THE independent broadcasting bias monitoring service News-watch has long been locked in battle with the BBC over the total lack of transparency of its complaints process. It appears to be deliberately structured never to consider the type of scrupulous research conducted by News-watch over the years. It has remained impervious to report after report based on comprehensive and dispassionate monitoring, appearing to allow the public to complain only about one-off programme items. Currently News-watch is battling both the Information Commissioner and the BBC about the Corporation’s refusal to release basic information about how it collects data about impartiality and the subjects of complaints made by the public about programmes.
Last week this long drawn-out fight was the focus of an appeal before a first-tier tribunal by News-watch against the Information Commissioner. A ruling on the matter is expected within 28 days.
The process began in March 2020 when News-watch requested further information about a survey contained in the BBC’s annual reports and accounts for 2018/19 showing that 52 per cent of respondents to an Ipsos Mori poll commissioned by the BBC thought the Corporation provided ‘impartial news’ but only 44 per cent turned to the BBC if they wanted impartial news.
The extra details requested under Freedom of Information (FoI) included the brief given to Ipsos Mori, the nature of the sample who were questioned and how the results were collated and interpreted. This was considered by News-watch to be a matter of major public interest because such data is used by BBC as proof that its output – despite claims to the contrary – is indeed impartial.
In parallel, News-watch asked for the release of all complaints made to the BBC from 2015 to the present about impartiality on the ground that the Corporation makes public the topics only of those which it deems fit to do so.
The BBC refused the application point blank, principally on the ground that it has a derogation from the FoI Act which allows a refusal if the material involved is held for the purposes of ‘journalism, art or literature’. News-watch appealed to the Information Commissioner against the ruling. He broadly upheld the BBC’s stance and it was at that stage that News-watch appealed against him.
David Keighley, managing director of News-watch, told us that while the BBC claims to be making efforts to be more impartial, it is a matter of huge concern to licence fee-payers that it remains so secretive about how it gauges that it is not biased, and also will not tell the public the content of the majority of complaints it receives about impartiality: ‘News-watch has demonstrated that the BBC complaints process as it currently operates is not fit for purpose and stonewalls the vast majority of audience concerns. The purpose of this legal action is to force the Corporation to become more open and to stop this absurd claim that this sort of data should be confidential.’
We agree. The BBC must be held to account. The continued failure of the Government to do this leaves viewers and listeners with but one choice – to refuse to pay the licence fee.