Julian Petley

Julian Petley is Professor of Screen Media and Journalism in the School of Arts at Brunel University. In this post he asks whether the BBC’s editorial independence is under threat due to the European Scrutiny Committee repeatedly accusing it of a pro-EU bias.

In 2013 the European Scrutiny Committee produced a report in which it argued that “given the possibility of some form of EU referendum – either on membership or following treaty change – over the next ten years, the media, particularly (given its role) the BBC, needs to ask itself difficult questions about how it deals with EU issues.”  It returned to this topic last month in a follow-up report, noting that “given the possibility of a referendum on the UK’s EU membership before the end of the decade, and potentially a renegotiation of the Treaties, the issue of how the media in general, and the BBC in particular, covers the EU is of paramount importance.”

Indeed. Given that informed debate about the EU has been made largely impossible by raucous withdrawalist newspapers in which all pan-European institutions are ignorantly lumped together as a Britain-threatening ‘Brussels’, one most certainly needs to raise the question of whether it is even possible, let alone desirable, to hold a referendum in such circumstances. As for the BBC, research carried out by Cardiff University for the BBC itself, published in 2013, found that there were distinct problems with its coverage of the EU in the two years which it studied, namely 2007 and 2012. According to this research:

Both years see a sharp focus on Europe as a problem for the UK, particularly in terms of national sovereignty. Both years also see Westminster voices and in particular the views of the Conservative and Labour parties, dominating coverage … UKIP barely merits a mention whilst the positive case for Europe tends to be framed solely in terms of economic benefits and political influence. There is very little room for sources presenting a broader range of views, and for substantive information about what the EU actually does and how much it actually costs … This is a topic area which does not generally encourage a broader representation of opinion because the reporting – and the views of the sources interviewed – largely focuses on political infighting. The reliance on Westminster sources means that the relationship of the UK with the EU is usually covered within a framework where the EU is seen as a threat.

The European Scrutiny Committee

These were not the lines of enquiry pursued by the Scrutiny Committee, however. The press, specifically, is never mentioned. It is piqued to the point of obsession by lack of media, and particularly BBC, coverage of its own affairs. It takes entirely at face value ‘research’ carried out by an anti-BBC, anti-EU pressure group, Newswatch (if you think my characterisation unfair, take a look here). It clearly wants more voices critical of the EU to be heard on the BBC. And it appears to believe that it has the right to try to exert pressure on BBC editorial decision-making.

So, what exactly does this Committee do? According to its webpages it assesses the legal and/or political importance of draft EU legislation deposited in Parliament by the Government, deciding whether to clear the document from scrutiny or withhold clearance and ask questions of the Government. It can also recommend documents for debate, either in a European Committee or on the Floor of the House. Additionally it can question Ministers in person and conduct general inquiries into legal, procedural or institutional developments in the EU. Its Chairman is Sir William Cash, and its members include several other MPs who are highly critical of the EU, to put it mildly, namely James Clappison, Kelvin Hopkins (who is openly in favour of withdrawal), Chris Kelly, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Henry Smith.

What originally piqued the Committee was the lack of media, and especially BBC, coverage given to its 2013 reportReforming the European Scrutiny System in the House of Commons. This argued that “the depth and pace of EU integration, now accelerating with demands for fiscal and political union and economic governance, has demonstrated the need for effective democratic parliamentary scrutiny and accountability of Government at Westminster – all of which affects the UK electorate.” The report alludes frequently to the “fundamental role of national Parliaments”, in line with recent speeches given by the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Europe, and argues that:

It is time to translate this shared view into concrete proposals, and we do so in this Report. Not only do we recommend a strengthening of the scrutiny reserve, we conclude that now is the time to propose the introduction of a form of national veto over EU legislative proposals, and then to explore the mechanics of disapplication of parts of existing EU obligations, notwithstanding the European Communities Act 1972.

This would require “an Act of Parliament to disapply the European Communities Act 1972 in relation to specific EU legislation”, an action which, with truly remarkable understatement, the Report admits “would be legally complex and controversial.”

The bowels of the BBC’

In order to understand the Committee’s critique of the BBC it would be helpful to start off by looking at the evidence session on 6 February 2013 with Ric Bailey, Chief Adviser, Politics, BBC; Mary Hockaday, Head of Newsroom, BBC; and Peter Knowles, Controller, BBC Parliament.

Questions concerning BBC coverage, or lack of coverage, of the Committee’s work crop up on at least eight occasions (Q191, Q193, Q200, Q201, Q203, Q208, Q210, Q242) and the Chairman mentions not being asked onto Question Time “or any of the other programmes” (Q238). Two examples of alleged BBC bias are given, and both, unsurprisingly, concern alleged pro-EU bias, one involving a Today item (Q214) and the other general coverage of the Lisbon Treaty (Q221-2).

The Chairman also takes a particular interest in those contributing to the BBC College of Journalism, asking:

What are the qualifications? You get people who have degrees in various subjects giving the lectures, all that sort of thing. As somebody who takes an interest in the extent to which people have looked at these questions in detail and in the broad landscape, what sort of qualifications do they have? Do they come from academic institutions? … It is the old business of who guards the guardians? The question is, who are the people who are providing the basic information? Where are they coming from? When the researchers sit down in the middle of the night, for example for the Today programme – I cannot believe John Humphrys and the others invent all the questions off the cuff; they are sitting there and being fed certain lines of inquiry – it is not unnatural that we would be interested in the base of the research that goes into that. (Q231-3)

The distinct suspicion that he may be thinking that he may have found the source of the pro-EU ‘institutional culture’ that those critical of both the BBC and the EU are convinced lurks at the heart of the Corporation is only intensified by a question which he posed to David Keighley of News-watch in an evidence session on 13 March 2013:

Do you think that there is any possibility that this [institutional bias by omission in EU matters] is derived from the nature of the research that takes place within the bowels of the BBC, in terms of the attitudes of the people who are asked to go through the output for news and current affairs and whose job it is to do the research-not just on the Today programme but on anything else? Do you think that … the question of the College of Journalism is an area where some further analysis needs to be done in order to establish why it is that you have this silo attitude when actually there should not be one at all? (Q133)

An ‘inappropriate’ request

The Committee also asked Lord Patten, the Chairman of the BBC Trust, to appear before it, which for some time he refused to do, giving rise to a correspondence (increasingly testy and threatening on the Chairman’s part) consisting of ten letters sent between 11 September 2013 and 13 March 2014. Patten eventually agreed to appear, but then retired from the Trust and so was unable to do so. In his letter of 25 September he explained that “I do not think my appearance at an evidence session would add materially to the Committee’s work” on the grounds that “the Trust has no role in day-to-day operational or editorial decisions, such as the level of coverage to afford to any particular area”, and that “while the Trust has a general duty to do all it can to ensure the impartiality and accuracy of the BBC it is not and should not be involved in decisions such as which programmes to broadcast.”

As the correspondence wore on, however, Patten made it clear that his unwillingness to appear stemmed additionally from his, and the Trust’s, concern that to do so might be perceived as undermining the BBC’s independence. As he pointed out on 14 November:

It is incumbent upon the Trust under the terms of the Royal Charter to stand up for the independence of the BBC and in particular its editorial independence. We are bound to weigh this as of paramount importance when viewed against a request to appear before your Committee which we believe to be inappropriate. Accordingly I must decline your request. 

He noted that he has appeared before the Culture, Media and Sport and Public Accounts Committees six times, “and neither attempt[ed] to engage with us – as you are proposing to do – on the editorial decisions of the BBC.” He continued:

We wonder if you have considered that the result of you asserting your right to call me before your committee on this issue is that BBC Trustees could in future be required to appear before any select committee to discuss the coverage of the BBC in its particular area of responsibility … We can’t believe that is what was intended when the Royal Charter was drafted and we do not believe that it is consistent with the idea of an independent Trust protecting the BBC from undue political interference.

When, on 3 March, he did finally agree to appear he pointed out that, “in line with the Trust’s Charter role, I will not be in a position to engage with your Committee on the detail of BBC operations or editorial decisions.” The Report itself tartly notes that “we reject the assertion in Lord Patten’s letter that our invitation to him to give oral evidence was “inappropriate”. We fully respect the editorial independence of the BBC. But that does not mean that the BBC Trust is above Parliament, and should pick and choose its interlocutors here.”

‘A serious mistake’

As part of its follow-up to the original 2013 Scrutiny inquiry, the Committee requested BBC Trustee Richard Ayre, and Trust Chairman, Rona Fairhead, to come before it on 14 January 2015. Lord Hall, the BBC Director-General, and James Harding, its Director of News and Current Affairs, appeared before it on 11 March. Once again, the same concerns as above were raised, although this time, on occasion, in a more aggressive fashion.

Thus at the 14 January hearing, Michael Connarty refers to “the BBC’s apparent refusal to cover in depth this Committee’s November 2013 scrutiny report” (Q29), asks: “Why was our report, in which we did a very thorough piece of investigation and evidence-taking as to how the process might be improved, practically ignored?” (Q30), and suggests that “maybe that is why the Government has completely refused to implement it. They can do things almost in secrecy because the media do not cover it” (Q31).  Later in the same hearing, the Chairman complains that:

If the European Scrutiny Committee produces a report of that importance in November last year and it receives no coverage at all – I do not pay the slightest attention, if I may say so, to the question of whether other people looked at it; the question is whether the BBC looked at it, and that is what you are here to answer. They did not, and I find that very puzzling, because, as Michael Connarty indicated, it was the most radical review of the manner in which the European scrutiny system, which relates to the Government of the United Kingdom in relation to the European issue, was examined by the Committee with responsibility for that issue. It was not done, and therefore the question is not whether there was a breadth of opinion and voices; it is a question of whether or not the actual issue of the impartiality with regard to the subject matter was being properly presented by the BBC. The answer is emphatically that it was not. (Q57)

Ayre responds that “the decision over whether or not to report the findings of this Committee or any Committee is a matter entirely for programme makers in the BBC, for editors acting within the BBC’s editorial guidelines” and adds that the Trust was complying with the BBC Charter, “in the sense that the charter says that editorial decisions are for the BBC executive, and the Trust is explicitly excluded from involvement in editorial decisions” (Q57-8).

He then suggests to the Chairman that “I am sure you would recognise that the author of any report is arguably not best placed to determine whether that report should be featured in BBC news programmes, because everyone who writes a report thinks it is worth reporting”, which receives the tart response: “This is a Committee, not just of one person. This is a self-evident fact. It was a radical report. It was not reported. That is the point” (Q58). A point which he repeats, forcefully, at Q66 in the same session, asserting that for the BBC to “ignore” the report was a “serious mistake” and a “serious challenge to most of the evidence given today.”

Suffused with suspicion

Both hearings are, once again, suffused with suspicion that the BBC is institutionally biased towards the EU, and that this colours its coverage of the institution. Thus at Q45 in the 11 March hearing the Chairman observes of theToday programme:

Some of us know a little bit about what goes on in the European context, and we find it rather difficult to listen to a stream of people who are constantly being asked, ‘But isn’t this going to mean that if the United Kingdom was to leave the European Union, you’—for example, the vice-president of Ford—‘would regard it as a complete disaster area for the United Kingdom?’ Or, for example, someone such as Martin Sorrell is brought on, who is well known to have views of the kind that he tends to express very volubly. There is a clear indication to those of us who listen to it that there is some kind of a system and/or an accident that leads to those sort of people being asked on, whereas people who have a completely contrary view seem to get less of a bite of the cherry.

More specifically, at Q41 in the 14 January hearing, Clappison brings up the fact that Fairhead is not only Chairman of the BBC Trust but also a member of the HSBC board, whose Chairman is a member of Business for New Europe, which is campaigning for Britain to stay in the EU. In response to a question about whether this might be a problem in terms of her perceived impartiality as a Trust member on matters to do with BBC coverage of the EU, Fairhead responds that the Chairman had signed up on a personal basis, although Clappison begs to differ.

At Q41 in the 11 March hearing, Chris Kelly notes of the BBC’s new Europe Editor (Katya Adler) that “there has been some comment in the media regarding her previous roles as a moderator for a number of events organised by institutions of the EU”, and at Q57-8 the Chairman brings up the fact that Bill Bush, who used to be head of Analysis and Research at the BBC, went on to become Tony Blair’s head of research, and that a former “regular forNewsnight” (actually The Politics Show and On the Record), Paola Buonadonna, is now “the head of British Influence” (actually its media director).

With the argument being conducted on this kind of level it was absolutely inevitable that the College of Journalism would once again be dragged in, and sure enough, at Q52, the Chairman avers:

I am interested very much in who does the training: the ‘quis custos question. If a trainer comes from a background where their education and training have drilled into them that moving towards integration is a good idea, that will be transmitted to the journalists in the training sessions you are referring to. Of course, that can lead to ignorance, because the complexity of the European issue is such that it requires some serious training and education.

He then goes on to explain that:

The important point that I am trying to make is about the impression that can be gained from people who seem to move seamlessly into arenas where they have a lot of influence but, at the same time, clearly do not come from the kind of background that some others feel represents the Euro-realist view. They might give a particular impression or perception … When people who were employed by the BBC appear to have attitudes that carry them into areas of the kind that I have described, perhaps there is an indication, a consciousness, that there is a form of … institutional mindset … which will cause some concern. (Q58)

At Q26 in the 11 March hearing, Rees-Mogg notes that the BBC has received €30 million funding from the EU in recent years. He goes on to point out that:

Article 9.2 of the regulations regarding the structural funds, from which the BBC has received money, states: ‘The Commission and the Member States shall ensure that assistance from the Funds is consistent with the activities, policies and priorities of the Community’. Further, the money received in 2009 and 2011 under an international heading was received on the basis of support for media capacity in the area of EU integration. 

He then asks Hall and Harding whether this “undermines your reputation if you accept money from the European Union that comes with a clear requirement that you support, in the way I have outlined, the institutions of the European Union … It seems to me that it undermines the absolute guarantee of independence that the BBC ought to have, and it is rather tainted money.” Hall and Harding were obviously not prepared for such a question, and provided a written response a few days later.

This reveals not a fiendish EU plot to smuggle pro-EU propaganda into the UK via the BBC but that the funds were received not by the BBC but by BBC Media Action (BBC World Service Trust until December 2011). It was not used to support the creation of content on the BBC’s UK public services but was a legitimate source of funding for work in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe by BBC Media Action, a company limited by guarantee and a registered charity set up by the BBC and reporting to a Board of Trustees the majority of whom are independent of the BBC. It has its own constitution, which is separate from the BBC public service Charter. (Further details may be found here).

Declarations of independence

Even from the limited examples given above, it should be abundantly clear that the Committee felt entitled to deliver strictures, and in no uncertain terms, on matters of BBC editorial judgement – and not simply on the BBC’s alleged ‘refusal’ to cover the 2013 scrutiny report. This raises the very serious issue of threats to the BBC’s independence, and, thankfully, brought forth from the BBC a number of ringing declarations of that independence. Thus at Q23 in the 14 January session, James Harding stated:

The reason why we prize that independence so dearly is that if the public are going to trust the BBC to be independent and to cover politicians impartially, it has got to be clear that journalists, editors and the people who run a news organisation as important as the BBC are not asked by politicians to come and account for what they do and, in effect, do the bidding of those politicians. There is a danger here that you misread what the issue is for us. It is felt very strongly, and it is about a reluctance to come and account for editorial news judgments. 

The Chairman retorts at Q24 that the BBC wouldn’t have any money if Parliament didn’t authorise it, which provokes the stinging response from Harding that “you wouldn’t have anything worth paying for if it weren’t independent.” And in a written response following his appearance, Harding states: “I do not think it would be at all right for our approach to the coverage of controversial issues, domestic or international, to be open to formal challenge by politicians, either individually or as a Committee other than through the processes laid down under the BBC Charter and Agreement for any individual complainant. As mentioned in the oral evidence session, that independence is guaranteed under Article 6 (1).”

In the 14 January session, apropos Lord Hall’s initial refusals to appear before the Committee, Ayre remarks:

Long before I became a trustee, I used to work at the BBC 15 years ago. I was a BBC journalist. At one stage, 20 years ago, I was the controller of editorial policy for the BBC. If I had been asked for my advice by the DG of the day, Lord Birt, on whether he should appear before a Select Committee four months before a general election in which the subject area of that Committee was likely to be a matter of extreme contention, I would have advised him that it was a real threat to the BBC’s independence. At a time when freedom of expression, the press, the media and speech has much occupied this nation and our neighbour nations in recent days, I can entirely understand why he might have reached that view. I would be astonished were the director-general to take a different view, had he been summoned before the Treasury Committee to talk about the BBC’s editorial coverage of the economy or the Home Affairs Committee to talk about the BBC’s coverage of immigration or crime. All of those are key issues in an election campaign. I submit that audiences would not be pleased to think that the editor-in-chief of the BBC was subjected to questioning by MPs on these editorial issues in the run-up to one of the most contentious elections we have lived through. (Q17)

Hall’s initial refusals to appear before the Committee led to another lengthy correspondence, consisting of ten letters sent between 29 January 2014 and 28 January 2015. Hall’s reluctance also had to do with safeguarding not simply the BBC’s independence but also public perceptions of that independence. Thus in a letter of 3 March 2014, he stated:

I hope you will understand that the BBC’s editorial independence as guaranteed by the BBC Charter is something very highly valued by the British public. The fact that Parliament does not, through any of its formal structures, seek to question the BBC on its editorial approach to issues, I am sure reinforces the confidence of the public that the BBC is genuinely independent from political pressure. As Editor-in-Chief of the BBC, I believe that an appearance to be questioned on our coverage of highly contested political issues by way of a formal Select Committee hearing could undermine that critical perception, and for that reason, I am afraid I must decline to offer to appear. 

In a later letter, of 20 January 2015, he actually cited the questioning of Ayre and Fairhead, discussed earlier, as illustrating the reason for his unwillingness to be questioned by the Committee, namely “the risk that we are seen by the British public and overseas to be being questioned by politicians on editorial judgements made by our journalists in our coverage of Europe and the European Scrutiny process”, and noted that the Committee  “did on occasion seek to question the decisions made by programme editors in their coverage of individual stories”, citing as one particular example Connarty’s remarks, quoted above, about the BBC’s non-coverage of the 2013 scrutiny report.

Accountability to Parliament

Altogether unsurprisingly, the Scrutiny Reform Follow-Up and Legacy Report,which was published on 25 March 2015, was extremely critical of the BBC. In particular it claimed that Lord Hall did not seem to “appreciate fully the limitations on the BBC editorial independence imposed by Article 6 of the Charter, the Framework Agreement and the general law”, and that James Harding’s defence of the BBC’s independence, quoted above, was of concern to the Committee “because such editorial judgements are constrained by the limitations of the Charter, the Framework Agreement and the general law.” Once more, the Committee was piqued by lack of BBC coverage of its own affairs, mentioning yet again “our seminal report” of 2013, and complaining of the hearing involving Hall and Harding that “apart from a broadcast on BBC Parliament after the session and a short summary of the proceedings on the BBC website, there was to our knowledge no news commentary, analysis or interviews on any of the mainstream programmes of the BBC of the proceedings.”

They continued: “We regard these failures as inexplicable, and in our view they could be construed as a breach of the BBC’s duties under its Charter and Framework Agreement, and particularly in respect of its public purposes.”  More generally, they expressed themselves “deeply concerned about the manner in which the BBC treats EU issues” and complained that “our witnesses seemed to be more intent on defending and asserting their own opinions, mindset and interpretation of the obligations under the Charter and Framework Agreement than in whether they had in fact discharged them.”  The Committee concluded that:

In the light of the evidence we have taken over the past two years from the BBC, and given the statements made by the Chairman of the BBC Trust, Rona Fairhead, indicating that even she, as Chairman of the Trust, wishes to see reform of governance, that our criticisms of the way the BBC treats EU issues, and the approach by its leaders to the Committee, particularly the initial refusal to give oral evidence, shows that accountability to Parliament must be a key factor to be considered as part of the review of the BBC Charter in 2016, as should be strict adherence to the aims set out by the BBC in its response to the Wilson Review.

What did Lord Wilson say?

This refers to the review of BBC news coverage of the EU undertaken for the Corporation by Lord Wilson of Dinton and published in 2005. Its criticisms are frequently cited by the Committee as a means of pointing up what it regards as the BBC’s current failures and shortcomings in this area. Had all of Wilson’s recommendations been acted upon, it seems to be saying, the Committee would have been satisfied. But, as I have suggested, what the Committee appears to desire above all else is more voices critical of the EU on the BBC. The only problem is that it is extremely hard to find that particular prescription in the Wilson report.

This article was originally published on Open Democracy and is reposted here with permission and thanks. It gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science