brilliant. Am I going to be laughed out of court if I mention Big Brother? (No, not that one…)

  9. Steve Finney permalink
    May 29, 2011 2:18 pm

    I give up on the BBC’s news coverage quite a while ago as my teeth were wearing down. One thing that annoyed me was the use of experts during the Fukishima nuclear crisis, the people who were most negative about the effects of this event were gradually sidelined in favour of Malcolm Grimston who hails from Chatham house, which is heavily sponsored by large corporations & the like. The last comment I heard from him was to the effect that Chernobyl wasn’t all that bad.
    http://www.chathamhouse.org.uk/about/directory/view/-/id/86/
    I also remember him at the beginning of the crisis saying that all the Japanese reactors were all modern & would be fine.
    Perhaps he is right, but there are different views on this, but this view just happens to suit the nuclear industry & the Japanese government. Unfortunately the full effects will not be seen for some time & then it will be too late.
    I was also like you annoyed by the coverage of the TUC march, a bit of light relief however was given by an anarchist repeatedly demanding into one of their puppets faces “How much do you earn”? I think he had a point.

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