BBC audiences think the corporation is not “sufficiently impartial”, the Culture Secretary has said as she announces tougher scrutiny of the broadcaster to deal with perceived bias.
Lucy Frazer will announce that the BBC’s website and social media channels will be policed by Ofcom in an attempt to ensure impartiality.
The BBC’s board will also be legally bound to oversee the complaints procedure amid claims by critics that the corporation has been able to “mark its own homework”.
The reforms follow fierce criticism of the BBC’s coverage of the war in Gaza and its refusal to brand Hamas a terrorist organisation.
The BBC was last month accused of offering a “steady diet of woke bias”, with a review of its output suggesting prejudice in coverage of debates over race and gender.
Under the new reforms, the BBC will be expected to account for a range of political opinions, following accusations of anti-Tory bias in recent years.
‘Clear more can be done’
Writing in The Telegraph, Ms Frazer says: “A major challenge for the BBC continues to be impartiality. It cannot be inputted on a computer, and it is not a science. Impartiality requires thought and it requires accountability.
“It strikes at the very core of the BBC’s remit and the public expects the organisation to embed this value in everything it does.
“But, as this review makes clear, audience perception that the BBC is not sufficiently impartial is an ongoing issue and it is clear more can be done.”
Her announcement is part of the mid-term review of the corporation’s charter, which was introduced in 2017, but Ms Frazer says that trust in media organisations, including mainstream news, has “eroded substantially” since.
“This has had an effect on public trust in the impartiality of the BBC,” she says. “This review is clear that, only by increasing accountability and transparency about efforts undertaken to improve impartiality, will the corporation recapture and enhance its reputation for impartiality.”
The royal charter provides the legal basis, and the negotiated terms, under which the BBC can operate as a licence fee-funded organisation.
Until now, Ofcom has been responsible for the BBC’s output on television, radio and catch-up services such as iPlayer. Under the reforms, the regulator will become responsible for policing BBC output published on third party platforms such as YouTube or Twitter. It will not oversee social media content posted by BBC stars such as Gary Lineker.
The watchdog has the power to issue warnings, demand corrections and fine broadcasters for any breaches.
Complaints will be overseen by the board, which will be made directly responsible for ensuring the procedure to resolve them works fairly.
The move is intended to make the process more independent, and to avoid complaints simply being resolved between programme makers and the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit.
If the issue is not resolved by the board to the satisfaction of the complainant, the problem can be escalated to the complaints unit. Should the response remain unsatisfactory, the complaining party can then contact Ofcom.
In 2023 it emerged that just 25 complaints of bias had been upheld by the BBC in the past five years. In the same period, the corporation received 1.7 million complaints, of which more than 600,000 were estimated to have been about bias, based on previous data.
Danny Cohen, the former BBC director of television, who has raised concerns about the broadcaster becoming “institutionally anti-Semitic”, welcomed the changes.
“This is a step in the right direction by the Government and Ofcom,” he said. “The BBC should not be marking its own homework when it comes to complaints about its output.
“In this digital age, closer scrutiny of the social media output of the BBC is long overdue. This independent scrutiny should be extended to the social media of its news reporters and high-profile presenters. It is often the case that individuals who breach the BBC’s impartiality on social media are not being held to account by management.”
Samir Shah, the new chairman of the BBC board, has made clear that he wants the broadcaster’s coverage to be “beyond reproach”, particularly as an election approaches.
The reforms come after extensive criticism over apparent bias at the BBC, especially over its coverage of the war in Gaza. Rishi Sunak has previously urged the corporation to describe Hamas as a terrorist group, saying in October: “This is not a time for equivocation, we should call it out for what it is.”
‘Not BBC’s job to say who bad guys are’
John Simpson, the veteran reporter, wrote an article defending the stance at the time. “It’s simply not the BBC’s job to tell people who to support and who to condemn – who are the good guys and who are the bad guys,” he said.
The mid-term review also sets out the expectation that the BBC will seek to represent a diverse audience and take into account a range of political opinion, following criticism that a Left-wing, anti-Conservative view drives the corporation’s coverage.
Last year, the BBC was accused of pushing anti-Tory bias after Ben Elton, the writer and comedian, branded Mr Sunak a “mendacious narcissistic sociopath” on Laura Kuenssberg’s political programme.
In December, a review of the BBC’s news and drama output by the Campaign for Common Sense suggested the corporation had a preoccupation with the transatlantic slave trade, with more than one article a week on the subject published on the BBC News website throughout 2023.
In January last year, BBC London News was forced to amend an online article referring to the explorer Sir Francis Drake as a “16th century slave trader” as well as delete a tweet carrying the description.
An interview last May with a woman calling for the Government to “pay and support disabled people” to access prostitutes was also highlighted, as was an article on Satanism which featured claims that the practice helped with “logic and empathy”.
The tensions have been worsened by controversies over Lineker, who has used social media to criticise government policies such as its Rwanda plan.
Lineker is a freelancer, but he is obliged to stick to the broadcaster’s social media rules while representing the corporation. His social media use would be covered by guidelines revised separately last year, and would not be covered by Ofcom rules.
Sir John Whittingdale, a former culture secretary said: “There was a case for going further but we will test this [new system] and see whether it does result in a more rigorous system which creates greater confidence. If it doesn’t then we need to come back to it.”
A spokesman for the BBC said: “With regard to the BBC’s impartiality, no other organisation takes its commitment to impartiality more seriously.
“We have well-established and detailed plans to sustain and further improve standards. We know this matters to audiences and the BBC continues to be the number one source for trusted news, with the highest scores for impartiality and accuracy.
“During discussions over the Mid-Term Review, we proposed and implemented a number of reforms, including strengthening our complaints procedures, which now form part of the conclusions.
“We are pleased the Government has fully taken our proposals onboard. We remain committed to continuous improvement to ensure we deliver for all licence fee payers.”