some default text...

European Scrutiny CommitteeSupplementary written evidence David Keighley, Newswatch (ESI 15))

I write following the publication “A BBC Trust Report into the Breadth of Opinion Reflected in the BBC’s Output”, by Stuart Prebble. The report effectively gives the BBC’s EU coverage a clean bill of health and specifically singles out the EU Scrutiny Committee in its reasoning. I believe the report is not independent, and that the conclusions are unsubstantiated and are based upon inadequate data.

Mr Prebble, in his section about the reporting of the EU, concludes:

“...if the viewer and listener is prepared to meet the BBC half-way—to do a bit of digging—only the very unreasonable would argue that the BBC is not providing a suitable breadth of views and opinion on the subject of Europe. It is there if you want to find it.”

This is disturbing because it is at odds with the way it has hitherto been accepted that the BBC, should operate. I think it is imperative, as the Wilson report stipulated, to expect the BBC—which now boasts of having the largest newsroom in Europe—to provide sufficient coverage not just for those who dig, but also within and across their general programmes. The BBC has ample time and resource to mount such coverage and viewers and listeners must surely be entitled to expect it.

Other aspects of the report are also disturbing.

Mr Prebble purports to provide an authoritative overview of the extent of BBC coverage of EU affairs and essentially gives it a clean bill of health. He noted that Helen Boaden, the former head of news, accepted that coverage had once been biased, but asserts that this is no longer the case.

But the research on which he bases his conclusions is extremely limited and his analytical methodology would not pass muster on any degree course. The research relied upon in his report was carried out by Cardiff University. It is dipstick sampling based on two short periods in 2007 and 2012, covering two months and drawing from six BBC programmes. The primary aim of this statistical comparison was to assess whether there was evidence of a move from a “seesaw” view of impartiality towards a “wagon wheel” model—a reference to the Bridcut report of 2007.

However, Cardiff’s first period of content analysis was actually undertaken five months after the publication of Bridcut, and provides no useful comparison. This is a result of Cardiff recycling programme data from an earlier BBC-funded study (into coverage of the Four UK Nations) rather than analysing programme data from before the publication of Bridcut, suited specifically to the research question at hand.

A similar sloppiness is evident throughout: for example, eurosceptics and withdrawa lists are viewed almost interchangeably. As Newswatch has recently pointed out, such subtle distinctions are actually vital in assessing whether or not coverage has been balanced.

Mr Prebble in fact came to his, conclusions on only 200 items in 272 hours of broadcasting. This amounts to the most fleeting of snapshots. Newswatch wrote a critique of the Cardiff approach in 2008 and it is appended. By contrast, between 1999 and 2013, Newswatch has analysed more than 7,800 items about the EU broadcast over 316 weeks.

His conclusions and analysis are therefore on the shakiest of foundations. As an example, he mentions that the EU Scrutiny Committee was part of the BBC coverage, during a paragraph that seems to be attempting to illustrate that a wide range of EU-related topics was covered and is covered as a matter of routine. But as I told your Committee, Newswatch research shows that in the past seven years, of the thousands EU reports on Today, there were only 10 mentions of the European Scrutiny Committee, most of them fleeting or incidental. Even when there was a clear news peg to discuss the work of the Committee in more depth, for example in your recommendation to hold a Parliamentary debate on the EU budget last autumn, it was not properly taken.

In summary, the Prebble report gives much cause for concern. David Liddiment, the BBC Trustee who commissioned it, says it has vindicated the corporation’s coverage. I suggest that on the contrary, it is an inadequate piece of work that does not support the sweeping conclusions made. This now shows that the BBC Trustees themselves, as well as the news executives, are complacent about the reporting of EU affairs and complicit in the inadequacy. I do hope your Committee can find ways of holding them to account, and would be delighted to assist in that process in any way you thought appropriate.

One final point. The Trustees claim this report was “independent”. But Mr Prebble worked closely with David Liddiment for many years at Granada Television, where they were part of the senior management team. It would surely have demonstrated true independence if someone with no such connections had been appointed to carry out this vital analytical role.

FOUR NATIONS IMPARTIALITY REVIEW: AN ANALYSIS OF REPORTING DEVOLUTION

General Survey—4 weeks

The Cardiff University survey monitored 11 individual BBC news and current affairs programmes using what is referred to as a “dipstick” methodology, for four individual weeks between 1 October and 30 November 2007. The survey also assessed coverage on Channel 4 News, IN News and an hour each day of Sky News, and considered content on BBC Online. This generated a sample of 4,687 separate news items, of which 3103 were from the BBC’s television and radio output.

The broadcast news component accounted for 232 hours of BBC programming.1

The research fails to break down the figures sufficiently from here. It identifies 313 items (from the total BBC sample of 3103) which included or could have potentially included content relevant to the issue of devolution. However, it is impossible to discern accurately how many of these stories appeared on the BBC’s radio and television broadcasts and how many featured online. Furthermore, no detail at all is provided as to possible variations in coverage between the 11 individual BBC programmes which were surveyed.

The research identified 39 stories on the BBC outlets (TV, radio and online) with contained references to devolved government, which generated 71 mentions of devolution—63 “explicit” and eight “limplicit”).2

The table compares the November 2007 Cardiff survey to the four most recent Newswatch projects. (Newswatch’s Today programme monitoring was extended to include additional programmes for a two week period in June 2007, and a one week period in June 2008, and a 48 hour period in December 2006, to coincide with particular EU events).

Cardiff
Nov 07

Newswatch
December 06

Newswatch
June 07

Newswatch
December 07

Newswatch
June 08

Weeks of Monitoring

4

14

14

14

12

Hours of Broadcast Monitoring

232

248

284

238

224

Number of BBC Programmes

11

8

8

1

7

Number of relevant reports

39

159

254

247

207

As the data illustrates, the findings of the Cardiff research—although based on a significant amount of airtime—actually generated a very small sample of stories relevant to the issue being considered.

Key Issues

The amount of airtime covered in each Newswatch survey compares favourably to the Cardiff research. Only in the most recent survey—in which Today was monitored for 12 weeks rather than the usual 14—did Newswatch monitor fewer programme hours overall.

The 39 devolution stories assessed by Cardiff, upon which the BBC Trust based their findings, represents less than a quarter of the individual reports analysed in the smallest Newswatch sample—and only a sixth of its largest.

Newswatch was criticised by the senior BBC in the Independent Editorial Advisor’s Report for monitoring “three month” intervals of the Today programme. For example, Today’s editor Gavin Allen suggested regarding the Newswatch monitoring schedule that:

“A selected snapshot of three months coverage may well suggest a limited number of stories on the Constitution. But another snapshot—take the past three months for instance—might suggest a different story.” (p.13)

However, Sir Anthony King’s report for the BBC Trust on News coverage of the Four UK nations said that:

“Although a choice of sample weeks other than the four chosen by the Cardiff researchers in October and November of last year would undoubtedly have produced findings marginally different from the ones that were in fact found, the differences are unlikely either to have been significant or to have altered substantially the picture outlined above.”

This is completely unsubstantiated. Without detailed monitoring for any given period it is impossible to tell how coverage outside a given period may have differed, and to what extent. And yet the BBC Trust takes this assertion at face value.

In concentrating monitoring in four separate week-long periods, the Cardiff research was not expansive enough to provide an accurate picture of coverage, as the same news stories were likely to have been carried across numerous individual programmes.

The Cardiff research focuses on individual units of news, and does not consider reports in terms of their overall airtime. Using this methodology, short mentions of devolution carry the same weight as large scale features and interviews. Alongside counting the frequency of EU reports, Newswatch focuses on EU airtime as a percentage of the total available in each programme.

The Cardiff research does not consider individual programmes in isolation within its statistics, and only looks at individual reports in its case studies. This leads to blunt comparisons between “BBC Outlets” and “Non BBC Outlets” and radio, television and online components being grouped together as one.

1 In their election survey in Spring 2007, the Cardiff researchers only monitored Today’s peak hour 7am–8.30arn, and did not code items appearing in the hourly and half hourly bulletins. The ‘Dipstick’ report does not state whether or not the same methodology was used and the figure of 232 hours includes the Today programme in its entirety for the full four weeks

2 This appears to contradict an earlier reference to ‘37 stories’ of relevance to the devolution .issue (p.10)—as a result, the higher of the two figures given by Cardiff has been used for the purpose of comparison.

Prepared 28th November 2013