Tuesday, May 31 2016

BBC annual report shows high levels of trust in BBC news coverage

The BBC has published its annual report, comprising reports by both the BBC Trust and the BBC Executive. As well as publishing details on its programming, finances and overall strategy, of particular interest in the report is the BBC’s assessment of its editorial standards on impartiality and accuracy and its new, reformed complaints procedure.

Some of the report’s findings are summarised below:

Viewers’ trust in the BBC’s impartiality and accuracy

The report emphasises the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines as the corporation’s foundation on high editorial standards in the designated areas of impartiality, harm and offence, accuracy, fairness, privacy and children and young people. The report states that “The Trust has various ways of ensuring that the BBC lives up to these standards, such as acting as final arbiter on complaints and holding impartiality reviews on specific topics.”

The audience’s own perception is key to measuring the BBC’s performance in accuracy and impartiality and the report observes “audiences continued to believe that the BBC provides independent, accurate and impartial news and analysis as well as allowing people direct access to the institutions that represent them.” It illustrates the high levels of trust in the BBC’s news coverage noting that “67% say they trust the BBC, up from 56% in 2004. When the public is asked to name the one news provider they trust the most, the BBC is selected by eight times as many people (59%) as the next nearest provider. People say they trust BBC news most because of its accuracy and impartiality, high quality, reputation and public funding.”

On the issue of impartiality, the report draws attention to a series of reviews that the BBC has carried out, or is carrying out, on assessing the impartiality of its output. The most recent was on the BBC’s coverage of the ‘Arab Spring’, which we have previously covered, see here.

The report also notes the BBC’s commitment to impartiality through the launching of a new initiative, a series of ‘impartiality seminars,’ “to look at topical issues, complementing the existing impartiality reviews."

The report however, makes no mention of the most pertinent point that despite Ofcom regulating most of the BBC’s output, and despite that a wider market impact role has been set out for Ofcom, the BBC continues to self-regulate in the areas of impartiality and accuracy, meriting no independent oversight on assessing output on grounds of impartiality and accuracy. A Lords Select Committee report last year recommended that “the BBC Trust and Ofcom working together to resolve issues of impartiality and accuracy so that the BBC is no longer its own judge and jury. The majority of the committee support Ofcom being given final responsibility for regulating impartiality and accuracy in BBC public service broadcasting content.”

A number of high-profile complaints have been significant in this area, including complaints about bias and inaccuracy in the BBC Panorama programme, 'Death in the Med', on the Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara in May 2010. Although the BBC has expressed concerns that were Ofcom to play a larger role in governing it on impartiality and accuracy it would lead to a loss of trust in the BBC, The Lords communications committee stated in its report, “we do not believe that the Trust’s continued commitment would be undermined or diluted if the BBC was no longer its own judge and jury on impartiality and accuracy”.

Dealing with complaints

Perhaps one of the most significant areas where the BBC has carried out a review is on its complaints process. The BBC earlier this year carried out a review of the complaints procedure on the back of recommendations by the Lords select committee to introduce a more streamlined system that was ‘faster, simpler and easier to understand’. The review included a public consultation.

The BBC annual report states that “As a result [of the consultation], the BBC now has a new complaints procedure, starting in summer 2012, which should deliver clear, fair, efficient and timely complaints handling for licence fee payers.”

A significant development which is not detailed in the annual report concerns the BBC’s ‘expedited complaints procedure’. In its consultation documentation the BBC proposed changes to its procedure that would effectively blacklist individuals, preventing them from complaining on BBC output for up to two years, if they were deemed guilty of submitting complaints considered ‘trivial, misconceived, hypothetical, repetitious or otherwise vexatious’. The annual report says nothing of the measures introduced, their subjective nature, and the problem of introducing a complaints procedure that banishes individuals from their legitimate right to complain to a public service broadcaster over its output.

Equality and diversity

The annual report further aims to illustrate the BBC’s work in advancing diversity and equality, both within the organisation and in relation to its content. Specific details on BME representation in the BBC workforce state that “The black and minority ethnic (BME) staff percentage remains fairly static at 12.3%, but has risen by 0.8% to 6.8% among senior managers.”

As revealed by a study published by the Hansard Society last week, television is the main source of political news and information for 75% of Britons. Given this and given the BBC’s dominance in the market of providing news to British citizens, the BBC report and its assessment of its performance, especially in the realm of impartiality and accuracy are all the more pertinent.

The full reports by the Executive and the BBC Trust, are available to download here.

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