BBC metropolitan mindset unabated

Madoc Batcup says London-centric BBC producers continue to ignore Wales and should be held to account

On the 21 May 2010 Radio 4’s Any Questions? hosted by Jonathan Dimbleby came to Gowerton to make their broadcast. You might have been forgiven for thinking that Gowerton was in Chesham and Amersham, the constituency of the new Secretary of State for Wales, for all the Welsh content that it had. None of the panellists came from Wales and none of the questions were in respect of Wales. Indeed, Wales was considered so denuded of anybody of sufficient ability to answer the questions that Grant Shapps, the housing minister with a pilot’s licence, was asked to fly himself to Swansea airport (presumably at licence payers’ expense) to make up the numbers on the panel.

In addition we had the interesting spectacle of one of the questioners saying that although he had been ‘given a question to ask’ he wanted to ask one of his own, thereby begging a number of questions as to the criteria used to select the questions in the first place.

At a time when there may be a referendum on additional powers for the Welsh Assembly later on this year, when there has been an announcement that the unfair Barnett funding formula for Wales will remain in place, and when there are now different parties/coalitions in power in Wales and in Westminster for the first time, there was no lack of potential questions with a Welsh dimension relevant to the UK as a whole. Indeed the fact that Wales has had a coalition government for three years might have been the subject of a question in terms of what Westminster could learn from the Welsh experience.

Of course this is not an isolated incident. The television programme Question Time hosted by the other half of the Dimbleby combo, David, was broadcast from Cardiff on the 25 February. Although on that occasion two of the panellists were Welsh MPs, no questions in respect of Wales were asked, although two that related almost exclusively to England (including one on the English football team) were.

More than a decade after devolution it is extraordinary that in the very programmes that have pretensions to be less metropolitan in their approach by travelling around the UK, the BBC continues to flagrantly breach its own interpretation of its obligations of a public sector broadcaster.

In the BBC’s ‘Programme Response to Devolution’ published in December 1998, the BBC stated that:

“In the past the BBC has sometimes appeared insensitive to political, administrative, cultural and linguistic differences across the UK, giving the impression of a London-based organisation dismissive of the more geographically distant parts of the UK. There have been errors of judgement and, on occasions, of accuracy.

“As a priority, the BBC is now embarking on an extensive series of measures to educate journalists, programme makers and managers, alerting them to the differences across the UK… they will include Regular monitoring of programmes for sensitivity to differences between the nations.

“These measures are important not only to enable the BBC to provide accurate and well judged news for its audiences in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but also to allow it to offer all viewers and listeners a true sense of the diversity within the U.K.”

Can it be claimed that the Any Questions programme from Gowerton failed to “offer all viewers and listeners a true sense of the diversity within the UK”?

Clause 4(d) of the BBC Charter states:

“The Public Purposes of the BBC are as follows:

Representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities

Under the Agreement between the BBC and the UK government, signed at the time of the renewal of the BBC’s Charter in July 2006, the BBC undertook a number of commitments in respect of this Charter Principle, for example –

In developing (and reviewing) the purpose remit for representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities, the Trust must, amongst other things, seek to ensure that the BBC—

promotes awareness of different cultures and alternative viewpoints, through content that reflects the lives of different people and different communities within the UK.”

Under the Public Purpose Remit Representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities’ published by the BBC Trust in 2007, the BBC undertakes to “Represent the different nations, regions and communities to the rest of the UK” and also to “Cater for the different nations, regions and communities of the UK”.

It is clear therefore that the BBC has committed itself to ensuring that the interests of the different parts of the UK are reflected in its output, and that the rest of the UK is able to be informed about the differences of distinct regions and nations of the UK.

In addition the BBC Trustees commissioned a report on this very issue which was published in 2008, entitled The BBC Trust Impartiality Report: BBC Network News And Current Affairs Coverage Of The Four UK Nations, popularly known as the ‘King Report’, after its author Professor Anthony King, of Essex University. This incorporated research done by Cardiff University.

The report noted that:

“Notwithstanding examples of good practice, however, and supported by findings from the Cardiff research, the review highlights concern that BBC network news and current affairs programmes taken as a whole are not reporting the changing UK with the range and precision that might reasonably be expected given the high standards the BBC itself aspires to. There are specific concerns as to accuracy and clarity of reporting, the balance of coverage, and missed opportunities of drawing on the rich variety of the UK and communicating it to multiple audiences. As examples, political coverage is seen as unduly focused on Westminster in volume and style; there is seen to be a general bias in favour of stories about England or telling stories from an England perspective; and there is evidence that several stories in the nations which may have been significant to the UK were not taken up by the network. Overall, Professor King concludes that the BBC has not responded adequately and appropriately to the UK’s changing political, social, economic and cultural architecture. In the closing sections of his report, he offers a range of suggestions and issues for consideration in resolving the concerns he has highlighted.”

In its concluding comments on the report the BBC Trust stated:

“However, we are concerned at Professor King’s assessment that the BBC is not reporting the changing UK with the range that might be expected, given the fact that audiences have expressed a desire to learn more about other parts of the UK in the BBC’s coverage. This echoes a wider concern expressed to the Trust that audiences see the BBC as too preoccupied with the interests and experiences of London, and that those who live elsewhere in the UK do not see their lives adequately reflected on the BBC. It is not acceptable that a BBC funded by licence fee payers across the whole country should not address the interests of them all in fair measure.

“We are also concerned at the finding by Professor King that there is insufficient precision and clarity in the BBC’s network coverage. The BBC’s output must meet the high standards expected by the licence fee payer. It is essential that accurate information about political developments in the four nations is reflected in network news and current affairs so that the authority of the voice of the BBC is maintained, and the audience has confidence in that voice. To achieve full accuracy, the audience needs to be made aware by clearly labelling which facts are applicable to which nations of the UK.”

Some two years after the King Report the BBC is still failing to comply with the recommendations of the BBC Trust and nearly 12 years after its document Programme Response to Devolution it is still failing “to offer all viewers and listeners a true sense of the diversity within the UK.”

Part of the problem may lie in the way the BBC measures its compliance of its public service obligation. Under its Operating Remit of 2007 it states that “The Trust will use a system of quantitative measures”. It is not so much the validity of the complaint as the quantity of complaints that is measured it would seem. I would therefore suggest that anyone who feels that the current situation is unsatisfactory after a period of twelve years of broken commitments should complain to where Sir Michael Lyons confirms that ‘your complaint is important to us’.

The attitude of the Any Questions? programme in respect of Wales is, I think, emblematic of a more fundamental metropolitan mindset in the BBC; reflected for example in their approach to the last general election and the broadcasting of the leadership debates. The lavish salary structures of BBC executives and the inability of the BBC Trust to ensure the BBC provides an understanding of the devolution settlement across the UK raises serious questions as to whether the BBC is sufficiently accountable. As the new UK government starts to take the knife to the civil service, the question is how, and by whom, will the BBC, privileged as it is to impose an annual flat tax on television usage, be taken to task to ensure it honours its commitments?

Madoc Batcup is a barrister working in financial services

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