Diane Coyle, BBC Vice Chair
What is the most important issue facing Britain today?
Asked that question in September, over half of the participants in an Ipsos Mori survey named the economy. They put it well above unemployment, crime and law and order, housing, poverty, education, and a long list of other issues.
The importance that people attach to the economy has seen a huge increase in the last few years, according to the survey, an increase that can be traced back to 2006 when the sub-prime mortgage crisis hit in the US. A poll for the Reuters Institute Digital News Survey this year showed a significant shift, too, in how often people seek out news about the economy online. Before the crash, most people were happy to keep up with financial matters about once a month, and 40 per cent never, or rarely. Now, one third are doing so daily and more than three quarters are doing so at least weekly, this survey shows.
This intense interest has important implications for BBC journalists. It’s all the more essential that the news the BBC provides about the economic situation is high quality, accurate, impartial, and above all explains what can often be extraordinarily complex stories in accessible ways. The BBC’s role is arguably more important than ever – asked in another recent survey where they would turn for news in a serious economic crisis, 55 per cent said the BBC would be their first port of call. That responsibility to audiences should never be underestimated and one of the jobs of the BBC Trust is to ensure that the BBC does everything it can to meet the expectations of its audiences, and is never complacent about doing so.
This context is why the BBC Trust chose economics for an impartiality seminar today, the first of this kind we have tried, bringing together economics experts, academics and economics correspondents from inside and outside the BBC, to discuss how the BBC can achieve impartiality when reporting economics issues in its news coverage. As both a BBC Trustee and an economist myself, I think the BBC’s journalists face a difficult challenge, given the many dimensions of the continuing economic and financial problems, and the fact that it is hard to disentangle technical, professional disagreement from political differences.
For the kind of news stories we are talking about here are often complex issues on which commentators have occasionally wildly divergent viewpoints. Some would say that economists themselves are sharply divided in their views on the Government’s austerity measures, for example. And the most authoritative economic growth forecasts can prove wrong – even the forecast from Office of Budget Responsibility, which said recently it had been caught out by the slowdown in the economy over the last two years.
The BBC does a great job of reporting on the economy on a range of stories and for different audiences, from market movements and business stories to personal finance and discoveries in microeconomics – from Paul Mason on the Greek crisis on Newsnight to Steph McGovern on food banks on BBC Breakfast and Jeremy Vine on how much of what we buy and wear is still ‘made in China’ – to pick just a few examples. So we didn’t hold this event today because we think there’s anything wrong with the approach BBC News is taking and has taken in recent years. The BBC already scores impressively highly on impartiality. Still, we must always be open to self-examination, to question whether we can do better – especially on a subject that we know is currently so important for BBC audiences. It’s just as important to have that discussion with people outside, as well as inside, the BBC.
Today’s event proved to be a constructive discussion, which highlighted the difficulties faced by all economic journalists across the media in explaining to the public the debates about the economy. Overall, participants in the discussion thought the BBC did a good job in meeting these challenges. For the BBC, the overarching theme that emerged was that questioning, challenge and explaining a lack of certainty was essential, as was ensuring that the BBC continues to reflect the span of opinion.
I hope that today’s event and the valuable perspectives that it brought, will pave the way for similar examinations of other areas of BBC output in future so that we can continue to ensure the BBC is delivering the very best for the people who pay for it.
So, are we able to find the list of attendees at the economics seminar?
Why yes, there it is, linked at the bottom of this page on the BBC website
So given that the BBC clearly finds that its viewers rate the economy as being far and away a bigger concern than climate, why would the BBC waste £160,000 on hiring lawyers to prevent Tony Newbury finding out the names of the attendees at their 2006 seminar on climate reporting?
Lets take a closer look at the attendees list. Attendees who Diane Coyle says are:
economics experts, academics and economics correspondents from inside and outside the BBC
Here we go:
Lord Patten Chairman, BBC Trust
Diane Coyle Vice-Chairman, BBC Trust
Alison Hastings Trustee, BBC Trust
Richard Ayre Trustee, BBC Trust
Anthony Fry Trustee, BBC Trust
David Liddiment Trustee, BBC Trust
Suzanna Taverne Trustee, BBC Trust
Nicholas Kroll Director, BBC Trust
Fran O’Brien Head of Editorial Standards, BBC Trust
Helen Boaden Director, BBC News
Philip Abrams Senior Advisor, Editorial Policy
Stephen Mitchell Deputy Director, News Group
Mary Hockaday Head of Newsroom
James Stephenson Editor, 6 & 10 O’Clock News
Jon Zilkha Head of Economics & Business Unit
Evan Davis Today Programme presenter
Stephanie Flanders Economics Editor
Robert Peston Business Editor
Douglas Fraser Business and Economics Editor, BBC Scotland
Jim Fitzpatrick Business and Economics Editor, BBC Northern Ireland
Mark O’Callaghan Head of News & Current Affairs, BBC Wales
Stephen Mawhinney Head of Programmes, Radio 5 Live
Sam Taylor Head of Editorial Development, BBC News
‘Experts and outside journos’
Sir Alan Budd Economist
Marian Bell Consultant Economist
Colette Bowe Chairman, Ofcom
Wendy Carlin Professor of Economics, University College London
Robert Chote Chairman, Office for Budget Responsibility
Anna Leach Head of Economic Analysis, CBI
Jonathan Portes Director, National Institute for Economic & Social Research
Elliot Ball HM Treasury, Head of Macro Briefing and Policy Co-Ordination
Chris Giles Economics editor, the FT
Ed Conway Economics editor, Sky News
Faisal Islam Economics editor, Channel 4
Rob Holdsworth Senior Media Officer, TUC
Dame Patricia Hodgson Board member, Ofcom
Lord Blackwell Board member, Ofcom
Sir Geoffrey Owen Senior fellow, LSE
Ruth Porter Institute of Economic Affairs
Well, not too many NGO advocacy groups in that list are there? Where are advocates from ‘Stop Economic Climate Chaos’? What about representatives from ‘Green Pound Peace’?
Here’s an excerpt from the document describing the seminar:
Consensus versus range of opinions
A number of comments concerned the question of whether BBC coverage should reflect a consensus
view, in areas where there is one, or whether instead it must reflect the range of opinions even if parts
of that range are minority views. There was disagreement about this, but most thought the range of
opinions was essential for two reasons. One is that macroeconomics itself does not have the same kind
of clear consensus now that applied before 2008 – economics is having its own crisis – and it could be
difficult to conclude that a certain view was definitive or authoritative. The second reason, for a number
of speakers, is that an important part of the job in economics reporting is specifically challenging a
dominant narrative. One person argued that not only is the consensus often wrong, there is also a
tendency for political narratives to shape the way the economy is reported. One participant argued that
impartiality depended in part on the confidence and experience of the correspondents, who had to
make judgements, while being constantly vigilant against developing fixed habits of thought.
A number of contributors spoke of the need to challenge both intellectual and institutional orthodoxies.
One participant said it seemed harder for the BBC than for other economic broadcasters and the
newspapers to present counter‐intuitive views.
Ah, the smell of double standards in the morning. Smells like…. hypocrisy.