Tom Hunt was a European Parliamentary candidate for East of England in 2014 and is an East Cambridgeshire councillor. He is the Countryside Alliance’s media relations manager.
Many will have missed the significance of last Monday amidst the more dramatic political developments elsewhere. For on this day, the new BBC Charter came into effect. As we all know, the BBC plays a monumental role in shaping public consciousness as our sole public service broadcaster. This is why it’s of critical importance that its regulated in the right way to ensure its independence and impartiality. The work that went into the creation of the new Charter was subject to much scrutiny, and often divided opinion.
Central to the new Charter is Ofcom’s new role in overseeing BBC content with regard to impartiality and balance. The BBC Trust that was responsible for this role has been abolished. More often than not, this change has been presented in the media as significant – a step change in the governance of the BBC, and a change that will promote accountability and empower the consumer. As an organisation that has long had concerns over the BBC’s portrayal of rural communities and its complaints process, we welcomed the announcement that an external regulator would be picking up the responsibility for ensuring accuracy and impartiality.
However, as is so often the case, the devil really is in the detail. Far from being the light at the end of the tunnel that we hoped it would be, the change will do little to boost accountability. Indeed, it may actually make things worse since, by and large, the BBC will continue to mark its own home work with regard to impartiality and balance.
Ofcom’s new role will be confined to broadcast news and to current public policy. Vast swathes of BBC content, including all online content, will not be the responsibility of Ofcom and will continue to be the responsibility of the BBC itself. This is despite the recommendation of the Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee that all editorial complaints go to Ofcom made only two years ago.
The consumer affairs organisation the Voice of the Listener and the Viewer (VLV) has actually claimed that the changes amount to “a significant reduction in the external regulation of BBC accuracy and impartiality”. For although the BBC Trust was affiliated to the BBC, it was an arm’s-length organisation which had responsibility for enforcing editorial guidelines regarding impartiality and accuracy across the entirety of BBC content. It was also the final arbiter with regard to all editorial complaints.
But though the new Charter is thin on detail in this area, it would appear that, for content outside the remits of “broadcast news” and “current public policy” the new BBC Unitary Board will have the responsibility enforcing impartiality and accuracy, as well as acting as the final arbiter regarding editorial complaints. The Voice of the Listener and Viewer, in a submission to Ofcom, raised a very valid point, “Any appeal about editorial standards will effectively be against the Director-General, who is the final arbiter of editorial decisions. This situation could potentially undermine the authority of the Director-General on the Board.”
This should be of significant concern to anybody who cares about the BBC, its future, and its relationship with the great British public. In 2014, a BBC Trust Review found that there was a, “gulf in understanding between the BBC and a significant section of the rural community”, the same report went on to admit that the BBC has a “metropolitan bias”.
Unfortunately, since this welcome self-diagnosis, very little has been done to address the concerns we raised. For example, consider the record of Chris Packham, a BBC presenter, about whom Tim Bonner, our Chief Executive, wrote on this site last year.
Packham routinely uses the platform provided to him by the BBC to abuse all those involved in traditional rural pursuits. In 2015 , hetook to the BBC Wildlife Magazine to refer to all those involved in hunting and shooting as the, “nasty brigade”. Previously, he had referred to the farmers involved in the Government-backed badger cull as, “brutalists, liars and frauds”. When we complained to the BBC, it was judged by the BBC Trust that Packham had not breached editorial guidelines regarding impartiality because he was only a “freelance” presenter. It is interesting to see that it was the same BBC Trust that sanctioned “freelance” presenter Jenni Murray for her comments on transgender issues.
When we raised concerns about an appearance George Monbiot made on the BBC to engage in a lopsided debate on the new metropolitan fad, “rewilding”, we were told by that discussing it did not amount discussing public policy.
Unfortunately, there is little in the new Charter that points to the concerns we have with regard to the portrayal of rural issues being addressed. We fear that the “metropolitan bias”, identified by the BBC Trust in 2014 will not only continue to linger, but may actually accelerate. However, the concerns that we have repeatedly raised regarding BBC Governance, impartiality, and Ofcom’s new role should be of concern to everybody.