Saturday, 25 March 2017

That open letter

On that letter to Lord Hall from over 70 MPs, here's the letter in full:

Dear Lord Hall,
RE: BBC Coverage of Brexit
Brexit is the most important political challenge facing our country. Bearing in mind the new Royal Charter’s first ‘Public Purpose’ is to impartial news, as national broadcaster the BBC has a special obligation to ensure that it reflects available evidence and the balance of argument on the subject as fairly as possible.
We believe the BBC has fallen far short of this high standard. No doubt the BBC often nurtures first-class journalism but its position depends on trust. If politicians and the public don’t view it as an impartial broker, then the future of the BBC will be in doubt.
When Sir David Clementi, the incoming Chairman of the BBC, gave evidence to the Culture, Media, and Sport Select Committee in January, he insisted that the Corporation’s treatment of Brexit after the referendum had walked “a good path down the middle” – despite acknowledging that fewer viewers than ever now trust its coverage. We know many Leave-voting constituents have felt their views have been unfairly represented. This phenomenon is weakening the BBC's bond with the 52 per cent who voted Leave and all who wish to make a success of the decision made.
In particular, the Corporation’s focus on ‘regretful’ Leave voters, despite there being no polling shift towards Remain since the referendum, has led some to believe it is putting its preconceptions before the facts. Meanwhile, the posturing and private opinions of EU figures are too often presented as facts, without the vital context that they are talking tough ahead of the exit negotiations.
It particularly pains us to see how so much of the economic good news we’ve had since June has been skewed by BBC coverage which seems unable to break out of pre-referendum pessimism and accept new facts. Some of the signatories of this letter shared many of the concerns about the economic impact of Brexit, but all are delighted to find forecasts of immediate economic harm were at best misplaced. So-called ‘despite Brexit’ reporting may be expected of a partisan press, but licence fee-payers have the right to expect better.
The BBC has a much larger market share than any newspaper – it runs the most-used news website in the country, on top of its television and radio coverage. This, as well as viewers’ belief in its neutrality, means that BBC bias can have a substantial effect on national debate. BBC coverage also shapes international perceptions of the UK: we fear that, by misrepresenting our country either as xenophobic or regretful of the Leave vote, the BBC will undermine our efforts to carve out a new, global role for this country.
We are therefore asking you to take steps to correct these flaws in the BBC’s coverage of our EU exit at the earliest moment.
Yours etc.,

And this is the coverage it received on Today:

Transcript of BBC Radio 4, ‘Today’, 21st March 2016, MPs’ Letter on BBC Post-Referendum Negativity, 7.52am

SARAH MONTAGUE: More than 70 MPs have written to the Director General of the BBC, Tony Hall, complaining about the organisation's Brexit coverage. They say it’s pessimistic and skewed and risks undermining Brexit and damaging the country's reputation. The letter says, ‘It particular pains us to see how so much of the economic good news we've had since June has been skewed by BBC coverage which seems unable to break out of pre-referendum pessimism and accept new facts.’ Well, we did ask somebody from the BBC to, er, er, come forward, come on the programme and be interviewed, they didn’t want to put anybody forward, they do . . . did issue a statement though that says, ‘While we’re always live to our critics and understand passions are running high, it’s the job of the BBC to scrutinise and analyse the issues on behalf of the public, to hold politicians to account - that's what the BBC has been doing, will continue to do and it's precisely because of that the public trusts the BBC.’  Well, we don't have anybody to take the BBC's side as it were, but we do have our media editor Amol Rajan to tell us about this story.  And Amol, what is the beef? What are they particularly so worried about?
AMOL RAJAN: Well, the interesting thing Sarah, is that actually the BBC's coverage of the referendum itself got some plaudits from unlikely quarters, I mean, the Daily Mail wrote in an editorial that they thought the BBC had broadly got the referendum correct, and actually there was a sort of consensus, I think, amongst Fleet Street the BBC had surprised some people in its even-handedness, (fragments of words, unclear) surprised its critics in its even-handedness of the referendum. And what these MPs are saying, 70 MPs, three of them Labour, UKIP’s Douglas Carswell and, as you say Sarah, lots of people who backed the Remain side, including Julian Knight, what they are saying is actually the BBC has, in effect, reverted to type. And Julian Knight is, erm, you know, the, the open letter to a sympathetic newspaper editor is a hardy perennial of public life, Julian Knight himself, the Tory MP for Solihull, a former colleague of mine on the Independent, used to work for the BBC, he knows about how to get headlines, and he’ll be very pleased being on the front of the Mail and the Telegraph today.  And his basic beef and the beef of 70 MPs is that the BBC is, is two things really: one is that it’s excessively sympathetic to the interests of people that live in cities, so a metropolitan or cosmopolitan outlook – people that are more comfortable, perhaps, with globalisation. And the second thing is that, really, as you say, on the economic news that we’ve had since June 23 last year, lots of that economic news on, on jobs, or productivity being surprisingly positive, the BBC's not given sufficient weight or credence to that news because it's so virulently in favour of remaining within the EU.
SARAH MONTAGUE: And is the BBC guilty of that?
AMOL RAJAN: Well, I couldn’t possibly say. And Tony Hall, I’m sure, I’m sure has got strong views on it. I don’t, I don’t, I mean . . . Tony Hall, and I spoke to a senior BBC source last night who said the BBC’s highly vigilant, it’s staying, you know, it’s monitoring its own coverage of this, er, very passionate affair very, very closely. But I think they recognise that letters like these have a couple of different functions: one is to register genuine dissatisfaction and these Tory MPs, and they’re mostly Tory MPs, are, are dissatisfied; the other is to make something of a threat about the future of the BBC, they do, they do say in the letter that the BBC's future will be, quotes, ‘in doubt’ if it doesn’t get its house in order, and it isn’t seen to be a, quotes, ‘impartial broker’. And the third, thing, I think, Sarah, is to create something of an atmosphere, where the BBC feels that it has to operate (fragment of word, unclear) it’s aware of the fact that its opponents are in a sort of mood of watchful scrutiny over it. We are going to have, you know, a very, very tense negotiation with Europe, and I think the 70 MPs led by Julian Knight, and including some Remainers, are saying, you know, if you guys think you're going to be able to get away with stuff that we don’t like, rest assured, we’re not only watching you closely, but we’re happy to mobilise and generate some headlines, if we think you're getting it wrong.
SARAH MONTAGUE:  But Brexit throws up some enormous challenges, which have been covered on this programme and elsewhere in the BBC – they’re not being, from what I understand, critical of the coverage of that, it’s the sort of . . . the everyday, er . . . the economy effectively since the result?
AMOL RAJAN: Yes, and I think, I mean, there’s another story that’s around this morning, which is separate to this letter, which is covered in the Daily Mail, gets a bit of a billing on Page 1, and also top of Page 2, about whether or not Countryfile, which is watched by millions of people, erm, was excessively, or sort of conveyed a pro-EU mindset, when covering the issue of a migrant labour force. And I think the beef that these MPs have with this BBC’s coverage isn’t just restricted to news, it’s a feeling that the Corporation as a whole is infected by an excessively metropolitan outlook. I’m sure that over the course of today, Tony Hall, Director General will respond, but the striking thing about this for me, Sarah, was that David . . . or I should call him Sir David Clementi, who’s the new Chair of the BBC’s new Unitary Board, it’s in effect in, er, in place from the start of April . . . he’s copied on this letter, he’s copied in on this letter. And I think these MPs and the . . . er, the, erm . . . the sort of irate Tories and people like Douglas Carswell and Iain Duncan Smith, who’s another signatory, are basically saying to Sir David Clementi, as he starts his new role, rest assured that throughout your tenure in this job, we’re watching you.
SARAH MONTAGUE:  Indeed, and to have so many MPs, that’s...I mean, it’s...
AMOL RAJAN: (fragment of word, or word unclear)
SARAH MONTAGUE:  . . . there is a significance there.
AMOL RAJAN: It is, I mean, 70 MPs, as you say, they’re, they’re, they’re cross party lines, there’s three Labour MPs, they include Remainers, erm, it’s interesting, I mean there’s over 300 Tory MPs so I suppose the BBC and certainly the senior person at the BBC I spoke to last night would say: the other way of looking at this is they’ve only got a sort of a fifth of the, er, the Tory MPs, or about a quarter. Er, but it’s a significant number, and it’s, it’s unquestionably the case that lots and lots of people in politics, and amongst the public, and amongst the public, (word or words unclear) that the BBC has consistently, er, even if it’s got the referendum correct, it’s got the post-referendum economy wrong. And I think that’s where these MPs are coming from.
SARAH MONTAGUE:  Amol Rajan, thank you very much. 


  1. The regretful leave voter has become a recurrent theme. The “Today” report from Stoke on Trent this morning managed to unearth another one. I’m curious to know how they do this. Do they interview hundreds of people until they find one who is on message, or they ask leading questions and carefully edit the answers?

  2. Can you imagine Sarah Montague saying "What's their beef?" if it had been a complaint from the MCB about anti-Islamic broadcasting? No way! "Beef" is a loaded word that diminishes the value of a complaint. You wouldn't say that Martin Luther King's beef was racial segregation would you? Subtle, but that's how a lot of BBC bias works.