The reactions to the ‘car crash’ interviews given by Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer (pictured above talking to Sky News for example) on 22 January over proposed new government reforms to BBC complaints handling about impartiality were depressingly predictable. Frazer said she thought the BBC was biased “on occasion” but failed to provide any examples. She was lambasted by those on the political left for pursuing culture wars against a national institution, while Downing Street said “the BBC has got work to do on bias”.

These spats overshadow the reforms themselves. They are supposed to be uncontroversial and were all accepted by the BBC after the independent regulator, Ofcom, flagged up concerns about BBC complaints handling. Back in June 2022, Ofcom published research underlining how the vast majority of people who complained to the Corporation were left dissatisfied. In a statement approved by the regulator’s boss, Melanie Dawes (photo below), Ofcom stated there is “a lot of lingering public concern about impartiality”, which needs “a laser focus”.

The view that the BBC can improve how it is perceived, and sometimes its performance, on impartiality (which is not the same as saying it is institutionally biased) is therefore based on independent Ofcom research – not polemic from a right wing newspaper. It also seems to be supported to some extent by recent and fascinating work completed by the well-regarded Reuters Institute on how people’s political leaning affects their trust in UK news brands. 55% of people on the political right trust BBC News compared by 70% on the political left – a range of 15%. (See: https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/news/bbc-under-scrutiny-heres-what-research-tells-about-its-role-uk ). Ideally of course a duly impartial public broadcaster should score highly and about the same level by people on both sides of the political divide. Interestingly both ITV and Sky News have a range of well under 10%. People in other words are less divided about whether they trust these brands than BBC News, but overall a higher percentage of people across the political spectrum have faith in BBC News.

The main new changes affecting oversight of BBC impartiality will be that Ofcom and the BBC Board will be given new powers and obligations to oversee and review the BBC’s complaints process, and Ofcom additional powers to oversee the BBC News website. The BBC itself introduced some alterations in response to Ofcom’s 2022 concerns. I had reason to test these out last summer.

Some university lecturers boycotted marking exams as part of a pay and conditions dispute with their employers and this was blocking the graduation of students. The lead item on Radio 4’s The World Tonight on 6 July was on this topic, which had a background set up including Labour leader Keir Starmer questioning the boycott, students affected and two universities commenting on the delay in marking. There was then a lengthy interview with the lecturers’ union leader, Jo Grady, about the boycott, in which she criticised the university employers. At no point in the item was the viewpoint of the employers on this industrial dispute reflected – whether in a statement or a challenging question from the interviewer.

As a former BBC journalist and head of due impartiality complaints at Ofcom for several years, I think I know a potential due impartiality issue when I see or hear it in Ofcom regulated media. So my complaint was carefully phrased. The problem I argued was that the controversial issue behind the marking boycott being discussed here was the industrial dispute – between lecturers and employers – and nowhere was the viewpoint of the employers on the dispute given at all.

My complaint was rejected. What worried me was the poorly reasoned decision I was sent. There was some reasoning but it was totally inadequate. If one of my team had sent me such a draft while at Ofcom I would have asked for a major reworking. The decision was based on the item including “differing positions on the [markings] dispute” and some “references to pay compensation”. My important point about the real controversy at the core of the item – the industrial dispute – requiring a reflection (however passing) of the employers’ viewpoint was not dealt with at all.

I did not bother to appeal this initial decision higher in the BBC. Life is too short. Also the potential breach of due impartiality here was relatively minor (if there was one – I am the first to admit that final decisions in this area these often finely nuanced).

What concerns me is that a number of complaints to the BBC about bias have – like mine – been rejected on the basis of inadequate reasoning and – like mine – were also not appealed, so the opportunity was lost for the BBC Executive Complaints Unit to look at them in a more rigorous way. This may in some cases have led perhaps to more breaches being recorded, or at least (as I hoped with my complaint) the ECU perhaps having a discussion with the journalists involved about how they handled a particular story.

Peter Johnston (pictured above) was appointed BBC Director, Editorial Complaints and Reviews in March 2023. He now reports direct to the BBC Director-General, Tim Davie, over complaints. He and Davie have their hands full with the massive number of complaints about the BBC’s coverage of recent events in Israel and Gaza, and how to implement changes in reponse to the government’s latest proposals.

So how can the BBC’s complaints handling process on impartiality be improved so as to increase further public trust in the Corporation in this area? Here are some modest proposals linked to the government’s recently announced changes.

  1. The BBC Executive Complaints Unit (ECU) needs to improve skills and the quality of reasoning of those who initially assess impartiality complaints. Many such complaints in my view are without merit. It is up to the BBC how to deal with them. Arguably the BBC spends too much time on such complaints – like Ofcom did in its early years, dealing with them all with individual replies – rather than having an effective system to triage and winnow out complaints quickly which raise a potential issue. This may be happening to some extent already but looking at the ECU website I am staggered by the sheer space occupied by numerous impartiality and accuracy complaints which clearly in the BBC’s opinion – and mine – did not raise an issue.
  2. Develop and lengthen the reasoning and detail of the impartiality decisions which the BBC DOES uphold. (Commentators comment on how few there have been of these – only 25 over the five years to June 2023. Right wingers cite this as evidence of the BBC being blind to its alleged bias, while left wingers say in contrast it is evidence of there not being any impartiality issue). It is striking how short the ECU’s impartiality breach decisions are compared to the carefully reasoned ones prepared by Ofcom and published in its Broadcast Bulletin. See for the example the BBC one on a Reporting Scotland programme about Brexit: https://www.bbc.co.uk/contact/ecu/reporting-scotland-bbc-one-scotland-20-december-2021. Arguably some of the Ofcom uphold decisions in this area are TOO long. But the ECU impartiality determinations could definitely benefit from being more detailed.
  3. Overhaul the ECU website. At the moment it is confusing and difficult to navigate – and as a result may not appear very transparent to those who might be critical of BBC complaint handling. There is for example no straightforward search function to find past uphold decisions on impartiality.
  4. When Ofcom and the BBC Board are officially given their new powers and duties to oversee BBC complaints handling more they must deploy them vigorously. A good starting point for both would be to introduce periodic and random ‘dipstick’ testing of how the BBC handles complaints (and ones about impartiality in particular) at all levels and regularly publish reports on their findings.

The BBC is a great national institution. To suggest that on occasions the BBC might fall below the high standards it sets itself for impartiality or propose ways it can improve the way it handles complaints about bias – whether from left or right – is not to undermine it, but to help strengthen its support in the longer term across the political spectrum.