European Scrutiny CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by David Keighley (ESI 11)

1. I write in my capacity as founder and director of Newswatch, an independent company which for more than a decade has been monitoring the output of the BBC and other broadcasters for political balance. We have a website at through which our reports on the BBC’s EU coverage can be accessed.

2. My background is that I was a BBC journalist, then head of public and press relations in BBC television news and current affairs. I was at TV-am for almost eight years (1985–92) as director of public affairs , and since then set up the world’s first international conference for news broadcasters (in association with the BBC) and have been an adviser to a large range of broadcast news organisations, including Reuters television and Channel 9, Australia.

3. Since the 1999 European Elections, Newswatch has monitored over 6,000 hours of BBC News and Current Affairs programming. It has compiled full programme logs and completed more than 7,600 transcripts of EU-related items containing 4.5 million words. It the largest sustained systematic monitoring of the BBC ever mounted.

4. The early part of this work was closely considered by the Wilson inquiry in 2005 and the concerns expressed by Newswatch at that time were reflected in its findings. It found that the BBC suffered from an institutional mindset that did not report the full range of voices in the EU debate; it oversimplified, polarised and stereotyped its EU reporting; too often presented stories only through the Westminster prism; displayed ignorance of EU affairs and procedures; and was guilty of bias by omission.

5. In accepting this criticism, the BBC made a number of commitments, including:

(a)“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;”

(b)“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;”

(c)“To demonstrate the relationships between the different member states and the European Union”

(d)“To reveal and explain to our audiences areas of contentious fact and disputed principle.”

6. Our research shows that the BBC has not fulfilled these promises. However, although conceding that its EU output has been biased against the eurosceptic case at times, the BBC maintains that its output has improved, though it has never provided any research evidence that this is so. This position was broadly adopted again in the recent evidence given by the BBC to the European Scrutiny Committee.

7. The BBC’s witnesses provided no concrete, verifiable evidence to support their position. But the Newswatch surveys provide abundant evidence that the Eurosceptic case has not been properly reflected in the BBC’s output, and that the Corporation is, in fact, biased in its coverage of EU affairs, and thus in breach of its Wilson promises, not to mention its Charter and Editorial Guidelines.

8. Euroscepticism, including the case for withdrawal, is supported by MPs and Peers in both the Conservative and Labour parties, and by large sections of the public, but has been disturbingly under-reported by the BBC. The BBC has preferred to see the Eurosceptic cause largely through the prism of “Conservative splits”, and has aired it accordingly.

9. In their appearance before the European Scrutiny Committee, the BBC representatives were opposed to any process of measurement or categorisation of their coverage. They relied on the argument that impartiality cannot be measured by formula, and that day-to-day balance is safeguarded by “good editorial judgement”.

10. Yet the Savile affair has shown that this process of internal judgment can go seriously wrong. The BBC relied on its internal procedures to ensure proper handling of the different elements of the unfolding story, and the Pollard report has revealed that they were inadequate. It shows that it is wrong to expect programme makers, through sense alone, to maintain an accurate understanding of how impartial—or otherwise—these editorial decisions might be.

11. There are, from time to time, single programmes or individual reports in which imbalance or unfairness is immediately obvious, or even striking. But the Newswatch reports illustrate that the BBC’s Europhile bias is more subtle, accumulating gradually and progressively over long intervals. A little more consideration given to one perspective, an additional speaker appearing from a particular party or viewpoint, a stronger line of questioning employed against certain spokespeople—it is often difficult to make an unequivocal charge of bias against any individual item. Yet, when these seemingly minor editorial decisions are replicated over thousands of individual reports, patterns emerge which cannot be detected without a solid and methodical framework to record, monitor and analyse output, and the bias then becomes clear.

12. The BBC is required to be balanced “over a series”, which is why from 2003 we have generally monitored three-month periods in the run-up to the half-yearly European Council meetings which take place after each Presidency. Yet recently the Trust, in the shape of its Chairman, advised us to concentrate more on individual programmes, but we have not done so. Even with our three-month series analyses, the BBC either criticises our methodology (“bean-counting” etc.) or replies: “Ah, but we’ve provided the balance you seek elsewhere.” When we have asked to see those compensating programmes, there has been no satisfactory answer.

13. The central paradox in the BBC’s position is that on the one hand they criticise external attempts to categorise and track their news output, but on the other they claim “evidence” of improvements in EU coverage which could actually only be verified by the type of measurement which they say cannot be applied. Their argument amounts to resistance to any form of any external, verifiable assessment. And the BBC has no internal monitoring system comparable to that of Newswatch.

14. For example, a central part of Mr Bailey’s argument to the Committee was about balance on “Today”. He suggested that the Today programme may “on any one day give due weight in one direction”. When challenged by the Chair as to whether he thought that due weight was given in the other direction too, Mr Bailey said that it was.

15. But the facts say otherwise, especially with regard to any debate about withdrawal. In the two Newswatch surveys immediately before the Wilson Report, withdrawalist speakers accounted for 5.9% of all EU contributors on the Today programme. In the surveys since, they have accounted for an average of 2.9%. Since the publication of Wilson, these withdrawalist interviewees have been asked 210 direct questions by Today’s presenters and correspondents, but only 21 questions—10% of the total direct questions– were on the issue of withdrawal. In the most recent Newswatch survey, covering September to December 2012, only one question on withdrawal was put to an identifiably withdrawalist speaker in the 78 programmes (221 hours) that were surveyed. The long-term average is one question on withdrawal put to a withdrawlist speaker per 55 editions of the programme.

16. Newswatch classifies all those who are known supporters of withdrawal, together with those who actually speak about the topic as “withdrawlist speakers”. In reality however, they very rarely speak about the case for withdrawal (or renegotiation) because Today very rarely asks them about it. So the actual amount of airtime devoted to withdrawal is minuscule.

17. Perhaps the most telling statistic about the Today programme is that in the seven years since the Wilson Report, only 0.04% of its feature airtime has been withdrawlists making the case for withdrawal or major change in the relationship with the EU. This should be set against the BBC’s duty to fairly cover matters of national interest, and opinion polls which suggest that quite large numbers of the public (and of the license fee payers) favour withdrawal from the EU.

18. The Left has been almost wholly excluded from what debate there has been. Kelvin Hopkins MP rightly questioned the BBC representatives on the “great yawning gap . . . that is the left critique of the European Union, which does not feature at all”. Mary Hockaday pointed to an edition of Radio 4’s Analysis programme which had devoted a whole programme to “the relationship of the left to Europe”, in which Labour MP Gisela Stuart had “featured prominently”. Indeed, Gisela Stuart played a significant part in the Analysis programme aired on 29 October 2012—as did pro-EU speakers including Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform, and the Labour peer Lord Liddle.

19. But a single half hour programme—in which Gisela Stuart spoke for just four minutes and 20 seconds (and the majority of this was spent providing an historical account of the Labour Party’s shifting attitude to the EU rather than making any of the case for withdrawal)—cannot alone offset imbalances that have occurred over many years across the entire BBC news schedule. To illustrate: 89 identifiably withdrawalist speakers appeared on the Today programme in the editions surveyed by Newswatch since the publication of the Wilson Report in 2005. This is 2.8% of the total speakers who have contributed to the EU debate. Only two of these speakers were Labour supporters of withdrawal, Labour MPs Austin Mitchell and Gisela Stuart (there were also two very short “vox pop” contributions from Greek protesters against the financial collapse in their country). This Labour contribution equates to 2.2% of the total withdrawalist speakers, and 0.06% of the total number of speakers on the EU in the survey periods spanning seven years. These accounted for just 241 words—approximately a minute and a half of airtime. Furthermore, three quarters of withdrawal supporters were members of UKIP and 12% were members of the Conservative Party. 34 of the 89 withdrawalist contributions (38%) came from a single contributor—current UKIP leader Nigel Farage.

20. And there were no withdrawalist contributions at all from academics, economists, business leaders or members of the UK general public.

21. Ms Hockaday also suggested in her evidence that, “on the day of the Prime Minister’s speech, we were hearing from businesses large and small, hearing from fishermen, farmers, hauliers, doctors, all the people affected sometimes by these debates.” It sounded a very impressive list. However, if one assumes Ms Hockaday was referring primarily to Newsnight on 23 January 2013—which indeed included a farmer, haulier and doctor,– then all three guests were clearly Europhile. In fact, the pro-EU haulier, was actually a parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats in 2010, a fact which was not shared with the audience, and the doctor was a known supporter of the Working Time Directive. The only clear withdrawalist speaker was Nigel Farage who was pitched against 17 Europhile opponents.

22. Mr Bailey suggested that the BBC has “A very transparent and thorough complaints system for people who feel that we have not been impartial in any particular way”. Newswatch research has been used as the basis of a number of complaints to the BBC over the years. So far, all have been dismissed by the BBC, acting as its own judge and jury on editorial matters and wholly resistant to outside monitoring or criticism.

23. I respectfully submit that the European Scrutiny Committee, having heard the BBC perspective, might find it beneficial to consider at first hand the evidence compiled by Newswatch. We are happy to provide any of the transcripts which support what I have said above, and I would be honoured to attend, and answer any questions that the Committee might have on this submission.

10 March 2013

Prepared 28th November 2013