Scrutiny Reform follow-up and Legacy Report - European Scrutiny Contents

8  Scrutiny Reform Report and the BBC

68. As part of the Scrutiny Reform Report, which we published in November 2013, we considered the issue of the "visibility of scrutiny in the media." Regarding the role of the media and the BBC's coverage of both the Committee's work and of the EU in general, as well as the BBC Charter, its Framework Agreement with the Secretary of State and the general law we concluded that: "given the possibility of some form of EU referendum—either on membership or following treaty change—over the next ten years, the media, particularly (given its role) the BBC, needs to ask itself difficult questions about how it deals with EU issues. We are not convinced that the Prebble Review and the responses from the BBC Executive and BBC Trust have sufficiently asked, let alone answered, these questions."42F[43]

69. We followed up our Report by a long exchange of correspondence to secure the appearance of Lord Patten, who initially refused our invitation to appear on three occasions, and then (following Lord Patten's resignation) the new Chairman of the BBC Trust, Rona Fairhead, who initially wrote to the Committee Chairman stating that there were "people who were better equipped" to give oral evidence.43F[44]

70. She appeared before the Committee on 14 January 2015 and Lord Hall, the Director-General of the BBC, appeared on 11 March 2015. All the relevant correspondence has been published on our website. We draw attention to the letter to Lord Hall of 14 January 2015 in which we asked him to treat that letter as he would a formal summons, and note that we were strongly supported by the Liaison Committee, the Committee of all the Chairs of House of Commons Select Committees.

71. We questioned both sets of witnesses on the issues raised by our Scrutiny Reform Report relating to the BBC's coverage of our Committee and of wider EU issues. We are pleased to have had the opportunity to have public exchanges with the BBC and to place these on the record. The review of the BBC's EU coverage conducted by a panel led by Lord Wilson of Dinton in 2005 was very critical of the BBC,44F[45] and we are not convinced either that the action taken since then has been sufficient, or that the review which in part followed up some of Lord Wilson's recommendations (known as the Prebble Review45F[46]) was sufficiently thorough.

The oral evidence session with the BBC Trust

72. During the oral evidence session with Rona Fairhead and Richard Ayre, with respect to the role of the BBC Trust we covered the implications of Article 6 of the Charter and the degree of independence and impartiality of the BBC.

73. Rona Fairhead stated that "the Trust is essentially a regulator, and the final sovereign body",46F[47] and that the Trust is "the guardian of the licence fee payer."47F[48] She stated that it is the Trust's obligation "to ensure that the level of impartial, independent journalism is appropriate" and that the Trust is "the final court of appeal for complaints".48F[49] She stressed the Trust's important concern that there is "a breadth of view".49F[50] She agreed when asked if "the independence of the BBC in areas such as editorial standards and guidelines is circumscribed by and subject to the Charter and Framework Agreement, and therefore to the obligations to achieve its primary purpose of serving the public interest and follow its main objective of promoting its public purposes, which include sustaining citizenship and civil society, and promoting education and learning".50F[51]

74. In the view of Richard Ayre, a BBC Trustee and Chair of the Editorial Standards Committee of the Trust, "the executive of the BBC, under the Charter, has absolute editorial discretion, provided that they operate within the editorial framework set by the Trust".51F[52] He went on to say "there is absolute editorial independence, guaranteed by the Charter, for the executive".52F[53] As respects regulatory standards, Mr Ayre stated that "it is one of the principal functions of the Trust".53F[54]

75. Within a short space of time, on 4 March, Rona Fairhead, speaking after the publication of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee Report on the Future of the BBC, stated that "the cleanest form of separation would be to transfer the Trust's responsibilities for regulation and accountability to an external regulator" which "would have responsibility for all matters of regulation".54F[55] This proposal for such profound reform, which she indicated was the "front-runner", would have substantial implications for the questions of governance and impartiality in general.

76. Richard Ayre confirmed that there were proposals for reviewing the BBC editorial guidelines after the General Election and in the context of the review of the Charter.55F[56] On breadth of opinion, Rona Fairhead stated that "impartiality is at the core of the organisation".56F[57] Richard Ayre strongly defended the Prebble review.57F[58] There was then the following exchange:

    "Q55 Chair: With respect, it is not just about the impartiality of the breadth of opinion. It is about the question of the subject matter of the European Union and the extent to which there is a proper degree of impartiality in the people who are presenting the programmes in the manner in which the people are chosen on the balance of opinion in individual programmes. That is the key question, surely. It is not just a question of breadth of opinion or voices; it is a question of impartiality with respect to the subject matter. That is the key issue.

    "Rona Fairhead: You are quite right, but this report itself was about impartiality, because the definition of impartiality that was being looked at was—was there a sufficient breadth of range of opinion? That had come up in the Bridcut report, to which Richard referred. Clearly, it is about balance and due impartiality for the very important subjects."

The oral evidence session with Lord Hall and James Harding

77. During our oral evidence session with Lord Hall and James Harding, important issues were raised regarding Lord Hall's role as Editor-in-Chief and Director General, and in relation to the question of independence in relation to the BBC Charter, the Framework Agreement and the general law.

78. We remain concerned following that session that Lord Hall did not seem, in our view, to appreciate fully the limitations on the BBC editorial independence imposed by Article 6 of the Charter, the Framework Agreement and the general law. We were glad to note that Lord Hall stated that on "impartiality, I think that is just fundamental. I really do."58F[59] However, we were not satisfied with his responses as to the balance to be struck in delivering that impartiality in respect of different views on the EU issue, and we challenged him that few voices were heard from those with strong views criticising the EU among backbenchers, including from the Labour Party.59F[60]

79. On the question of impartiality we had the following exchange with Lord Hall:

    "Q12 Chair: But you agree that there are two sides to this equation, in terms of whether or not you want more integration. You cannot really answer my question by referring back to this diffusion of voices. There is a question. Quite simply, there are people who believe that there should be more integration and there are people who believe there should not. On that issue, what I am asking you is very simple—that you make sure that there is a complete and equal balance between those two views as and when they come out of the radio or the television.

    Lord Hall: Our job is to ensure that we are impartial and reflect all sides of an argument.

    Chair: So you do agree with me.

    Lord Hall: Yes, I do.

    Chair: Thank you very much.

    Lord Hall: But I'm saying it's a bit more complicated than that, because there are those who might say, "Well, on this particular issue, I might be saying 'less integration'. On that issue, I might be saying 'more integration'." We have to make sure we are reflecting those views, too, across all our output."

80. Overall, following our questioning, we were not satisfied that Lord Hall was sufficiently clear about the structure of the oversight he exercised over those who worked under him as Editor-in-Chief. We were also concerned that neither he nor James Harding sufficiently appreciated that the issue of the EU is not only a party-political, but a cross-party issue for backbenchers.

81. We note that James Harding expressed the following concerns:

    "If you detect a reluctance among people like me to come to parliamentary Committees to discuss editorial judgments, you are right. There is a real reluctance to do so, and I know that you understand that. I appreciate, Sir William, the points that you made at the outset about the responsibility of the BBC to inform, but the reason why we prize that independence so dearly is that if the public are going to trust the BBC to be independent and to cover politicians impartially, it has got to be clear that journalists, editors and the people who run a news organisation as important as the BBC are not asked by politicians to come and account for what they do and, in effect, do the bidding of those politicians."60F[61]

This, in turn, concerned us, because such editorial judgements are constrained by the limitations of the Charter, the Framework Agreement and the general law.

82. We are gravely concerned that despite our clear message in the session that we would have expected that the BBC would give full coverage to the proceedings attended by Lord Hall and James Harding, apart from a broadcast on BBC Parliament after the session and a short summary of the proceedings on the BBC website, there was to our knowledge no news commentary, analysis or interviews on any of the mainstream programmes of the BBC of the proceedings. We note in this context our continued concerns that there was similarly little coverage of our seminal report on European Scrutiny Reform of November 2013. We regard these failures as inexplicable, and in our view they could be construed as a breach of the BBC's duties under its Charter and Framework Agreement, and particularly in respect of its public purposes. Furthermore, we find them difficult to understand given Lord Hall's repeated statements of how seriously he took the issue of impartiality, and the steps he referred to in his oral evidence of how attention is paid to the "flow of information" and a "common response",61F[62] with many (including daily) meetings between editors and senior managers.

83. James Harding argued that there is a huge amount of work that goes into impartiality, "into understanding where the arguments are, where the range of opinions are, making sure that you access those points of view", and added that there was a meeting each morning at 9:00am at which he chaired a news conference, as well as a weekly meeting.62F[63] Our experience above demonstrates, in our view, potential weaknesses in this system. We did note, however, that when pressed on these points, James Harding replied that "I've got the message".63F[64]

84. We note that four particular aims were set out by the BBC in its Response to the Wilson Report:64F[65]

    "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;

    "to demonstrate the relationships between the different member states and the European Union.

    "to reveal and explain to our audiences areas of contentious fact and disputed principle."

85. Given the fact that the Wilson Report raised such serious criticisms of the BBC's treatment of EU issues, we remain profoundly unconvinced that these aims have been fulfilled.

86. We are not yet convinced that the BBC's training adequately equips BBC editors, correspondents, producers and interviewers to devise the questions and coverage to reflect all sides of the EU equation, in accordance with the BBC Charter and its obligations. We were told by Lord Hall that the organisation is "very reflective. It thinks very hard about what it is doing … The culture, I think, is one of questioning", and on the question of the complexity of the issues in question, we were told that "the challenge is to say 'this is complex; it matters. Now we, as journalists, must try to get to grips with it".65F[66] In our view a good deal more analysis is required.

87. When asked:

    "The question that those surveys use that is relevant to our work is, 'Does the BBC help me understand politics in Europe?' We are back to the terminology of 'Europe', as opposed to 'the European Union'. Do you think it is a bit woolly and vague, and that it is a question that is just thrown out? Do you think the question should be more direct? Should it be, 'Does the BBC help you understand how the European Union operates and how it is relevant to the citizens of this country, in terms of the way they are governed?' Do you think it should be a more direct, specific question, to get a better answer that you can work with?"

Lord Hall replied "I am happy to take advice on how we can get better in touch with the feelings of the licence fee payers on all these key issues."66F[67]

88. When asked by the Chairman:

    "I really regard that as a serious challenge to most of the evidence given today, because actually anyone who knew enough, knew that this was being omitted and had a mindset of the kind described in Wilson could not possibly ignore the [Scrutiny Reform] report. That is not just because we made it, but because we have expertise in this Committee based on our responsibilities and duties to the House of Commons, and it was unanimous. If the BBC chooses to ignore that, you have to accept that that was a serious mistake"

Lord Hall replied:

"I don't agree. I am not going to get drawn into news judgments on the day your report came out—I don't know the day it came out and I don't know what the pressures were on the news teams from global events or indeed events in this country. I can't and won't say whether that was right or wrong. What I will emphasise is what I hope Mr Harding and myself have been emphasising throughout this session: we take the issues of Europe, the coverage of Europe and European institutions and the diversity of opinion on Europe extremely seriously. We think it is an important part of what our job is journalistically and editorially to the people who pay for us."67F[68]

89. We were glad to note that towards the very end of the session Lord Hall said that both he and James Harding would "reflect on all the things raised this afternoon".68F[69]

90. In summary, we still remain deeply concerned about the manner in which the BBC treats EU issues. Our witnesses seemed to be more intent on defending and asserting their own opinions, mindset and interpretation of the obligations under the Charter and Framework Agreement than in whether they had in fact discharged them or whether they had the mindset to carry through their post-Wilson aims. In the interest of the licence fee payers, and the public in general, and in the context of the approaching General Election and a prospective referendum on the EU, and given the fact that the BBC themselves state that 58% of the public look to the BBC for news they trust, we believe that the BBC has a duty under its Charter, Framework Agreement and the general law, and following the Wilson report in particular, to improve substantially the manner in which it treats EU issues.

91. Furthermore, we conclude that in the light of the evidence we have taken over the past two years from the BBC, and given the statements made by the Chairman of the BBC Trust, Rona Fairhead, indicating that even she, as Chairman of the Trust, wishes to see reform of governance, that our criticisms of the way the BBC treats EU issues, and the approach by its leaders to the Committee, particularly the initial refusal to give oral evidence, shows that accountability to Parliament must be a key factor to be considered as part of the review of the BBC Charter in 2016, as should be strict adherence to the aims set out by the BBC in its response to the Wilson Review.

92. We have already published the transcripts of both hearings, and we also publish a submission from the organisation Newswatch commenting on the session with the Chairman of the BBC Trust, the BBC's response to that submission (which in our view is dismissive), and the BBC's follow-up submission following the oral evidence session with Lord Hall.

93. We deeply regret the fact that Lord Hall's repeated refusals to give oral evidence delayed the session to such an extent that it has not been possible to conduct further work on these issues before the dissolution of Parliament. Our central tenet, regarding the BBC's coverage of the EU scrutiny process in the House, and EU issues more generally, is that the country's public service broadcaster must command wide confidence in its coverage of such a sensitive and complex issue. We do not believe that this has been achieved.

94. Given the possibility of a referendum on the UK's EU membership before the end of the decade, and potentially a renegotiation of the Treaties, the issue of how the media in general, and the BBC in particular, covers the EU is of paramount importance. We asked Lord Hall if, as Director-General, he would undertake to appear before our successor Committee, and he responded that "if the subject matter was one that involved the BBC in some sort of way, I or others would appear." We welcome this commitment.

43   Scrutiny Reform Report, para 259 Back

44   Oral evidence taken on 14 January 2015, HC 918, Q 18 Back

45   BBC Coverage of the European Union, Independent Panel Report, 2005 Back

46   BBC, A BBC Trust Review of the breadth of opinion reflected in the BBC's output, July 2013 Back

47   Oral evidence taken on 14 January 2015, HC 918, Q 3 Back

48   Oral evidence taken on 14 January 2015, HC 918, Q 3 Back

49   Oral evidence taken on 14 January 2015, HC 918, Q 3 Back

50   Oral evidence taken on 14 January 2015, HC 918, Q 4 Back

51   Oral evidence taken on 14 January 2015, HC 918, Q 5 Back

52   Oral evidence taken on 14 January 2015, HC 918, Q 7 Back

53   Oral evidence taken on 14 January 2015, HC 918, Q 7 Back

54   Oral evidence taken on 14 January 2015, HC 918, Q 8 Back

55   Speech to the Oxford Media Convention, BBC Governance - the case for intelligent reform Back

56   Oral evidence taken on 14 January 2015, HC 918, Q 36 Back

57   Oral evidence taken on 14 January 2015, HC 918, Q 39 Back

58   Oral evidence taken on 14 January 2015, HC 918, Q 47 Back

59   Oral evidence taken on 11 March 2015, HC 918, Q 8 Back

60   Oral evidence taken on 11 March 2015, HC 918, Q 63 Back

61   Oral evidence taken on 11 March 2015, HC 918, Q 23 Back

62   Oral evidence taken on 11 March 2015, HC 918, Q 34 Back

63   Oral evidence taken on 11 March 2015, HC 918, Q 40 Back

64   Oral evidence taken on 11 March 2015, HC 918, Q 48 Back

65   The European Union - Perceptions of the BBC's Monitoring: Management's Response, p 2 Back

66   Oral evidence taken on 11 March 2015, HC 918, Q 60 Back

67   Oral evidence taken on 11 March 2015, HC 918, Q 64 Back

68   Oral evidence taken on 11 March 2015, HC 918, Q 66 Back

69   Oral evidence taken on 11 March 2015, HC 918, Q 67 Back

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Prepared 25 March 2015