The BBC is one of Britain’s most treasured institutions, and rightly so. Public service broadcasting is a vital component of our democracy and it would be tragic if it were to disappear. The quality of British television and radio has been driven and sustained by the BBC, and without it, commercial pressures would force all programming down to a lowest common denominator of endless populist entertainment and the end of quality drama, intelligent documentaries and impartial political commentary.
The BBC’s political impartiality has however been questioned in one important dimension. Three independent reports have concluded that on matters concerning the European Union, the BBC has suffered from “an institutional mindset”, and, “did not report the full range of voices in the EU debate”.
This conclusion did not come from Nigel Farage but from Lord Wilson, former Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service. Lord Wilson undertook his thorough and formal inquiry in 2005 and went on to say that the BBC “over simplified, polarised and stereotyped its EU reporting” and, most telling of all, “was guilty of bias by omission”.
At the time, the BBC claimed to have accepted the criticism, but a more recent report submitted to the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee (of which I am a member) concluded that the BBC’s bias has continued and that little has changed. This report was written by David Keighley, a former BBC journalist and Head of Public and Press Relations in BBC television news and public affairs and who is current director of “Newswatch”, an independent company which monitors the output of BBC and other broadcasters for political balance.
The Keighley report states that while “Eurosceptism including the case for withdrawal is supported by MPs and Peers in both the Conservative and Labour parties, and by large sections of the public, but has been disturbingly under reported by the BBC. The BBC has preferred to see the Eurosceptic cause largely through the prism of Conservative splits”.
The most unbalanced aspects of the BBC’s coverage of the case for EU withdrawal has been its failure to include Labour Eurosceptic speakers in its programmes. In a seven year period Labour speakers have equated to just 0.06% of the total appearing on the BBC, equivalent to one in one thousand six hundred speakers. They accounted for just 241 words, approximately a minute and half of output in seven years!
Opinion polls show that a majority of Labour voters are Eurosceptic, but their voice has been ignored. The well-funded pro-EU propaganda machine has started to roll in anticipation of a possible referendum but the case both for and against Britain’s future membership of the EU must be presented impartially, and the BBC must clearly demonstrate its impartiality in the debate allowing space for a Labour Eurosceptic voice which must be part of that debate.