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The BBC and Political Impartiality

Volume 614: debated on Wednesday 14 September 2016

[Geraint Davies in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the BBC and political impartiality.

Thank you, Mr Davies, for your chairmanship of this debate. May I begin by saying that this debate is about the BBC and impartiality, and the bias that has a tendency to creep in? This is not in any way meant to be a full-scale attack on the BBC, which is an organisation greatly respected by everyone, not least myself. In fact, I think that some of the programmes made by the BBC are absolutely second to none—in particular in the news department, which I am going to talk about in a bit more detail in a minute.

News and current affairs programmes on Radio 4 such as “From Our Own Correspondent” or “The Report” are absolutely excellent. I also pay tribute—as I am sure you would, Mr Davies, if you were able to—to the contribution the BBC has made to the Welsh language in Wales. Nor do I think that there is any argument for privatising the BBC; again, that is not what I am here to suggest. But I do think that unless the BBC is able to deal with the bias that many people have complained about, it is going to be harder and harder for it to justify the licence fee, which is in effect a tax on everyone whether they are supporters of what the BBC says or not. I will come to some examples of that.

Peter Sissons made the point in his book that there is a cultural bias within the BBC because it is a metropolitan organisation that seems to be peopled by employees who have a certain world view. It is always difficult to put people into categories, but in my opinion, one could fairly say—I have been in and out of BBC studios on a more-than-weekly basis for about 17 years now, as you know, Mr Davies—that that world view is somewhat left of centre. I have been in many BBC studios and canteens and I have yet to see anyone sitting there reading a copy of the Daily Express or the Daily Mail, loudly complaining about immigration, Brussels or suggesting that claims about climate change are somewhat overegged, yet that is a perfectly normal situation in many other places. Anyone trying it in the BBC studios would probably find that their promotion ceiling was hit fairly quickly.

The reality, of course, is that although the BBC goes out of its way to try to be impartial, it is very difficult for it to be when all—or most—of its employees share a particular set of opinions. We see that in several ways: for example, pressure groups are dealt with in different ways by the BBC. One could google its website right away to see what I am talking about. Organisations such as the Institute of Economic Affairs—one might suggest that that is a right-of-centre organisation—will always come with a health warning on a BBC webpage that it is a centre-right think-tank or a centre-right organisation. The situation is similar for the Adam Smith Institute or the Centre for Social Justice, which is always described as a think-tank set up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith).

Meanwhile, other think-tanks that are asked to comment or supply speakers are not given health warnings in the same way. Organisations such as the Institute for Public Policy Research, which is a left-of-centre pressure group, is very rarely described as one. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is a left-of-centre pressure group that supports higher taxes and higher spending. That is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but it has a left-of-centre view in everything that it suggests. It is never, ever described as that; it is always described as an anti-poverty charity or think-tank, or in some kind of a positive way.

When it comes to climate change, we see the same thing happening. Groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are simply described as that and their spokespeople are given licence to say whatever they want, whereas that is not the case for an organisation that may question some of the so-called consensus about climate change. The Global Warming Policy Foundation, for example, will always be described as an organisation set up by Nigel Lawson that questions the scientific consensus around climate change.

We see that bias creeping in when speakers are interrupted. For example, in November 2013, Evan Davis interviewed two speakers on the European Union, one of whom was Paul Sykes, who obviously took the view that the EU was not a good thing. He was interrupted 11 times a minute. The other speaker, Karel De Gucht, who I think was an EU trade commissioner, was interrupted just twice a minute. We see that bias in the number of speakers and the kind of views that they espouse. Again, in January 2013 when “Newsnight” ran a special on the European Union, the overwhelming majority of speakers—I think 18 out of 19—were pro-EU, with only one alternative voice.

I am listening to my hon. Friend’s speech with great interest, and I congratulate him on it. Does he agree that each morning on the business section of the “Today” programme, we still get an unrelenting diet of doom and gloom about Britain’s economic prospects after the Brexit vote? If anybody is trying to talk this country into recession, it is the business section of the “Today” programme. Does he share my concern that it should grow up and accept the result from the British people that we want to leave the European Union, with the positive benefits that that will bring this country?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. It is not just that programme, but many others and many other aspects of the BBC. I took a few examples of this from the website earlier. I do not want to go through all of them, but an article asked, “Was there a Brexit graduate gap?” to try and perhaps suggest that people voting to leave the EU were not intelligent. Another article said, “PM condemns ‘despicable’ post-EU referendum hate crimes”.

In fact, if I may come to that point, I think the referendum campaign was run in a relatively fair fashion. In Wales, I was in and out of the studios a lot and I will not complain about what happened during the campaign, but what has taken place afterwards has been an absolute disgrace.

The worst aspect is the fact that there have been hate crimes, and we should not shy away from that. There always have been and possibly always will be. Every single person I know who campaigned for Brexit totally and utterly condemns hate crimes of any sort. Every reasonable and rational person condemns them. I have said to BBC reporters, “Why are we not allowed to go out there and say that we totally and utterly condemn these crimes? Why do we even have to put up with suggestions on BBC websites implying that somehow people who voted for Brexit are responsible for these despicable crimes that have taken place?”

We see headlines such as “Young Muslim women say they’re feeling the Brexit effect”, “Hate crime ‘still far too high’ post-Brexit”, “UN blames UK politicians for Brexit hate crime spike”, and “Brexit: Children hear racist abuse ‘for first time’”. There is one after another, always with the suggestion that somehow those 17 million people who went out and voted for freedom from the European Union are in some way responsible for the actions of a despicable minority who are condemned by absolutely everyone.

To put that in perspective, in the past we have seen despicable crimes by religious extremists. Whenever those crimes have taken place, the BBC has rightly made it absolutely clear that those crimes have been carried out by a tiny minority of people who share those particular religious views and that the vast majority of people sharing that religion do not support any form of violence. The BBC is right to make that point and yet, it is not doing so when dealing with Brexit.

I am following the hon. Gentleman’s speech closely. Since the 1999 European elections, a number of independent reports have shown the bias of the BBC on EU matters. The bias that he refers to in terms of climate change and other scientific matters is different. The fact is that the BBC has very few scientifically trained people and they do not understand that “consensus” is not a scientific word. They use that word to censor people who do not agree with the majority of the scientists. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a difference between those two biases within the BBC?

I suppose all biases are different. I accept the point the hon. Gentleman is making, and in fact, I was going to come on to climate change in a moment. Suffice it to say that I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) said: the reporting since the referendum has been an absolute disgrace, and the BBC has to remember that a majority of those who voted, who buy their licences, do not support membership of the European Union. The BBC should be out there reflecting that particular opinion instead of putting up people such as Gary Younge to go out and give the impression somehow that Britain has become a dangerous place for eastern Europeans. Having been married to one for 15 years or so, I can say that that is not the case.

Slightly naively, I thought that this would be a general conversation about BBC bias rather than being purely about Brexit. I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me for asking a question that may be unrelated. Sections 4.4.31 and 15.4.18 of the BBC guidelines address all these concerns, so the existing guidelines are there. Has he attempted to engage with the BBC about enforcing them?

I certainly have engaged with the BBC on this matter and others, and I will come back to that in a minute if I have time.

The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) made a point about climate change, and that involves a different, but important, kind of bias. It is regrettable that the BBC has accepted hook, line and sinker the so-called scientific consensus on climate change and not allowed anyone on to the airwaves who wants to question it.

There may well be a consensus of scientists who can be found, who will say that carbon dioxide emitted by man has created the very small rise in temperature that we have seen over the past 250 years, and that that is the only driver of climate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, incidentally, would not say that, but let us not go into a debate about climate change. Let me just say that there are certain questions that should be asked—that one can ask—to which the scientists have no answers.

It would be perfectly reasonable for the BBC to allow on air people who are willing at least to put those questions and to allow the public to make their mind up as to whether the scientists had answered those questions. Yet on the rare occasions when the BBC has allowed a dissenting voice, there has been all sorts of trouble. For example, Quentin Letts was recently on a BBC programme asking what is the point of the Met Office and, because he suggested that the Met Office was getting certain things wrong, there was a huge hullabaloo and the whole programme was taken off the internet. Some sort of apology was issued, and I believe that many BBC staff were sent off on some training mission, presumably at taxpayers’ expense.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that even BBC presenters are now saying that the BBC has gone totally in favour of global warming views and that impartiality was abandoned long ago? The BBC spent tens of thousands of pounds fighting a freedom of information request that sought to identify that seminars were held to ensure that its top executives were directed towards the pro-climate change view.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Top executives have been sent off on training programmes where they are expected to spout the “man-made carbon emissions have caused all sorts of climatic problems” line, which simply is not true. Incidentally, if anyone from the BBC is listening, I will debate this with the best scientists the BBC can find in the country or across the world. Bring them on.

With my heavy goods vehicle licence I could outfox any of those so-called scientists, because they simply do not know the answers to the pertinent questions on this matter. I really hope that the BBC has the courage to do that. Who is going to lose out here? If I am getting this wrong and I do not know what I am talking about, I am the one who will look silly. Please, BBC, put me on a radio programme with the best scientists on climate change and we will see who is looking stupid afterwards.

I want to mention one other, perhaps seemingly minor, matter, which is the way in which the word “conservative” is used. I am fed up to the back teeth of hearing the BBC use the word “conservative” to describe radical Islamic clerics in Iran and Iraq. Anyone googling it will see what I mean. These extremist people who have absolutely ridiculous views about gays and women, believing them all to be second-class citizens, are quite often described as conservative, albeit with a small c, but that does not come over on the radio. I have sat listening to the radio while lunatic clerics have been described time after time as conservative, and then the next news item is something about the Government in which members of the centre-right party who believe in equality and human rights are also described as conservative. That juxtaposition is simply not fair. That use of language would not be tolerated by many other people.

Of course, I could go on for a rather long time about things that have gone on in the BBC, but I have made my point. It matters that the BBC has this inbuilt bias. BBC executives need to do something to address that bias. I want to see the BBC continue. I enjoy listening to most parts of the BBC most of the time, but if the BBC is to justify what is effectively a tax on every single man, woman and child in this country, it has to start reflecting the diversity of views out there, being careful to note that the majority of people in this country have shown that they are opposed to the European Union, that almost certainly a majority of people in this country believe that immigration needs to come down and that a surprisingly large number of people think that the current hysteria over climate change has been somewhat over-egged.

If you do not have the prior permission of the mover and the Minister, you are not allowed to make a speech. The Minister might take an intervention.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is also a pleasure to address this incredibly important issue at an auspicious time, because the new BBC charter for the next period is due to be published tomorrow. The debate is important and timely, and my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) is modest in asking if anybody from the BBC will be watching, because I imagine that the BBC is hanging on his every word. I have no doubt that the BBC will have heard and noted the argument he has put with some vim.

I agree with my hon. Friend on a number of fronts. At the start he briefly mentioned the importance of the Welsh language and the BBC’s role in promulgating it. I am passionate about that too. I congratulate the BBC on its work in supporting and sustaining the Welsh language and in allowing people who speak English and Welsh, or just Welsh, to be able to participate fully in our national life.

I also agree with my hon. Friend on the importance of genuine impartiality, which is the nub of his speech and the purpose of this debate. It is worth briefly going through why impartiality is important and what is in place to ensure that it happens. As the charter review has shown, everybody will agree that the BBC is at the heart of British culture. I think the BBC is one of the nation’s most treasured institutions, and there is broad agreement that, as a public service broadcaster funded by the licence fee, it is vital that accurate and impartial news is at the centre of the BBC’s output. So far, so good.

No one would dispute that this has been a challenging period for the delivery of impartiality and accuracy, and I am now most concerned with how to ensure that the BBC’s future is secured in such a way that the objectives of impartiality and accuracy remain at its heart and are effectively delivered.

The partiality of the BBC is no longer in question, because more and more people, when they leave the BBC’s employment—from Jeremy Paxman to Robert Aitken to Roger Mosey—have come out to say that there is bias in many different areas. Indeed, one only has to look at the pro-republican bias of BBC Northern Ireland. There is not a single Unionist commentator who would be quoted on BBC Northern Ireland. Nearly all of them come from a republican, pro-left wing background.

I certainly acknowledge that some former BBC employees have made that argument. We have all read the cases that they have made, but the question is how to ensure that the charter principles of impartiality and accuracy are best executed.

I mentioned the editorial guidelines earlier because they are clear on that specific point. Does the Minister accept that there might be a fear among BBC management that taking on a high-profile, popular figure who is a public favourite can be difficult? There are plenty of examples, but are they using the procedures they already have to deal with them? If not, why not?

I was going to come on to the editorial guidelines. The White Paper made it clear that impartiality and accuracy are absolutely central to the future role of the BBC. The next charter, to be published tomorrow, will explicitly put impartiality at the core of that role, enshrining it in the BBC’s mission and including it in the public purposes. The question is how that is delivered. One argument that is accepted by the BBC—this is important—is that having a diversity of internal opinions and a diversity of people from different backgrounds inside the BBC and working for the BBC is an important way to deliver on that objective. The BBC itself has goals to broaden the diversity—both as interpreted in protected characteristics legislation and in terms of social and geographic background—of those who work in it, to ensure that the internal debate better reflects the country that the BBC broadcasts to and that its employees are drawn from.

I am a former BBC insider myself; I worked there as a journalist on and off for 20 years. The Minister is absolutely right that we need diversity of background. It is worth noting, just out of interest, that by my calculation there are more former BBC employees on the Conservative side of the House than on the Labour side.

I do not want to take too much time from the Minister, but I will say one other thing briefly, if I may. As a journalist who worked for the BBC for 20 years, I completely agree that we have to ensure that there is no institutional bias. I love the BBC, but I have to say that sustaining a strategy of institutionalised bias would require a level of organisation that, in my experience, is beyond the labyrinthine structure of BBC news and current affairs.

My hon. Friend makes a very insightful point. On his point that there are more former BBC employees on the Conservative Benches than on the Labour Benches, I should point out that there are far more Conservative than Labour MPs altogether—long may that be so—so we should look at the proportions rather than the absolute numbers.

Let me move on to how things will be structured in future. Of course, it has to be for BBC to ensure that it provides impartial news and current affairs. It would be improper for that to be a matter for Ministers; the White Paper makes it clear that, under the new charter, it will fall squarely to the new BBC board. However, there is an important and new role for the BBC to be held to account in delivering impartial news under the new charter, because Ofcom will take on the regulation of editorial standards, including ensuring that the BBC meets requirements in impartiality and accuracy.

We have been working closely with the BBC and Ofcom on preparing the draft charter, and the framework agreement that comes with it, for publication tomorrow. Before the new charter comes into effect, there will be the opportunity to debate it in the devolved Assemblies and in both Houses. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth that he will have the opportunity to raise these issues then, and that the House will be able to debate them further.

There is no doubt that impartiality is one of the most important functions of the BBC. Getting it right is vital to its long-term future, to its support among the populace and to its ability to do its job as the national broadcaster. The BBC Trust commissions research on the trustworthiness of news, and its 2015 survey showed that 53% of people said the BBC was the one source that they turned to for impartial news coverage. That demonstrates how important it is to get this right, but it also shows us that more than half of people trust the BBC most for impartiality, so the statistic works both ways. It underlines the importance of this debate and demonstrates that, as we implement the charter, as the BBC board takes effect and as Ofcom puts in place its regulatory regime, it is very important to take into account all views on the matter.

Does the Minister accept that that is a rather circular argument? The BBC’s monopoly and the huge amount of resources it gets from public finances have allowed it to become the main news organisation in the United Kingdom. If the bias with which it presents the news becomes mainstream, of course it is going to be accepted as a trustworthy organisation, but only because it has been able to use its power to mould the views of the population. That is why the question of the licence fee and impartiality is important.

I accept the logic of that argument. The fact that the BBC is the single most trustworthy source for impartial news for the majority of the population—some 53%—demonstrates both its success, in that many people regard it as impartial, and how important it is that it gets the impartiality balance right. But impartiality is not just about dividing straight down the middle between two arguments. Impartiality and accuracy are both important. A national broadcaster ought to be able, if anyone can, to bring a sense of objectivity to our national debate and challenge it with facts, if that balance is delivered correctly.

I am sure, then, that the Minister will not be too pleased about the way in which the BBC described the last autumn statement by the former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne). It referred to public expenditure being slashed to levels of the 19th century, taking us back to the Dickensian era. That is how it reported it. I am sure the Minister does not accept that that was an impartial way to report it, or that that reporting does not demonstrate a left-wing bias within the organisation.

I do not think it behoves me, as Minister responsible for broadcasting and media, to pick up on particular episodes, because the debate has to be seen in the round. The hon. Gentleman tempts me, but I will not be drawn into a line-by-line analysis.

Does the Minister agree that nobody in this debate is conspiring to do anything? The fact is that there is a cultural bias: most BBC presenters would probably be able to define the subjunctive, but would not know the second law of thermodynamics. Until the BBC gets scientifically trained people, there is bound to be an inherent bias.

The hon. Gentleman makes his point forcefully. I am sure the BBC’s human resources department has been watching and has noted it too.

I hope that the new charter set out tomorrow, with the new BBC board and with ultimate editorial recourse to Ofcom, will help us to seek what we are all looking for: an impartial and accurate BBC news service, which can inform and entertain the population of the UK according to its public service broadcasting principles. I strongly support the BBC in achieving that goal.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).