Double Standards: BBC seminar on impartiality in Economics Reporting vs the Climate TwentyEightGate Affair

Posted: November 16, 2012 by tallbloke in flames, media, Politics, propaganda
Well now, here’s something worth flagging up. A fortnight ago, the BBC held a seminar on impartiality in economics reporting. Here’s Trust Vice Chair Diane Coyle’s comment on it, followed by the list of participants and an excerpt from the document describing the seminar. I invite readers to compare and contrast that excerpt with the BBC’s policy on excluding sceptics from the climate debate as presented by their output.
Date: 06.11.2012Last updated: 06.11.2012 at 18.03Category: CommentEditorial standardsImpartiality

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:

‘BBC BigWigs’

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.

  1. omnologos says:

    Do we know who authorised the spending of the 100+k£ against Tony?

    [moderator: Presumably this refers to the FOI court case between the BBC and Tony Newbery, a question many want answered. –Tim]

  2. Scute says:

    This certainly smacks of hypocrisy because all the names are given.

    What makes me laugh though is that they think they had a full and fearless discussion on the opposing views. The only views aired in the BBC economics arena are whether the government should spend lots of money or lots and lots of money. No mention of the true and proper opposing argument- that of Hayek, Nobel Prize winner, no less, and fierce critic of central planning. His ‘Road to Serfdom’ was described as ‘a war cry against central planning’. He garnered his Nobel Prize for his criticism of it….

    So he wasn’t some crackpot denier of Keynesianism, the bible of today’s quantitative easing enthusiasts. He presented cogent, researched arguments against it and was respected across the globe. He was a leading light in the Austrian School which argued for the opposite of Keynesianism, the principle of laissez-faire, while acknowledging the limits of free markets.

    I’m no apologist for Hayek, or the other well-respected heavyweights from the Austrian School. But this BBC meeting seems like a cosy get-together of everyone on one side of the spectrum- to discuss how far up and down that half of the spectrum they should go. It’s like having the climate change meeting without even mentioning the skeptics, but just discussing the relative merits of the warmists and the catastrophists.

    I have complained twice over their bias towards Keynesianism, which is itself an unabashed leaning to the left. In their ‘economics glossary’ there is a single item under the letter K- Keynesianism, as if this is the only game in town. The correct counter balancing term is ‘Austrian School’ with a similarly short definition. They have refused to put it in despite being asked twice by me.

    That, my friends, is the BBC’s balanced view of economics. In the light of that, what hope is there for us?


  3. tallbloke says:

    Great comment Scute. So they’re hopelessly biased hypocrites. Got it. 🙂

  4. The BBC28 list PDF presumably worked at the time of the report. The next step is to figure out when that link ceased to function, and who caused it to go non-functional, and for what reason.

    Links go dead when organizations move around their files, quite an innocent situation. But in this situation, one would have to wonder if the link was purposely deadened because someone around the top of the BBC decided their “28 experts” looked more like something they might not be able to defend.

  5. michael hart says:

    After this meeting, did the various BBC representatives go back and tell their underlings: “Right, the official line is still Keynes.” ? I would have guessed not, though I could see how such seminars might entrench a pre-existing “consensus”.

    But who gets invited to these seminars, who does the inviting, what are the criteria for issuing an invitation, and do a select number of attendees get invited to stand up at the front? And what is the hoped-for aim of holding such seminars? Is it a genuine opportunity to learn, or a mutual self-reassurance gathering, or the familiar rubber-stamping of what has already been decided?

    Still many more questions than answers as far as I am concerned.

  6. Zeke says:

    Has everyone seen econstories already? Oh why not.

  7. oldbrew says:

    A pity Ofcom weren’t also invited to the BBC climate conference that decided in effect to ditch impartiality on that topic.

    What next for the BBC – expert views:

    Ben Bradhaw says: ‘A more normal board structure to “manage and challenge” would work better with regulation done independently by Ofcom’.

    Independent regulation seems obvious.

  8. Stephen Richards says:

    This is criminal. They should be consulting no-one. It’s easy isn’t it? You just have people from all side of the discussion on TV. Hello BBC that’s what the rest of the world calls impartiality.

  9. mitigatedsceptic says:

    I suspect that many of the innocent and ignorant members of the BBC news/editorial staff simply may not know that they are being partial. Many have been brought up in a sheltered and comfortable environment and may have never even heard of Hayek, let alone read him critically. I suppose if they ever see this thread, they will simply look up Wikipedia and think that they know all they need to know to justify ignoring his wisdom.
    If by chance they do have any insight into contrary points of view (POV), they then dish up a weak, sanitised offering that is so pathetic that is instantly forgettable.
    I do not believe that seminars will achieve anything but partiality. This is about faith not reason.
    Maybe the answer is to allocate half the license fee to another public service provider charged with putting the contrary POV to any that the BBC has. It would be refreshing to watch the full blown opposition that we can see on US TV.

  10. tallbloke says:

    Interesting comment.

    I note that in America, while there is oppositional politics, everything else but the further extremes of those two viewpoints hardly gets a look-in, it’s more strongly polarized than here in the UK. Perhaps the BBC is deliberately inept, so no-one bothers too much…

  11. mitigatedsceptic says:

    Indeed, an excellent observation! Ss you infer, only extreme opinions sell the media.
    Politics, science and the law are presently based on the adversarial model. Is there a way round this dilemma? Outlaw political parties?

  12. oldbrew says:

    Don’t expect Sky to offer an alternative approach. If their Pick TV programme about storm Sandy is an example, they are in the same place as the BBC, dishing out hyped-up climate propaganda from the usual suspects – sorry *experts* – backed by the obligatory melodramatic orchestra at the end. Copied straight from a BBC Attenborough episode by the sound of it.

  13. johanna says:

    I don’t know enough about UK economists to comment on the list of names, but broadly agree with Scute’s astute comment. The BBC’s Australian cousin, the ABC (which runs a lot of BBC content) simply ignores non-Keynesian economics altogether. The extent of debate is how much it is possible to tax the private sector without actually sending them broke. As long as they don’t go broke, the assumption is that private earnings are fair game for whatever social programs and eco-fantasies that people have on their wish-lists.

    In the same way, the impact of regulatory imposts on productivity and investment are simply not taken seriously. When business protests about regulation, in a eerie parallel to climate sceptics being compared with tobacco apologists, it is assumed – and often asserted – that they just behaving like the manufacturers of thalidomide or asbestos miners.

    There is no doubt in my mind that public broadcasters, inhabited by people who have mostly never had to try to make a quid in the real wolrd, and with a guaranteed flow of public funds, are inherently biased against productive sectors of the economy. This flows through to both their economics and environmental reporting in predictable ways.

    They probably don’t even comprehend that they are doing it.

  14. Russell Cook

    It is my understanding, from following Tony’s and Maurizio’s comments, that Tony originally found the same document that Maurizio later found but that it had been amended to remove the list of attendees. Only with Maurizio’s effort with Wayback was an original version obtained prior to the removal of the list. Not so much a case of links getting moved or broken as a deliberate attempt to hide the list I would of thought.

  15. Zeke says:

    Is this an example of the BBC having an “unbiased” discussion about European Union membership, which allows the EU to regulate industries and banking by edict? Which all of the parties except one, the UKIP, believe “creates jobs”?

  16. omnologos says:

    The list went online after Tony requested it iirc. It was then taken down after the first BBC refusal. But they forgot to remove the link to it. For five years.