Why the BBC ties itself in knots over 'balance' – clue: it's the licence fee

Catrin Owen, PhD candidate in Communication and Media, University of Liverpool
Claudio Divizia via Shutterstock

Many people tuning into BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme on July 17 were shocked to hear, in a round-up of the news, presenter John Humphrys read out excerpts from the far right news website Breitbart.

Humphrys referenced Breitbart’s coverage of the Helsinki summit meeting between the US president, Donald Trump and Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Breitbart described the meeting as a “success”. This was in stark contrast to the overwhelmingly negative coverage of Trump from UK news outlets. Although Breitbart is far from mainstream in its views – to say the least – Humphrys (or at least Today producers), presumably felt it was necessary to provide a “balanced” view of the coverage of the summit.

But that wasn’t the only BBC balance mishap Twitter picked up on yesterday. In the same programme, Humphrys was slated on Twitter for his interview with Clare Basset, chief executive of the Electoral Commission. The Commission had just published the result of its investigation into the Brexit campaign group Vote Leave. It fined the group £61,000 and reported them to the police for breaking electoral law.

Humphrys was said to be too critical of the Electoral Commission in the interview, describing the findings of their investigation a “technicality”. People were outraged that the BBC attempting to provide balance in its interviews led to the unnecessary questioning of the Electoral Commission’s independent ruling. Some commentators even felt Humphrys’ attitude towards Basset in the interview lessened the impact of a story which has consequences for the legitimacy of the Brexit referendum.

BBC and Brexit

The BBC’s desire for “neutrality”, “balance” or “impartiality” has been blamed for what many people consider inadequate coverage of Brexit by the public broadcaster. The Guardian journalist Nick Cohen recently accused the BBC of “journalistic cowardice” around reporting of the negative effects of Britain leaving the EU. The BBC’s news editor, James Stephenson, responded that the BBC “is not an organisation frightened of journalism, but committed to it”.

In recent years, the BBC has increasingly taken to Twitter to point out flaws in criticisms of its programming and news output.

But on its Brexit coverage – as with many general elections – the BBC has faced a barrage criticism from both sides and it can’t respond to everything. Last year, a cross-party group of 72 MPs wrote to the director-general Lord Hall to accuse the BBC of being skewed against Leave voters in its Brexit coverage.

Royal Charter

In its zeal to be balanced in its reporting on controversial issues, the BBC often seems to alienate both sides. It’s a difficult situation for the public broadcaster. The BBC’s editorial guidelines (part of the Royal Charter which governs the corporation) specify that the broadcaster should ensure that “controversial subjects” are handled “with due accuracy and impartiality”.

Due impartiality is often more than a simple matter of ‘balance’ between opposing viewpoints. Equally, it does not require absolute neutrality on every issue or detachment from fundamental democratic principles.

So, in fact, the BBC doesn’t have to provide “balance” in every case or where it would be contrary to “democratic principles”. So why did Humphrys balance negative Trump coverage with Breitbart, and berate the Electoral Commission over its ruling?

Broad perspective?

There are other parts of the BBC’s editorial guidelines and Royal Charter that are open to interpretation and which could fuel the need for false balance. The guidelines state that the BBC “must be inclusive”, consider a “broad perspective” and make sure “the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected”. This is problematic, particularly in the digital age where the “range of views” available on an issue is changing all the time and becoming evermore extreme and unfiltered. Should Breitbart be considered to have the same weight as, say, The Guardian?

The need to include a “broad perspective” can mean challenging the views of scientists and experts on important issues like climate change, just for the sake of balance. 99.9% of scientists agree that global warming is happening. But the BBC has broadcast two interviews with the former chancellor of the exchequer, Nigel (now Lord) Lawson, who claims that world temperatures have declined. The BBC initially defended the decision as respecting their duty to inform listeners of all sides of the debate. Later, the Corporation was rebuked by Ofcom for not challenging Lawson’s claims robustly enough.

Unlike commercial broadcasters, the BBC is mainly funded by a licence fee. This means the BBC is paid the same amount by everyone who watches TV in the UK, creating a direct link between the BBC and the viewing public. This link with everyone who pays the licence fee means the BBC is held to higher standards in what it broadcasts. People are more likely to complain if their views aren’t represented on the BBC because they’re paying for it.

The BBC’s unique funding mechanism, where everyone pays for it, means that yesterday’s complaints about the Today Programme certainly won’t be the last. While the Corporation has a funding system which requires it to please “everyone”, it is likely that a range of views will still be included on BBC programmes for balance, even when common sense dictates balance isn’t necessary. Climate change deniers pay their licence fee, too, and the BBC needs their money as much as everyone else’s.

For now, the BBC can fend off criticism of false balance. The Corporation can point to the fact that it’s still the most used and most trusted news source in the UK, against a backdrop of partisan newspapers. But if criticisms of the BBC’s coverage of the main issues facing the UK keep getting louder, trust levels could plummet by the time the BBC’s Royal Charter is up for renewal in 2027.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

Catrin Owen receives funding from a Future Academic Bursary at the University of Liverpool. She is a member of the Labour Party and also works part time in the constituency office of a backbench Labour Party Member of Parliament alongside her PhD studies.