BBC Scotland’s head of public policy dismisses claims of increasing public disquiet over alleged bias at the BBC.
“Facts are chiels that winna ding, An downa be disputed.”
If only our national Bard’s words held as true today as they did when he first put pen to paper in 1786. Sadly, in an age where social media is, for many, the communication vehicle of choice, facts are ‘dinged’ on a regular basis and it is increasingly commonplace for the distinctions to be blurred between that which can be verified and that which is simply the stuff of rumour, opinion or even deliberate fabrication.
Earlier this year, the Edelman Trust Barometer, which measures trust across a number of institutions, job sectors and geographical areas, found that over 50 per cent of us worry about fake news. It also revealed that 64 per cent of those interviewed for the survey said they could not distinguish between proper journalism and that which was fake. That must be a cause for concern for us all.
In such an environment, where the amount of social media content grows exponentially, day on day, where views are increasingly becoming more polarised and voices more strident in an effort to be heard above the ‘din’, it is not easy for the BBC to stand apart and remain immune. Indeed, as a broadcaster, we are often the subject (some might say ‘target‘) of much of the discourse, with questions regularly asked of our impartiality and independence. The events of the last few weeks have again thrown that discourse into sharp relief.
Three weeks ago, alerted to BBC content being posted online without authorisation, action was taken to address what was seen as a copyright infringement by a number of websites. That, in turn, prompted a flurry of correspondence, commentary and criticism, much of it channelled via social media and, indeed, via the media at large (including the BBC’s own television and radio news outlets). The BBC reacted, determining, rightly, that the proper course of action would be to review its practices in respect of ‘political’ content being posted online by third parties and to withdraw its complaints about such postings (action will continue to be taken where pirated copies of BBC content such as comedies and dramas are posted online).
Some saw this as an opportune moment to rekindle their arguments about the BBC’s ‘institutional bias’, to give voice once again to their perceptions of a pro-Unionist, pro-establishment, anti-independence stance which they believe the BBC not only embodies but actively promotes.
And the arguments, for and against, raged, not only on social media but also in the columns and letters pages of parts of the press.
Indeed, Lesley Riddoch, in her Perspective article (Monday, 13 August) drew attention to what was characterised as a compendium of concerns laid at the door of the BBC, illustrating what she described as increasing public disquiet over its alleged pro-Labour/anti-Nationalist bias, its anti-Labour/Jeremy Corbyn bias, its pro-Conservative bias, the desertion of ‘liberals and lefties’ from the Today Programme audience, a similar desertion by them – and by supporters of Scottish independence – from the Question Time audience...
If Lesley is to be believed, I’m surprised anyone, anywhere, is now watching or listening to BBC programmes! But then again, if we are so busy manipulating our news content in favour of one cause or another, maybe we just haven’t noticed that there’s no-one out there consuming it...
Frankly, I don’t buy it. Because it isn’t true. The truth of the matter is that audiences do still consume BBC programmes and content. In Scotland. And in great numbers. And they’re not doing that because they don’t trust what they are seeing or hearing. Quite the contrary.
Recent reports from Ipsos Mori and the Oxford University Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism on digital news both saw BBC ranked top for impartial news and as the most trusted news source when compared to other broadcasters, print outlets and social media platforms. Last month, Ofcom’s Media Nations: Scotland report revealed that four in five regular viewers in Scotland rated BBC One’s wide range of quality news highly (78 per cent), above the UK average and above the ratings recorded by audiences in England and Wales. And the early evening edition of Reporting Scotland remains the most watched television news programme in Scotland.
So let us allow the evidence, gathered by external, reputable media analysts to provide proper balance in the arguments around the BBC.
And that evidence very clearly tells us that audiences value the BBC. They value it as a trusted and authoritative voice, one which is not influenced by political or commercial pressures or by arguments from one side or another of a debate. They value it for being a news provider that will get to the heart of a story to better help audiences understand the forces that shape all of our lives and, in turn, to help us all to make informed decisions about our futures.
Does the BBC get it right every time? Of course not. We make mistakes and we occasionally get things wrong, just as everyone does. In her article, Lesley tells us that we have “infuriated not just Yes voters” by failing to report on recent “local pro indy marches across Scotland”. It took BBC political correspondent Nick Eardley to point out to her, on Twitter, that she was wrong – we had reported on them, extensively, and often in stories leading our bulletins on TV, on radio and online (though Lesley’s counter argument to Nick, on Twitter, that “website reports are not broadcasting” does seem at odds with the digital world in which we all live).
Nick’s intervention also confounds Lesley’s assertion that BBC journalists are “forbidden from correcting even factual errors for fear of escalating Twitter wars”. If that’s true, someone better alert Nick, Gary Robertson, Douglas Fraser and host of other BBC Scotland journalists who haven’t been afraid to put the record straight where required.
Because our journalists do as they should and ask hard questions of those in power doesn’t reflect a bias against a government or a party in power. It doesn’t mean we favour one side of an argument over another. And it doesn’t mean we shape our news agendas to tell bad news stories rather than tell the truth, as some believe. It means our journalists are doing their job, properly scrutinising the decisions and proclamations of those in power.
The issue over BBC content being posted online brought a further consequence, with over 200 people turning up at Pacific Quay in Glasgow last weekend to demonstrate against BBC bias. We offered to talk. That offer still stands. We want to engage, constructively, in dialogue with those who question our journalism or are suspicious of our decision-making.
Next year, the introduction of a new BBC TV channel for Scotland, and a new hour-long weeknight news programme, will offer us a significant opportunity to engage further with audiences, to offer more space for dialogue and discussion about the issues that matter.
It is important that we all engage and grasp that opportunity, in the same way that it is important that we grasp the opportunity to sit down and talk. We might not, in the end, all agree, but at least we will be better placed to understand each other.
Ian Small is the head of public policy and corporate affairs at BBC Scotland