The BBC must be held more accountable

By Alex Brummer, June 12, 2008

Our national broadcaster is crushing its commercial rivals, with no proper supervision

The battle to establish the BBC Trust as an independent regulator of the BBC is not off to a flying start. The name and personnel may have changed since Sir Michael Lyons took over as chairman from Michael Grade in May 2007, but the tendency to circle the wagons when the Beeb is under attack still prevails.

This is not encouraging for viewers, listeners and website visitors who still find coverage of Israel-Palestine unbalanced and are disturbed by the failure to release the by now very outdated Balen report, which looked at bias in Middle East coverage.

One of the biggest concerns is the ubiquitous nature of the BBC’s news websites, paid for by the licence-payer, which threaten to obliterate commercial challengers.

This is true at national level, where the best newspaper websites are faced with ferocious competition. But it is also becoming true locally, where BBC local sites and digital radio stations are strangling rivals. This might not be worrying if everyone adhered to a BBC world view. But as visitors to the Middle East section of the BBC’s website know, the intense focus on Israel’s behaviour in Gaza do not inspire confidence.

In its report on the BBC’s website, the Trust chose to accentuate the positive. It noted that it was an “excellent service” which delivered great public service to the “vast numbers who use it and love it”. The reality is the study also revealed that the website spent £3.5 million over budget, that it was a threat to commercial rivals, and that it intended to introduce advertising on international pages even though it is funded by taxpayer cash.

It also noted a bias in the BBC site which limits “click-throughs” by UK users to external web pages so it becomes more of a destination than a navigator.

The Trust’s answer to the criticisms was “tighter control on management”. One of the leaders of the review, former BBC insider Patricia Hodgson, suggested that BBC sites be tested against a list of criteria to see if they are distinctive enough.

Since the tests are set by a former insider and will be monitored by insiders within a corporation which is defensive about its values, the chance that the advance of the BBC’s websites — at the expense of commercial rivals’ — will be stopped in their tracks looks fanciful.

Indeed, no news outlet has been more outraged than The Guardian, which has the UK’s leading newspaper website, and regards the BBC’s net expansionism as a real threat. The idea of the like-minded Guardian and BBC at each other’s throats has irony. But the fundamental criticism of the Trust report, that it will not change anything, has to be taken seriously if the UK doesn’t want its news content seen through the BBC prism.

A second Trust report on the salaries paid to BBC presenters has also grated on media-watchers. Despite the discovery that in 2006-7 the Corporation paid £242 million, or 5.6 per cent of income, for on-the-air talent and paid 40 employees more than £1 million a year, the Trust cleared the Beeb of overpaying.

Rather than acting as an independent scrutineer, as had been hoped, the Trust appears to go out of its way to give the BBC the benefit of the doubt. The fundamental weakness of the current structure is that it is likely, over time, to reduce media diversity.

The idea of the BBC being the dominant source for news from the Middle East is worrying. A quick glance at its website shows an obsession with Gaza, virtually no references to Israel’s security concerns, and a piece on Sderot which concentrates on the difficulty of Palestinian collaborators, billeted in the town, rather than the Israeli natives. Interesting, but hardly core as the rockets rain down.

Last updated: 3:46pm, June 16 2008