BBC Report: Network Should be More ‘Impartial’
Apology Issued to Queen for Misrepresentation
In a report released on June 18, 2007, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) concluded that it had broken its own guidelines for avoiding bias, and “must become more impartial.” The report, entitled “From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel: safeguarding impartiality in the 21st century” took more than a year to complete. It can be viewed online at www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/research/impartiality.html.
According to the BBC Web site, the report resulted from “a project first commissioned by the BBC Board of Governors in conjunction with BBC management in November 2005 to identify the challenges and risks to impartiality.” The report has been endorsed by the BBC Executive Board and the BBC Journalism Board, along with the BBC Trust, an oversight and governing body.
According to the BBC Web site, the BBC Trust “is the sovereign body of the BBC, its independent trustees acting in the public interest.” It works to ensure “that the BBC remains independent, resisting pressure and influence from any source.” Trustees are appointed by the Queen.
According to The (London) Observer, critics of the network have praised the report as an acknowledgement of the BBC’s “deep seated liberalism.” BBC Trustee and former BBC reporter Robin Aitken accused it of “widespread liberal bias.” In an article responding to the report, Aitken wrote “the BBC is biased, and it is a bias that seriously distorts public debate.”
Among the programming addressed in the report are coverage of the Make Poverty History campaign, the Live8 concert, and the Drop the Debt special, all of which aired in 2007. Dawn French, an actress and writer for two BBC sitcoms, was also cited for her enthusiastic endorsement of the Make Poverty History campaign by a fictional character on the sitcom, “The Vicar of Dibley.” A promotional video for the campaign was shown on the sitcom as part of a story line.
The BBC is taking steps to revise its programming and address what the report called its “culture of bias.” According to the BBC, the guiding principles published in the report will be used to create an “extensive programme of training, seminars and debates through the BBC’s College of Journalism and in conjunction with Editorial Policy.” The BBC also announced that it will “liaise closely with PACT – the independent programme-makers professional body – to raise awareness [about impartiality] amongst those who contribute from outside the BBC.”
The network will also release regular reports on impartiality to the BBC Trust, and will rely on the trust to make sure the BBC is “avoiding conflict of interest situations by not commissioning from independent production companies who have a direct commercial interest in the programme content” and “encouraging a closer working relationship between independent companies and BBC Editorial Policy earlier in the process.” The trust will also appoint a “senior BBC editorial figure to oversee themed seasons” and keep staff aware of “editorial guidelines surrounding campaigns, user-generated content and conflict of interest around outside interests.”
Two separate incidents that took place days before the report was released, along with another that emerged shortly after, brought the problems the BBC was attempting to address into relief.
On June 15, the BBC Trust expressed its concern over two episodes of the BBC investigative journalism program “Panorama.” According to The Guardian of London, viewers contacted the BBC in large numbers regarding an episode that focused on the Church of Scientology, and another on the health affects of wireless technology. A video clip showing “Panorama” reporter John Sweeney screaming in frustration at a Scientology church representative was posted on YouTube in May, prompting bad press for the network throughout the UK and in media outlets in Europe and the United States.
On July 12, the BBC issued an official apology to Queen Elizabeth II for a trailer it produced for the special “A Year With the Queen,” scheduled to air in the fall of 2007. According to statements by the BBC, the trailer gave the impression that the Queen had walked out of a portrait sitting with photographer Annie Leibovitz when she was asked to remove her crown.
On the trailer, Leibovitz is shown saying, “I think it will look better without the crown because the garter robe is so ...” and being subsequently cut off by the Queen, who said, “Less dressy? What do you think this is?” gesturing at her formal “Order of the Garter” robes. The trailer then cut to footage of the Queen walking with a lady in waiting, saying, “I’m not changing anything. I’ve had enough dressing like this, thank you very much.” The footage of the Queen making this comment was taken when she was arriving for the photo shoot, but the BBC trailer was rearranged to give the impression that she was leaving angrily.
English tabloids and Web sites in Europe and the United States reported on the trailer as if it was a factual representation of the Queen’s behavior. After the trailer was broadcast, the Associated Press (AP) newswire released a story with the headline, “Queen Storms Out of Celeb Photo Shoot.”
On June 13, BBC Executives announced that the trailer had been edited incorrectly. According to The Independent of London, “palace officials reacted swiftly to the inaccuracy and the BBC was forced to clarify and apologise, saying the trailer was not meant to be shown.” The AP reported that in the official statement on the matter, the BBC said, “In this trailer there is a sequence that implies the Queen left a sitting prematurely. This was not the case and the actual sequence of events was misrepresented.” According to The Independent, BBC1 controller Peter Fincham called the mistake “human error,” and that though it was “regrettable,” “things like this can happen.” In its statement, the BBC officially apologized to both the Queen and to Leibovitz for “any upset this may have caused.”
On August 12, The (London) Telegraph reported that Farrer & Co., the Queen’s attorneys, had written a letter to the BBC and RDF Media Group, the film company that made the trailer for the BBC, warning them that the misrepresentation in the trailer may have constituted a breach of contract. According to The Telegraph, officials at Buckingham Palace have called the entire “A Year With the Queen” program “tainted” in light of the problems with the trailer, and are pressuring the BBC to “scrap it.” Mark Stephens, senior media lawyer with Finers Stephens Innocent, told The Telegraph, “The Queen agreed to appear in a programme subject to standard editorial guidelines and controls. The editorial standards of the BBC require them not to present a false picture. If they do portray someone in a false light, they have breached their contract.” The Telegraph reported that the BBC does plan to air the documentary once “it has been properly edited.”
On June 19, it was announced that the BBC would face fines of up to 300,000 pounds from the British Office of Communications for faked phone-in competitions. The (London) Times reported that fraudulent competitions had been discovered on three shows: “Comic Relief,” “Sport Relief,” and “Children in Need.” Less than a week prior to that, the BBC was fined 50,000 pounds for falsely reporting the results of a phone-in competition on its children’s program “Blue Peter,” according to BBC News. The AP reported that, on the other shows, members of BBC production staff had posed as competition winners on several occasions as members of the public called in hoping to win. Participants in the phone-in competitions were being charged for the calls.
BBC Director General Mark Thompson countered rumors that he might resign over the scandal, telling BBC News that he planned to keep his post and that the incidents were “totally unacceptable.” He also said that if there was a way of “recompensing” callers who had participated in the fraudulent competitions, “then we will do it.” “We are utterly determined to do everything we can to fix this problem,” Thompson said.
The British Office of Communications is conducting preliminary investigations, and as of press time a full inquiry into the matter is expected, according to BBC News and The Times. According to BBC News, the BBC has suspended all phone competitions until the matter is resolved. The Times also reported that the BBC has suspended a small number of staff members in connection with the faked phone-ins.
Despite the recent scandals, Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins said reports of widespread bias and calls for reform might be overblown.
“The BBC obviously weakens its claim to public support when it makes mistakes, but it would be far worse if it never ran a risk because its running had passed to state regulators, like most such corporations abroad. There is no danger of the BBC running short of critics, from right or left. But there is a danger of it losing support for its core journalistic function, oppositionalism,” wrote Jenkins in a July 20 column.
The BBC adopted a set of new editorial guidelines in 2005, in response to a critical report on the organization released in 2003. These guidelines were reviewed on January 1, 2007, at the start of the most recent BBC Charter. (See “New Editorial Guidelines, Other Changes at the BBC,” in the Summer 2005 issue of the Silha Bulletin.)
– Sara Cannon, Silha Center Staff