European Scrutiny CommitteeLetter from the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee to Lord Patten, Chairman of the BBC Trust (ESI 28)

I write in response to your letter of 25 September which was discussed by the Committee at its meeting today. The Committee noted your “preference to decline” the invitation issued to you to give oral evidence to our inquiry. We are not satisfied with this response for the reasons set out below.

European Coverage

The Committee was perplexed by the following distinction you make: that while you have responded to questions about “European coverage in the course of appearances before the CMS Committee or in Parliamentary groups of peers and MPs interested in BBC issues” you “have never taken a view on specific questions about media coverage of the EU scrutiny process.” One of the reasons the Committee is conducting this inquiry is to assess “expectations, understanding and coverage of the scrutiny process [of the House of Commons] within and outside Westminster” given that this scrutiny—by the elected Chamber and under our Standing Orders—amounts to the democratic assessment of European legislation on behalf of the citizens of the United Kingdom. We do not recognise the distinction which you appear to draw between “European coverage” and “media coverage of the EU scrutiny process”.

The Prebble Review and the Role of the BBC Trust

Your letter states that “the subject of EU coverage formed only a small part of a wide-ranging review of breadth of opinion; we have asked the BBC to report back on issues raised; and I have nothing to add to the Trust’s published conclusions for now.”

First, we note that EU coverage was one of only three subjects covered in particular by the Prebble review (the other two being immigration and religion and ethics), which we would suggest is more than a “small part”. The Trust’s published conclusions and the Prebble review itself (which was commissioned by the Trust) are valid areas of interest for this Committee, and given that Stuart Prebble has declined our invitation to appear it is entirely logical to invite you as Trust Chairman to discuss the Trust’s published conclusions.

Indeed, when we took evidence from senior BBC staff and questioned them about the Prebble review the witness replied that he was “not in a position to say how it is going because that is a BBC Trust matter”, adding later “It is the Trust’s job to review what we do. It chooses different subjects from time to time; it has chosen impartiality and it has chosen this particular area and so we will see.”

While we note that the Executive Board has responsibility for “the direction of the BBC’s editorial and creative output” under section 38(1)(b) of the Charter, it is the Trust which is given the general function of “assessing the performance of the Executive Board in delivering the BBC’s services and activities and holding the Executive Board to account for its performance” (24(1)(c)). The Trust bears “ultimate responsibility” for “securing the effective promotion of the Public Purposes” (22(c)), which include “sustaining citizenship and civil society” (4(a)). We examined these Public Purposes with BBC witnesses in February; we propose to cover this aspect further during the evidence session.

The BBC Trust website (“Impartiality”) notes that the “BBC is required to deliver duly impartial news by the Royal Charter and Agreement and to treat controversial subjects with due impartiality” and that the “Trust is committed to making sure that the BBC fulfils this obligation.”

Moreover, as the BBC Trust website (“Editorial standards”) states “The Trust is responsible for approving the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines. These Guidelines are the key foundation for the maintenance of high editorial standards in everything broadcast or produced by the BBC. They cover a range of standards including impartiality, harm and offence, accuracy, fairness, privacy and dealing with children and young people as contributors.”

In light of these points we reject your argument that the appearance of the Chairman of the BBC Trust would not add materially to our work; it is for the Committee to decide on its evidence programme.

Follow-up from the Wilson Review

You will also be aware that an Independent Report by a Panel chaired by Lord Wilson of Dinton was commissioned by the Trust to examine the BBC’s News Coverage of the European Union. The Report was published in January 2005 and made a number of significant recommendations, and we questioned staff of the BBC about what follow-up actions had been taken. In our view, there are several outstanding issues about the extent of follow-up work, for example about whether any papers were prepared by the BBC about a proposed EU referendum, and we would like to question you about these, particularly given the Duty of the Trust under section 23(f) of the Charter to “ensure that the BBC observes high standards of openness and transparency.”


We are agreed as a Committee that there are matters which remain unexplored which are central to this part of our inquiry, and that you as Chairman of the Trust are best placed to answer our questions. We therefore repeat the invitation to you to appear, and look forward to resolving this issue as soon as possible.

9 October 2013

Prepared 28th November 2013