Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, in the course of their renewal of the BBC’s Charter and Guidelines in 2016, they will take into account the BBC’s coverage of European Union matters, in the light of its recognition of the need for greater breadth in such coverage following publication of the report of the Independent Panel led by Lord Wilson of Dinton in 2005.
My Lords, noble Lords will be aware that the BBC’s charter obliges it to be impartial, wide-ranging and fair in its political output, and that,
“no significant strand of British public thought is knowingly unreflected or under-represented”.
I should declare an interest in that, since 1999, I and others have been sponsoring an analysis of the BBC’s EU output to see if it is meeting those obligations in that area. This research can be found on the news-watch.co.uk website, and is the longest-running and most detailed analysis ever undertaken of the BBC’s output. As I said in my last debate on this, on 11 March 2002,
“bias, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder”.—[Official Report, 11/3/02; col. 653.]
The News-watch research now includes over 6,000 hours of the BBC’s EU coverage across numerous news and current affairs programmes. More than 8,200 individual EU reports have been fully transcribed, and transcripts from some 5,000 guest contributions have been collected and analysed. The director of the programme, Mr David Keighley, has had a long and successful career at the BBC and in commercial broadcasting, and his CV can be found on the News-watch website. He sits as a justice of the peace.
By 2004, Mr Keighley and his team had produced such damning evidence of the BBC’s Europhile bias, including a complete failure to air the case for the UK to leave the EU, which was already a significant strand of British public opinion, that the BBC set up its first and only truly independent inquiry chaired by the former Cabinet Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Dinton. That inquiry broadly supported Mr Keighley’s conclusions, and so in reply the BBC made the commitments to which this Question for Short Debate refers. However, I have time to deal with only two of them. The BBC said:
“With specific reference to Europe our aims are … to offer our audiences across all platforms clear, accurate and accessible information about the way EU institutions work and their impact on UK laws and life”,
“to ensure impartiality by reflecting the widest possible range of voices and viewpoints about EU issues; to test those viewpoints using evidence-based argument or informed opinion”.
I am sorry to say that the BBC has not yet fulfilled those promises. Let us look at the first aim, which is that the BBC would make sure that the British people could understand how the EU works and how it makes so much of our law. With our elections to the European Parliament only 15 days away, I would have thought it helpful if our people knew what they were actually voting for and how it fits into the EU’s law-making process. I would have thought it helpful if they knew that the power to propose EU legislation lies with the unelected Commission, and that the power is exercised in secret; that its proposals are then negotiated, still in secret, in COREPER—the Committee of Permanent Representatives, or bureaucrats, who are appointed by the member states—and that they then go to the Council of Ministers for further clandestine discussion and decision, with the European Parliament enjoying powers of co-decision at this late stage in the proceedings; and that the Commission and the Luxembourg court then become the Executive and sole arbiter of all EU law. I would have thought that it would also be helpful if the British people understood how wholly irrelevant their Parliament here in Westminster has become in that process and how even our Government have only some 8% of the votes in the Council of Ministers, where it has been outvoted on every one of the 55 objections that it has made against new EU legislation since 1996.
I would have thought that it was the BBC’s duty under its charter at least to try to explain the above process to its licence fee payers, but it has not done so and is clearly determined not to do so. When I have raised this failure with all the chairmen and director-generals over the past 14 years, the answer has been always the same: “Oh, but the EU is so boring”. Well, it need not be. What about a new series of “Yes, Commissioner”? You would not even have to make the jokes up—the script would write itself from pure fact. Indeed, in UK Gold’s second series of “Yes, Prime Minister” last year, we saw Sir Humphrey explaining to a bewildered PM how the EU works, and very funny it was, too. I have sent the Minister a three-minute clip of that and would be happy to send it on to other noble Lords who want it. There is only one catch: Sir Humphrey says that the President of the Commission is elected—perish the thought. So even Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn made a rare error on that one.
The other area where the BBC is in breach of its charter is in not allowing those who want to leave the EU the airtime to make their case. For instance, since 2005 the “Today” programme has allowed only some 0.04% of its airtime for withdrawalists to say why they want to leave, yet this is a view shared by upwards of 50% of the British people. The BBC almost entirely excludes Labour Eurosceptics from any debate on EU matters. Since 2005, only 0.09% of the “Today” programme’s guests on EU affairs have come from the Labour Party or the British left. The BBC prefers to view Euroscepticism through the prism of splits in the Conservative Party, with UKIP as the BNP in blazers— much more fun. It is not good enough for the BBC to reply that Nigel Farage has been on air a lot, if he and others are not given the space to explain how the EU works and, thus, the case for British withdrawal. There is one recent exception to that, as the BBC held a debate between Mr Farage and Nick Clegg recently. I suppose that it felt obliged to do so because LBC Radio and Sky had already done the same and it had proved rather popular. I bet that the BBC will not do anything like that again, if it can help it.
Finally, when the BBC deigns to commission what it pretends is an independent report into its output, the result is incestuous and incompetent to the point of dishonesty. I refer to the supposedly independent report last July by Mr Stuart Prebble, which has been taken to pieces by News-watch and exposed last month in a publication from the respected think tank Civitas, on whose website the whole depressing saga can be viewed. In a nutshell, Mr Prebble was not independent at all. He had been a colleague for many years at Granada TV of the BBC trustee—David Liddiment—who commissioned him and he had part-owned and run a company that made programmes for the BBC. He and the trustees commissioned the research directly from the former head of BBC news, Richard Sambrook, who is now at Cardiff University, where Richard Tait, a former editor of “Newsnight” and former BBC governor and trustee, also works in the same department.
Just for good measure, the Cardiff academic who led the research, Professor Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, had recently been employed by Brussels to analyse European media coverage about further EU integration and to discover why the UK is so sceptical about that prospect.
Unsurprisingly, Cardiff’s methodology was seriously flawed and unprofessional. It looked at only two one-month periods of the BBC’s output, in 2007 and 2012, which compares ill with the massive work done by News-watch over 15 years. Cardiff staff and friends in the leftwing media even managed to claim that their research showed that the BBC was biased in favour of Euroscepticism. They did this by simply ignoring 20 of the 21 pro-EU speakers on the “Today” programme in their 2012 survey period. Thus the Prebble report gave the BBC’s EU coverage a clean bill of health, which was, of course, gratefully accepted by the chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Patten, and the other BBC trustees. So far, the BBC has not replied to the Civitas-News-watch report, and Mr Prebble has merely accused them of running a smear campaign. I trust that the Government will join me in looking forward to a detailed response very soon.
So I ask the Government not to renew the BBC’s charter until they are satisfied that it is capable of fulfilling it. This afternoon, I have dealt only with the BBC’s coverage of the EU. Similar criticisms could be made of its coverage of immigration and manmade climate change, at least. In conclusion, I trust that the Government will ensure that the BBC’s editorial freedom is preserved, but with that freedom must come the fulfilment of the great ideals of its charter. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, for this debate and for a very good start-off to it, as well as for drawing my attention to this report, which I must admit that I had not read before—and that is clearly something I should have done. But, my goodness, how things have changed since 2005 when the report was written. Since then, being anti-EU has become fashionable; it has strong street cred—it is the urban of today. If anything, the way in which the BBC reports European issues has actually gone in the opposite direction. As the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, said himself, UKIP coverage has been quite extraordinary. I congratulate UKIP and the noble Lord, as a former leader of the party, on what it has achieved with no Members of Parliament but a strong MEP contingent. It is an important political movement in the country which gets huge coverage. Most of it, until two or three months ago, was almost completely uncritical, unlike the coverage of us rather more boring traditional parties, which suffer all the things that are thrown at us for all the things that we try to do in government or, indeed, in opposition.
The report of the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, brings a number of things to our attention. It states that there is no intentional bias, but goes on to say that informal bias has been shown in the past. The important message from that is still true: the BBC and the media more generally tend to report in terms of extremes, in that it is either all in or all out, or that we need somehow to partially opt out rather than stay as we are or go completely. It also talks about over-simplification, giving some examples. One that I remember well is where it looks at the,
“development of a European defence capability being treated simply as a scheme for a ‘European Army’”.
We heard about that mainly in the tabloid and popular press, but the BBC covered it as well, and of course it was far from the truth. There are some other points that the report brings up, such as treating,
“France and Germany as shorthand for the rest of the EU and failing to recognise the increased diversity of opinion following enlargement”.
That is an important one; it may not be so bad, but it is an area where we are still at risk.
One of the biggest areas since 2005, where the bias has been completely anti-European, is with regard to the euro crisis. Not only the Financial Times but the tabloid press and the BBC predicted constantly for about 12 months the break-up of the euro, although for me it was one of the most unlikely things that was going to happen. What has happened? Has the euro broken up? How many member states have left the euro? Two actually joined during that period. Did we hear a lot about that from the BBC? I do not remember hearing much about it. During the euro crisis, did the euro stop being the world’s second reserve currency? I do not believe so. Is it still? It absolutely is. Did the exchange rate actually plummet so that it was worthless? No, in fact, I think—my noble friend Lord Dykes will know better than I—it actually went up in value by comparison, certainly with pound sterling at the time, although that has probably slightly adjusted to our benefit over the past few months. Did we hear much about Hungary, a non-euro member that had equal economic and financial difficulties and needed a European and IMF bailout? I do not remember a great deal of reporting about that either. Clearly, there was a euro crisis and there were a lot of problems in terms of the way that Europe made its decisions at the time. However, in terms of its reporting, the BBC was absolutely and totally biased in a negative way and caused much of the feeling about the rest of Europe that reflected on that.
There is another area of concern. I remember writing to the BBC programme “Feedback” some years ago, before I became a Member of this House, to complain that although I liked listening to the “Today in Parliament” programme, there was no European Parliament coverage. Of course, I realise that I could be criticised here because the European Parliament accounts for only 9% of our legislation—or 7%, I think my party leader would say—but there is very little reporting at all of the European Parliament, which is an important institution in terms of the laws that are made in this country, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, would agree.
I would also ask whether we expect to have a sceptical or “anti” view of the international institutions of which we are a member. Is that something we should demand from the BBC? Have I heard a lot of criticism of NATO or a lot of bias against NATO? Have I heard anything on the BBC about removing ourselves from NATO? Should we actually come out of the UN? Should we have suitable “balance” from the BBC in terms of withdrawal from the IMF? The most important issue, of course, which we confront not in England but in Scotland, is whether we should have had, over the past five to 10 years, equal balance from the BBC about Scotland’s withdrawal from the United Kingdom. I absolutely think we should not have done, but that, although it is not the same, is a parallel and similar issue to the UK’s membership of the European Union.
I will conclude there. However, I was interested to see that John Humphrys of the “Today” programme added more fuel to the fire on this. He was slightly critical of the BBC but I was delighted that he was reported as saying that BBC staff were more likely to be liberal rather than conservative because they were the “best and the brightest”. I do not mean anything about my coalition colleagues by that—that was a small “l” and a small “c”—but I would like to think that as liberals, which I am sure that many noble Lords in this Committee are in terms of international politics, we are the best and the brightest. The BBC should remain balanced, but I believe that, if anything, the balance over the past five years has been in the opposite direction.
My Lords, it strikes me that everyone thinks the BBC is biased against their own personal viewpoint. Those on the left think it outrageous that business representatives are on the news more frequently than trade union leaders. They have also said that, although there is a general bias to political incumbents, Conservative politicians get far more airtime than anyone from Brown’s Government ever did. Conservatives think that the more obvious partiality of the 1970s and 1980s—admitted by Mark Thompson to be a “massive bias”—is still in existence today. We think that the BBC has pushed issues such as the bedroom tax without any grounding in fact. Indeed, Conservatives would argue that the BBC using the phrase “bedroom tax” is itself indicative of bias, given that it is not a tax at all. Perhaps this highlights part of the BBC’s problem: it has become too big, while still trying to maintain some semblance of balance.
How do we get an insight into the BBC’s world view? It may be reflected in the stories that its planners consider running on radio and television. Where do they get those stories? Last year it was shown that the BBC continues to purchase more copies of the Guardian—68,307 copies—than any other paper. It bought 58,000 Telegraphs and 60,000 copies of the Times. The Guardian has far lower circulation figures than either of those papers, not to mention the tabloids.
Having said that, I actually think that producers and presenters work quite hard to achieve balance in the BBC’s political output. It is very far from perfect, of course, but you cannot say that staff at the BBC do not try. However, the BBC plays an important role in deciding what is part of a reasonable debate on a given issue. If staff decide that a certain expert or group is not suitable to come on its vast number of political programmes to discuss something, that person or group is instantly seen to be outside the terms of reasonable debate—a pariah, an extremist, hard right or hard left. However, I am afraid that Europe is one issue on which the BBC tends to lose any sense of reason. Peter Oborne, in his publication, Guilty Men, for the Centre for Policy Studies, offers more examples than I can offer in this short contribution.
Many of these problems would be addressed if the BBC were to be reformed. The licence fee model is outdated, with the biggest change coming in the past five years or so. It is that watching television is not the only way to watch television programmes. Programmes are watched on phones, tablets, laptops, and they will be watched on devices that have not yet been invented. The BBC has its own iPlayer service, which, like its commercial equivalents, allows viewers to watch programmes wherever and whenever they like. Perhaps the best way to overhaul the BBC is to make it a subscription-based service.
A paper from the Adam Smith Institute outlined some sensible proposals. The BBC could, over a limited period, allow licence payers either to lapse or switch to voluntary subscription. The BBC would maintain a core public service function, funded by a much smaller government grant. “Public service” would be redefined to essentials. The core content would be free and include news, but entertainment and most documentary and factual output would not be free. That would make the BBC a 21st-century organisation, fully adapted to the digital revolution. Subscription models in the US show that people value choice. People will watch BBC material once they have chosen to pay for it themselves. These kinds of reforms would fix a far bigger problem than perceived bias: the monopoly features of the BBC, or at least its dominant market share. It currently has around 70% of the news audience, according to Ofcom.
I once had the privilege of running a monopoly, or at least a company with no competition, in the London taxi industry. I can tell you the truth of the saying, “Monopolies are like babies; nobody likes them till they have one of their own”. The BBC loves its monopoly and thinks that it deserves it. However, I can tell it that in fact competition, though scary to a monopoly, is good for it. You can never quite demonstrate the merits of a dominant business because the customers have no choice. Give them a choice, and wonderful things happen. The BBC can then be proud of its output and of its happy customers, rather than be proud of its monopoly while trying to ignore the thousands of customers criminalised in the magistrates’ court for not paying their licence fee.
There was a programme on BBC2 in March called “The Restaurant Man”, in which people gave up their day jobs to start restaurants. It was nothing at all to do with politics. In that programme, the presenter said, “Opening a restaurant just to make money is wrong”. That, to me, is where the BBC is at its most biased. I am not even sure presenters and producers know it, nor do they think they are doing anything wrong, but the cultural, metropolitan elitism is far more rife than any hard, political bias.
When it comes to the EU, it is clear that the balance of the coverage does not reflect the balance of the paying public’s opinion. Restricting a core grant for public service material will ensure a narrower focus and a much greater ability to ensure balanced output. It will save taxpayers money too.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, on initiating the debate, which in my assessment is important if only to signal the necessity for having a much longer, fuller discussion on this issue in your Lordships’ House at a later date.
It is very possible that there will be an “in or out” referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU over the next few years. An incoming Conservative Government are committed to hold such a referendum before the end of 2017. Labour has said that, if elected, its Administration will hold a referendum if there is treaty change in the European Union. In my assessment, at some point over the next few years there will have to be treaty change in the EU to consolidate the structural reform of the Union following the euro crisis.
A decision to leave the EU would be massively consequential for the country. I am at the opposite pole from the noble Lord, Lord Pearson—in other words, I am a passionate and committed pro-European. However, I hope that the noble Lord will agree with me that a referendum must be preceded by a fully open and informed public debate over an extended period. That is crucial if a referendum takes place. As by far and away the most respected and trusted national broadcaster committed to impartiality, the BBC should and must play a central role in such a public debate. I hope that the corporation will start to think about, and prepare for, the eventuality of a referendum now rather than wait until such a decision actually approaches. The past history of the BBC’s reporting on the EU shows how problematic and difficult its role will be.
The 2005 Wilson report was important and hard-hitting, as has been said. Eurosceptics have concentrated on the now famous liberal “institutional mindset” that the report diagnosed at the BBC. Just as important in my view was the documenting of uninformed reporting and the pronounced tendency to see the EU through what was called the “domestic or Westminster prism”. The BBC took the report seriously, as has been said, and made a large number of notable changes, including the appointment of a full-time Europe editor. Since then, a whole string of further reports have appeared, including the BBC Trust review of impartiality which came out in July 2013. However, I am a social scientist and I like hard data. More important in my view is the content analysis of the BBC news reporting carried out at Cardiff University from 2007 to 2012. That research emphatically refutes the view that conservative and Eurosceptic voices do not get a hearing. They in fact feature almost twice as frequently as opposing views: the supposed “liberal bias” has more than been corrected.
However, perhaps more importantly the research shows that the EU is presented largely in terms of infighting between domestic political parties rather than the issues at stake. Political figures also dominate. These findings run completely counter to what audiences covered in the research actually say they want—that is, for the ideological opinions of politicians, activists and special interest groups to be minimised in favour of factual commentary and impersonal assessment. As I have stressed, this is an absolutely core requirement, with crucial relevance if and when there is a referendum. It would be good to hear the Minister’s views on how such an outcome could be achieved, and on the proper role of the BBC in securing it.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, in this debate and to deliberately embarrass him by praising his recent book on Europe—Turbulent and Mighty Continent—which I read with great pleasure, but also with apprehension that things might not be so easy in the future. It is a book, however, that underlines his traditional support for Europe, which I share as well. It was more impressive than the book I wrote two years ago called On the Edge: Britain and Europe, about the danger of Britain coming out of Europe almost by accident and carelessness, rather than any—
I assure the assemblage here that that was not a pre-arranged conversation: it was entirely spontaneous. As usual, the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, was exaggerating in his latest remarks. Be that as it may, it is very sad once again to see that old apprehension and fear of the European Union coming out in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, although we expect that kind of thing from him because he is against what he calls “the project”. Of course, however, most other people in most of the other member states—virtually all of them, without exception—are in favour of the project, and so am I. It will develop according to the wishes of the sovereign member Governments in that Union as they decide to work together through the integrated collective institutions. The European Parliament now has a 50:50 role, which I believe is a very good thing. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, as a previous Member of that Parliament, who was probably one of the pioneers of that eventual plan. We will now see much better legislation coming out of those institutions as a result of the EP’s greater involvement.
I do not agree at all that the BBC is biased far too much in favour of Europe: far from it. Its coverage has improved as a result of the recent suggestions referred to in this debate today and I commend it as a high-quality public broadcaster based on a financing system that has the confidence of the public. It is coming up for review again in due course. Once again, the dark gothic forces on the right wing of the Conservative Party will be agitating for the abolition of the licence fee, as they do every seven-and-a-half years on a regular basis, led previously by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit. That will always persist, and I disagree strongly. I go to the United States a lot, and anybody who is not in favour of something like the BBC should have the misfortune of being forced to watch Fox TV, for example, or listen to Fox radio, which is even worse. The BBC has therefore led high standards of broadcasting, impartiality and objectivity on a massive scale in respect of most issues.
Of course, there has been a dumbing down from the competition—based on the television equivalent of the tabloids and comics that masquerade as newspapers in this country—and therefore the BBC itself had to do some dumbing down as well. That would include dramatising stories on Europe. I thank my noble friend and colleague, Lord Teverson, for the absolutely prime example of the euro and the way in which the BBC behaved. It startled many of its adherents and supporters in the way it presented the “fate of the euro”—so-called—as a result of the international banking, financial institutions and hedge fund crisis. It was not caused by anybody in Europe or in Britain, but mostly by people in the United States. I refer to the way in which the BBC said that the euro was on the verge of extinction: Jeremy Paxman used the word “meltdown”, implying that the euro was going to finish in a few weeks’ time. Paul Mason, one of their more polychromatic and overexaggerated correspondents—he now has a different portfolio—dealt with those matters as well, and he said that the euro probably had just a few days to live before it ended. That is a total travesty of the truth on any objective measurement, as my noble friend indicated in his remarks.
Take the euro as an example. It is essential to reflect on its reality as an international currency. It has three or four weak member-adherent countries of course, but look at what is happening now. People who were writing off Greece said that Greece in a few weeks’ time would have to leave the euro and have a new drachma, heavily devalued and so on, and it would not be able to manage. Portugal, just recently doing its first bond issue, is no longer asking for international assistance after three years. Greece is coming out of these tremendous travails. All of them voted solidly—the Greek Parliament, too, with big majorities; there was total public support from all the political parties, apart from the right-wing neo-fascist party—for the reality of supporting the euro as the greatest unifier of the developing economy of the European Union. It has been a massive success. Let us look at the most recent payments figures for the world. The euro is now an international reserve currency of immense dimensions. I should mention here that the United States is a much more heavily indebted country than any in Europe: the federal debt alone is $17 trillion. Fifty American cities are bankrupt and at least 50 states are on the verge of bankruptcy or, like California, they are already bankrupt, yet there are no complaints about the United States because it is the leader of the western world and it can do that: send the dollar out and the more people who buy it, the better. Will it go on forever? I doubt it.
The figure for the US reserve currency is now 39.5% for total payments transactions across the world, but the euro percentage is now 32.5%. It is getting closer and closer. Confidence in the euro—led by Germany as the strongest economy but also by France, which is bravely supporting the strong currency system—is high. Britain is afraid to do so after we were driven out of the exchange rate mechanism, and we have been afraid of the euro ever since. Devaluing is an easier option here, and that is what we do. We have devalued seven times since the war, three times by government action and four times in the marketplace. The pound is now not a very strong currency, as my noble friend Lord Teverson indicated. That will persist as the way out because it is the easy way out. The Italians did that but then they changed their minds and joined the euro, which is now benefiting Italy. That is a classic example of where the BBC went over the top because of the pressures in this country as a result of the atmosphere created by the Europe haters developing their political activities and political parties like UKIP, which will not last forever and I am sure is just a temporary phenomenon. Britain must regain its self-confidence as a proud international member of this community, as we are of NATO, the UN and other institutions. We must be an active participant in the European Union because if we are not, we will go down the path of loneliness, desolation and isolation.
My Lords, I hope I will be forgiven for intervening at this stage. I did not know that I would be able to speak, so I did not put my name down. The first thing I want to do is thank the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, for this debate and for his efforts over a long period of time at huge financial cost to himself, and perhaps others, at investigating the BBC’s coverage of Euroscepticism, if I can put it like that.
So far as I am concerned, I am a great admirer of the BBC, so I am not in any sense against the corporation, and indeed I do not believe that it can be financed in any way other than how it is financed at present, but we shall have to see about that. However, the fact is that I believe that the BBC has failed in its duty in respect of giving the Eurosceptic side of the European argument. I have myself made several representations both to the chairman and the organisation that deals with complaints, but with little success. I hope that the BBC will take note of this debate.
It is true that Euroscepticism is popular at the present time, but what is more important than ever is that when we come to have the debate on “in or out”, I am in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Giddens. It must be an important and properly financed debate. We have to ensure that both sides are properly financed, not as they were in 1975, and that they should have equal time, especially on the BBC but also on other radio and television outlets. That is of the utmost importance.
My time is nearly up. I have to say that I speak as someone who was not in favour of joining the Common Market and believe sincerely that we would be far better off if we were out of the European Union. This country can thrive very well outside the European Union, and it is about time we had a big debate about what our future should be. Perhaps this debate will help us towards that.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, for tabling this debate today. Like the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, I am grateful to him for drawing our attention to the report by the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, which was published before I joined your Lordships’ House. I was not aware of it before this debate, but I have now read it and found it very persuasive and perceptive. It raised a number of challenging issues about not just the BBC’s but the media’s coverage of European issues. Many of the issues are commonplace but, as the report quite rightly acknowledges, as the public service broadcaster, the BBC bears a particularly heavy responsibility for raising public awareness and maintaining a scrupulous standard of impartiality on this issue.
However, it is also clear that it was a report very much of its time—it is, after all, nearly 10 years old—and having read the BBC’s response and the commitments contained within it, it seems that a genuine and robust attempt was made to address the structural and presentational weaknesses covered by the report’s recommendations. For example, the BBC now has a specialist Europe editor and the BBC News website has its own dedicated European section. The “Daily Politics” and “Sunday Politics” shows have featured MEPs on 172 occasions, with 51 of 73 UK MEPs being interviewed over the past 18 months. On Fridays, “Today in Parliament” on Radio 4 includes reports from Strasbourg, and BBC News broadcasts a half-hour programme, “Politics Europe”, at the end of each Strasbourg session. More recently, the debate between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage was broadcast on BBC2 and BBC News with an audience of more than 3 million viewers, so there is some evidence that the mechanisms for better coverage are in place.
Similarly, the BBC has visited and revisited the concerns regularly raised about impartiality, most recently in an independent report by Stuart Prebble which was commissioned in 2012 and to which the noble Lord referred. He drew on research from Cardiff University. The noble Lord said that he found its research untrustworthy, but that scepticism has been challenged and challenged again, and all the authoritative people who have looked at the research think that it stands up and confirms that a wide range of viewpoints and opinions on Europe can be found on the BBC.
While I do not think it is helpful to dwell overmuch on the Wilson report of 2005, I agree with some of the concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, and others about the lack of breadth and depth of coverage, which is a real challenge for us. This is a more fundamental challenge than simply requiring a review of the BBC’s output or, indeed, its charter because it stretches across from the media to our other democratic institutions. For example, there is a fundamental knowledge gap that needs to be addressed. We cannot lay that purely in the lap of the BBC. It starts at a much earlier level, in schools, where, as we know, political education is sparse and centred on UK institutions. Survey after survey of young people have shown that they have a real thirst for more information about what goes on in Europe. A European Parliament report shows that young people across the EU have the most positive feelings about Europe but also that two-thirds of them want to know more about its institutions and opportunities. This mood is reflected in a recent Anglia Ruskin University report which shows that 81% of British young people feel disengaged because they do not know enough about the EU, how it works and, above all, how it affects their daily lives. This is the point made by my noble friend Lord Giddens. There is a thirst for facts and information, not just for rhetoric.
This lack of information was reflected in the canvassing I was doing at the weekend. There was widespread apathy about the forthcoming European elections, a lack of understanding of the role of the European Parliament and a failure to grasp the range of social, environmental and economic benefits of the EU which impact on our lives. The challenge of filling this knowledge gap requires a greater commitment from all those involved in democratic and civic groups—we cannot lay responsibility for this solely at the door of the BBC.
Secondly, we need to recognise that one of the great strengths of the European legislative process is its focus on collaboration and negotiation. However, that very strength is also a weakness when it comes to media coverage as there are no gunfights at the OK Corral or headline-grabbing issues. A lot is done through deliberation, which is hard for the media to report effectively.
Ironically, although I very much share my party’s commitment to reform of the EU, including greater democracy in its institutions, I also accept that an EU style of politics provides a great alternative model to an electorate who are sick of British adversarial Punch and Judy encounters, which are driving so many people away from our own political institutions and politicians in the UK. If the British media were only better able to capture the essence of European political systems, we could have a more meaningful debate about the nature of political reform both here and in the EU.
Finally, I will pick up on the noble Lord’s question—the fundamental one we are debating today—about whether these issues should be raised in the context of the renewal of the BBC’s charter. I hope the Minister will agree with me that it would be completely inappropriate to start raising issues of content when the charter discussions take place. This is a highly sensitive issue but it is important that we reaffirm the BBC’s editorial independence, free from political interference, when the charter is renewed. The BBC has its own processes in place for monitoring and evaluating quality and impartiality, which need to be respected.
I hope we are able to persuade the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, that we all bear some responsibility for extending knowledge and news about the EU. The debate should continue, but the BBC charter is not the right vehicle for dong this. I also say to the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, that it is not in our interests to attempt to weaken what continues to be a respected and admired institution through this type of criticism at this point in time. Quite frankly, I do not think we would be thanked by the electorate or by BBC viewers for doing that—it remains a much loved institution, something which I think all the polling would confirm. We have had a good debate but the charter is not the way to take this issue forward. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I will respond initially to the last, important points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, by reaffirming the Government’s commitment to the operational and editorial independence of the BBC. That should be reflected in everything that we do, including when responding to debates of this nature. Although it is tempting to get into the detail—about which we all have an opinion—that independence, objectivity and, indeed, the BBC’s charter obligation to deliver impartiality is the subject which is under debate here: whether it is actually fulfilling that commitment to impartiality under its charter obligation. I rather liked the introduction from the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, when he referred to bias being, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. With the sweet coincidence of the ordering of the speeches, we then went from the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and then to my noble friend Lord Borwick. I felt we got a wide range of the different perspectives that we have on this.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, raised another point about the thirst, particularly among young people, to learn more about the institutions and more about Europe. I think that point is particularly pertinent at the time when we are marking the 100th anniversary of World War 1. I certainly commend the work which the BBC is doing to highlight what was, in a sense, the genesis of the institution which we are now discussing.
The impartiality of the British media, particularly with regard to its coverage of controversial topics, has been a subject of great debate in recent years. We have talked about the report by the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Dinton, which was published in 2005 and predicated on the basis that there was then going to be a referendum. The BBC wanted to engage with the issue of what its position should be if a referendum actually took place.
We know that a referendum did not take place. That deals with one of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, and others about the position of the BBC and whether it should have a role to play in a forthcoming referendum. The answer is that it most certainly should, and the form of that will need to be decided.
We should not diminish that record of impartiality. Opinion polls carried out by MORI show that 76% of adults regard BBC News output as accurate. That is not to be complacent, but it is a trusted source, and the reason that the BBC must take its duties incredibly seriously. It is also the reason why, I guess, the BBC Trust decided to ask the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, to undertake the review in the first place. It was followed up in June 2007 by the safeguarding impartiality review. In July 2011, there was a review of the BBC’s governance operations in relation to impartiality, and in July 2013 there was a review of breadth of opinion, which was raised by a number of noble Lords. As the centrepiece of the UK’s public service broadcasting landscape, the BBC bears a central responsibility for providing balanced accounts of such matters as part of its mission to “educate, inform and entertain”. This is an important element.
My noble friend Lord Borwick made an important point about competition. I am sure that it will not have been lost on the BBC that while in certain age groups it is gaining market share for its news services, among the young it has been losing market share. Part of that could well be the wide range of additional outlets and news sources, primarily social media, which are now available, and there needs to be a response to that.
The BBC’s fifth public purpose, as set out in the current charter, is,
“bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK”,
by building global understanding of international issues and broadening UK audiences’ experience of different cultures. There is clearly a read-across here to balanced, impartial coverage of EU matters and the duty of impartiality. The noble Lord, Lord Borwick, raised an interesting fact about the newspaper preferences of the BBC, but it has an absolute duty. The charter review will provide the appropriate context to consider all aspects of the BBC’s scope, its purposes and its activities. The current charter expires on 31 December 2016, and the Government have yet to announce the process, timing and scope of the review.
In 2005, the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, led an independent panel to assess the impartiality of BBC coverage of the European Union and make recommendations for improvement where necessary. I accept the point made by my noble friend Lord Teverson that things have changed quite a lot since 2005. Indeed, there is no cross-party consensus about the future. That is not just a UKIP point but a Conservative point, a Liberal Democrat point and, I am sure, a Labour point too. Markedly different views are now being presented to the electorate, not least at the present time, about how Europe should progress.
My noble friend Lord Borwick asked about the licence fee and the BBC Trust’s role in securing value for money. The BBC Trust is directly accountable to licence fee payers. Among its duties is to exercise rigorous stewardship of public money. That is clearly a very important role which we expect it to take seriously in future discussions. That will certainly be part of the ongoing review.
The noble Lord, Lord Pearson, focused on three points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, who raised 12 points in his report. Overall, there was a view that the BBC had demonstrated some cultural and unintentional bias and that its coverage of EU news needed to be improved and to be more clearly impartial. To address this, the panel recommended that the BBC needed,
“a strategy, action and changes, led from the top”.
As part of those efforts to address the breadth of opinion cited in its EU coverage, the BBC appointed its first Europe Editor, Mark Mardell. That was a point that was raised and welcomed by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and the noble Lord, Lord Giddens. Mark Mardell was appointed in May 2005 to focus on the evolving role and nature of the EU and its impact on the UK. In an interview with the European Scrutiny Committee in November last year, witnesses from the BBC described the appointment of the Europe Editor as:
“The biggest single thing, which made a real impact on air”.
In addition to this, the BBC has introduced new training resources and a mandatory course for journalists on reporting Europe. It has also commissioned regular reviews of specialist subject areas. A number of noble Lords referred to the interest in the debates that took place between Mr Farage and my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister, which were watched by more than 3 million people on the BBC. That was something that, again, sparked discussion and debate in the country, which must be welcomed.
I turn now to other reports on impartiality and European coverage. Since 2005, a multitude of other reports have been published by the BBC Trust and the European Scrutiny Committee to assess the progress on the BBC’s impartiality in EU coverage. Most recently, the review of the breadth of opinion reflected in the BBC’s output, commissioned by the BBC Trust and led by Stuart Prebble, was published in July 2013. I accept that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, made some strong remarks about the direction of that report. I think that it is creditable to the BBC that it takes its responsibilities so seriously that it sets up these reviews from time to time. It was encouraging to see that an increase between 2007 and 2012 in the breadth of opinion provided on the UK’s relationship to the EU had been identified. I am sure it was not nearly enough for the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, but some progress had been made. Overall, the report noted that, although continuous improvements could be made,
“the BBC goes to great lengths to provide a breadth of opinion”.
This point about breadth was the point made by my noble friends Lord Dykes and Lord Teverson and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones; we should talk not just about breadth but also about the depth of coverage. That is a criticism which the BBC has accepted and is seeking to respond to.
The more literature we have in that area and the more views that we have, the better it will be. This includes contributions such as the book by my noble friend Lord Dykes. I have not yet read it, but given that it has now had a citation and endorsement from Professor Giddens—the noble Lord, Lord Giddens—we will all, of course, rush to the library to obtain a copy, although perhaps my noble friend will be wishing that we rushed to Amazon to do so instead.
Qualitative polling undertaken by Ipsos MORI on behalf of the BBC in May 2013 found that, when asked which source of news people would trust for being the most impartial, 49% would choose the BBC, compared with 14% for ITV and 3% for Channel 4. It is important to highlight as part of this debate the fact that, under the terms of the charter and agreement, the BBC must do all it can to ensure that controversial subjects are treated with due accuracy and due impartiality in news dealing with public policy or matters of political or industrial controversy. This is also in line with section five of the Ofcom broadcasting code. The BBC has an invaluable role in providing information to licence fee payers to enable them to form their own views about a particular issue. To “educate” and “inform” are two-thirds of the Reithian values that form the heart of the BBC’s mission.
In conclusion, I thank again the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, for raising this important issue, and all noble Lords who spoke in this debate. We have much to be proud of in the way that public service broadcasters in Great Britain cover news impartially and accurately. To date, this has allowed the UK to build arguably the best broadcasting industry in the world, bringing benefits to the UK public and across the globe. Given that the BBC is central to this broadcasting landscape, and the unique way in which it is funded, it is essential that the BBC retains the public’s trust as an impartial purveyor of news and programming and of balanced coverage of all matters. It is critical that it continues to do this.
Committee adjourned at 6.24 pm.