Will BBC now tighten Mid-East reporting?

Ramifications from the Ross and Brand affair should extend into news coverage.

By Alex Brummer, November 6, 2008

It is possible that the Ross-Brand affair may come to be seen as a tipping point for the BBC. It provided a sharp reminder that despite its "public service" remit and £3 billion-a-year subvention from the taxpayer, the corporation is a behemoth that has become extremely difficult to control.

The director-general, Mark Thompson, may glorify in the title of editor-in-chief, but he now runs a media organisation where it is almost impossible for Reithian standards to be upheld across all platforms.

The Beeb's website is one of the most visited in the world. Its flagship US channel, BBC America, is pumped into 54 per cent of American households. At home, the move into digital radio is effectively stifling the commercial sector and one factor undermining genuinely regional media.

The commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, last year had an income of £916m and made profits of £118m, easily outstripping Channel 4.

It may soon be challenging a besieged ITV, which is dependent on fragile advertising revenues.

The British taxpayer has a world class media company but it is expanding its influence at the expense of almost every other news outlet in the country.

As Carolyn McCall, chief executive of the Guardian Media Group, told the FT this week: "Insufficient control by the BBC Trust and moves into new areas unconnected to core programming brands threaten to undermine commercial players."

The Andrew Sachs phone calls demonstrated how parts of the BBC are coarsening public discourse, and how hard it is to maintain standards in such a sprawling organisation.

In much the same way as the director-general and the trust cannot be expected to monitor every bit of output on Radio 2 and "yoof" channels like BBC3, it is almost impossible to monitor the corporation's web and global output. And, whereas the BBC was always a watchword for impartiality, its diversification into the blogosphere has changed this, too. Leading correspondents now have the opportunity to express their views on events on the web, rather than sticking to the more rigorous standards required of on-air broadcasting.

This gives journalists such as Washington correspondent Justin Webb and business editor Robert Peston the chance to opine. In the process, their impartiality can be compromised.

The corporation's web output often appears to be even more lightly monitored and edited than Radio 2.

Recent research by Just Journalism found several examples of distortions or lack of balance in Middle East coverage.

The material examined included a report on the Gaza tunnels, which noted that "Israel says" that they are used to smuggle weapons, rather than accepting that this is the case. A Question & Answer on Iran and nuclear issues failed to include any reference to Iran's existentialist threat to Israel and a Jeremy Bowen analysis of the Quartet's role in the region failed to explain areas of Palestinian responsibility.

These might seem like minor infractions but they reflect the difficulty the director-general and his staff have in keeping abreast of what is being put out in the BBC's name. It means that distortions now reach a global audience and play a role in damaging Israel's image.

The BBC has become too powerful and pervasive. It may soon be time to rethink its mandate so as to reinforce its public service remit. This may involve privatising popular programming like Radio 1 and 2, Channels like BBC 3 and web output.

Then, upholding news and impartiality standards at the core would become more manageable.

Alex Brummer is city editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 11:01am, November 6 2008