Saturday 31 August 2013

Workaday answers


This week's Newswatch saw Samira Ahmed interviewing Mary Hockaday, head of the BBC Newsroom. They discussed charges of liberal bias against the corporation, particularly in the light of their coverage of the David Miranda story and the CPS report into BBC bias. 

The quoted viewer complaints which preceded the interview (and which echoed my own feelings) were:
"68,999 people detained and, as far as I can tell, the media don't give a stuff. The 69,000th is the partner of a prominent journalist, and the news industry goes ballistic."
"Had Mr. Miranda been the partner of a Telegraph or Mail journalist, would you still have led on this story for two consecutive days? Of course not. I recognise that the BBC has for many years regarded itself as the broadcasting arm of The Guardian, but these last two days have been egregious in their display of bias."
"Viewers are not interested in your editors trying to get over their Guardianista viewpoints". 

The interview ran as follows. I'll transcribe it in full and add my own reactions in red:

Samira Ahmed: Mary, let's start with the David Miranda story. It dominated all the main bulletins for two full days. People know there's a news story but they feel there's a sense that the coverage was over the top and perhaps showed a bias. [Yep.]

Mary Hockaday: We make our decisions about what we lead our news on and what we cover in the news based on our own judgements, not because we're following anyone's agenda. [Perhaps. But that doesn't mean that you don't share the same agenda due to a shared way of thinking - a way others (such as most of the rest of the media) may not share.] That story seems to us new, important and significant. [It didn't strike most other media outlets as being anywhere near as important/significant]. Various reasons. As you said, although many people have been detained under Schedule 7, very few - I think about 3% of them - are held for more than an hour and very, very few are held for the full nine hours. So that in itself was unusual and came to our attention. [...'and come to our attention', courtesy of The Guardian]. When you then put David Miranda into the context of the coverage of the leaks from the fugitive Edward Snowden, a story that of course we and others have been covering in various stages for weeks and months [you can say that again!!!], it seemed again significant. The other thing that made the story prominent, not just for one day but for two, was the reaction, and there was a lot of reaction. [Didn't the BBC's OTT pursuit of the story provoke some part of that reaction?] 

Samira Ahmed: People's concern was that The Guardian came out very outraged and it seemed to many viewers that the BBC sort of swallowed that agenda, let them tell their version of events, which was subsequently actually not quite as it seemed. You know, the whole tone of 'outrageous infringement of human rights' when, you know, many documents were found...

Mary Hockaday (interrupting): We didn't have a tone of outrageous indignation. [Not even on PM? They even invited in someone to recreate the smashing of the Guardian's hard drive - someone who the day before his appearance on the programme had tweeted his disgust at the authorities' behaviour and declared his intent to stick it to them - which PM duly allowed him to do (whilst not giving the game away.)] We had a story that we wanted to uncover and then report, and one of the things that we were doing was to probe very carefully The Guardian's account. [I listened to all the coverage on Radio 4 on the first day and watched the BBC News at Six and Newsnight. There was very little challenging of the Guardian's version of events.] We were really trying to understand David Miranda's role [not on Day One you weren't], find the facts of the story, air the issues and challenge the people at the heart of it. 

Samira Ahmed: What's interesting, however the BBC kind of explains that coverage, is that many viewers felt that there was a sense of liberal bias and I wonder, you know, why it is that viewers feel that and, indeed, how you address the accusation that there is an endemic liberal bias, particularly towards The Guardian.

Mary Hockaday: Well, I really, really [laughing], you know, challenge that. People have all sorts of views about what we do. [The old 'we get criticism from both sides - pace Cardiff University - so we must be getting it about right' line.] The most important thing is to understand how, ultimately, we are accountable for the impartiality of everything we do. We're accountable to the BBC Trust. We're accountable in many ways to Ofcom. We are part of a highly regulated - and properly so - public service broadcasting sector where regulation around impartiality is really fundamental and we, you know, test ourselves hard on it but we're held to account for it in these various public and scrutiny ways as well, and overall all the evidence shows that actually BBC, BBC News coverage is some of the most...well, is the most trusted in the country. [Though surveys show that trust is falling, falling, falling...]

Samira Ahmed: It is very hard to prove bias of course but you'll be aware of this report by the Centre for Policy Studies think tank analysing the news website and says the BBC quotes more left-wing than right-wing think tanks. Is that true?

Mary Hockaday: Well, again a lot of interesting questions about this. It's worth just saying in passing [yeah, 'in passing' eh?!] that the CPS, of course, campaigns against the BBC and against the licence fee but, you know, let's set that aside [having said it]. It was a piece of research that made various claims, that was picked up quite widely, but when you actually look at it in detail there's actually not a lot of hard evidence there [oh really?]. The CPS itself doesn't give its own definitions or explanations for why it's judging some think tanks to be left-wing or right-wing. [Well, that's wrong for starters. It most certainly does. The snag is that its explanations don't entirely hold water - but that's a different point to the one Mary H. was making]. Fundamentally, what we're doing is making judgements about whether a story or a piece of research or a report that emanates from a think tank is new, interesting, important. [Couldn't unconscious biases be guiding your view of what's interesting and important, as the CPS are saying?] We're not looking at it in a way that the CPS research indicated and, as I say [indeed you do!], if you look at it closely there wasn't really much evidence to back up the claim.

Samira Ahmed can be excellent but I don't think she put in a particularly robust performance here, unfortunately. There was a lot to challenge Mary H. on, but few of those challenges were made. Still, at least some issues were raised that needed to be raised - and credit is due to Newswatch for that (and to the BBC for giving the complainants such a forum). I can't say that I found the answers particularly convincing though - as you may have guessed!

"We're accountable in many ways to Ofcom"

Update: It gets worse.

H/T to TigerOC at Biased BBC for pointing out in reference to Mary H.'s "We're accountable in many ways to Ofcom" that Ofcom state on their own website that all complaints about BBC impartiality should be referred directly to the BBC.

This is indeed - and very precisely - the case:
If your complaint relates to matters of due impartiality, due accuracy, bias or commercial references (with the exception of the relevant product placement rules: see Section Nine of Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code) in BBC programming, please make a complaint directly to the BBC.
The BBC Trust regulates these areas rather than Ofcom.
The Ofcom Broadcasting Code contains rules relating to such matters on commercial services, but under the terms of the Communications Act the BBC is not licensed by Ofcom in the same way as the commercial broadcasters, and to reflect this situation a Memorandum of Understanding exists between Ofcom and the BBC Trust. So the BBC is ultimately accountable to the BBC Trust with regard to these areas.
The BBC has a formal complaints process and complaints should be escalated with them in the first instance, as outlined in the BBC’s complaints handling procedures on its website.
So when Mary Hockaday says, "The most important thing is to understand how, ultimately, we are accountable for the impartiality of everything we do...We're accountable in many ways to Ofcom," in what ways does she mean, given that Ofcom say BBC impartiality is nothing to do with them?

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