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BBC impartiality review was compromised by personal connections and riddled with basic errors

  • ‘Incestuous’ links between author, researchers, the BBC and the EU
  • Findings skewed by sampling errors and random data collection

The credibility of an “impartiality review” giving the BBC’s EU coverage a clean bill of health is seriously undermined today by a study exposing flaws in its research methods and questioning its independence.

Last year’s Prebble report was seized on by the BBC Trust as evidence that the corporation’s programmes take in an “impressive” breadth of opinion on stories about the EU, immigration and religion.

But today’s study, published by Civitas, shows that the review’s independence was severely compromised by incestuous ties between its authors, the BBC and the EU. There were also failings in the data analysis used by the author, Stuart Prebble.

Authors David Keighley and Andrew Jubb, from the media monitoring organisation Newswatch, detail how:

  • Stuart Prebble and David Liddiment, the BBC trustee who commissioned the review, were close colleagues at Granada TV for many years. In addition, Mr Prebble was for eight years chief executive and part owner of a production company that made programmes for the BBC;
  • Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, which conducted programme research for the review, has among its senior members a number of former BBC executives, including Richard Sambrook and Richard Tait. Research central to the Prebble report was commissioned directly from Prof Sambrook;
  • Professor Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, who ran Cardiff’s EU content analysis project, had recently been paid by the European Commission to analyse media coverage of further EU integration and why the UK was sceptical about the prospect.
  • The Prebble report included programmes from only two periods, in 2007 and 2012.

The report was published last July, when David Liddiment claimed that it provided independent verification that the BBC’s coverage of these key areas was impartial, and contained a wide range of views from across the political spectrum. This claim was supported by the other Trustees and the Chairman, Lord Patten.

But Newswatch shows how Cardiff’s EU research, on which Prebble based his conclusions, was also flawed in its methodology and failed to meet basic academic standards.

In particular, its analysis of output on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme was severely limited because it monitored less than half of the Today programme and then focused rigidly on the 7am to 8.30am block and ignored Saturday’s broadcasts altogether.

This had the effect of distorting Cardiff’s interpretation and conclusions. Given that Today’s main business news is broadcast during the first half hour of the programme, from 6.15-6.30am, Cardiff’s sample would have constantly under-represented business opinion – a vital ingredient of EU output.

Similarly, two-way discussions between presenters and correspondents would have been under-emphasised as at least six of these segments are broadcast during the first hour of Today on weekday mornings, whereas the rest of the programme is more likely to carry interviews with invited guests.

The regular Yesterday in Parliament slot, (usually broadcast Tuesday to Friday at 6.45am, and at 7.20am on Saturdays), was also omitted entirely, thereby affecting the data for political speakers.

Cardiff narrowed their potential sample even further by focusing solely on the main EU stories in only two survey periods – the Lisbon Treaty in 2007 and EU budget negotiations in 2012 – and discarding 30% of the EU-related material that did not cover these issues.

The Cardiff researchers based their conclusions on just 272 hours of EU broadcast output and 208 ‘stories’. Newswatch, by comparison, has monitored more than 6,000 hours of BBC News coverage, transcribing more than 8,200 individual EU reports, since 1999.

A further flaw in Stuart Prebble’s findings arises from his decision to introduce his own randomly-gathered evidence from conversations with BBC staff to support his assertion that EU coverage was in line with quality and impartiality standards.

The clean bill of health on the EU component of the report was delivered despite repeated warnings from many quarters, including the BBC’s own former director general, Mark Thompson, as well as political editor Nick Robinson, that the corporation’s EU coverage was biased against so-called right-wing opinion. These followed earlier revelations from former senior BBC presenters and editors such as Peter Sissons, Rod Liddle and Robin Aitken, who said the same thing in different ways. More recently John Humphrys has also said that coverage of the EU has been guilty of ‘bias by omission’.

Newswatch director David Keighley said: “Cumulatively, these basic errors mean that the EU part of the report was not independent and not worth the paper it was written on. A more accurate description would be incestuous and incompetent.

“In turn, the BBC Trustees – the ultimate regulatory body of the corporation – have not exercised proper scrutiny in reaching their conclusion that the EU output was properly balanced. This raises serious questions about their own impartiality and competence.”

Notes

Impartiality at the BBC? An investigation into the background and claims of Stuart Prebble’s ‘Independent Assessment for the BBC Trust’ is published today by Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society. A PDF can be accessed below.

Newswatch (news-watch.co.uk) is one of the UK’s leading media monitoring organisations. It has conducted more than 30 separate reports into elements of the BBC’s output, including for the Centre for Policy Studies, and has acted as consultant in a number of independent media surveys. It has also recently given evidence to the Commons European Scrutiny Committee’s audit of broadcasters’ EU-related coverage.

David Keighley has worked in the media for most of his career. A graduate of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he worked on the university newspaper, Varsity, he was a reporter on the Wakefield Express and The Evening Gazette, Middlesbrough. He worked for the BBC for seven years, rising to become television news and current affairs television publicity officer with responsibility for all the corporation’s highest-profile programmes in that domain. He was controller of public affairs at the breakfast channel TV-am from 1985-92, where he was in charge of all aspects of the £100m company’s public profile, including editorial compliance. From 1993 to the present, he has worked as a media business development consultant, and his clients have ranged from Reuters Television to Channel Nine, Australia. He was the originator and director of News World, the world’s first international conference for news broadcasters. He founded Newswatch in 1999.

Andrew Jubb read English and Media studies at Sussex University, with a strong focus on media bias, politics and representation. He has worked for Newswatch since its inception in 1999. He has overseen more than 6,000 hours of broadcast media monitoring, and conducted extended analyses of the tabloid and broadsheet press. He has co-authored more than 30 Newswatch reports and has provided statistical evidence for papers published by the CPS and Migration Watch.

For further information contact:

Daniel Bentley
T: 0207 799 6677
E: daniel.bentley@civitas.org.uk

Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society is an independent social policy think tank that facilitates informed public debate on important issues of the day. It has no links to any political party and its research programme receives no state funding


Impartiality at the BBC? An investigation into the background and claims of Stuart Prebble's 'Independent Assessment for the BBC Trust'

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