Interviewees questioned by the likes of John Humphrys on the Radio 4 Today programme and Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight are being subjected to an unfair beating from a "prizefighter", a report by the BBC Trust says today.
The report tells the BBC to do more to encourage views from beyond what BBC journalists might assume to be an "accepted consensus" based on "people like us", says the. It criticises the BBC for being "slow" to reflect public concerns over levels of immigration and the influence of the European Union.
Investigating the breadth of opinions found in the BBC's output, report author Stuart Prebble, the former CEO of ITV, warned the BBC against taking a too narrow view of sensitive stories. He advised BBC news executives that "efforts should be made for journalists to 'get out more', physically and mentally". He said the BBC relied too heavily on the views of politicians and was too reliant on Twitter.
Prebble compared interviews on Today and Newsnight to poorly-matched boxing contests. He said: "Sometimes I feel that tuning in to either can be like witnessing what seems to be a big and healthy looking bloke getting into the ring with the fairground prize-fighter."
Many interviewees appearing on these flagship programmes "are required to turn up at the crack of dawn or late at night, in an environment which is at best unfamiliar, to be braced and ready for any approach to the questioning, live on air with no second chances".
Mr Prebble said the imbalance had led to him sympathising with the MP George Galloway during a bruising interview by Paxman on Newsnight. "Paxman started raining blows on him from the starting bell, to an extent that I was surprised to find my sympathies going towards the challenger," he said. "I even found myself wondering whether, if Galloway was given space, he might say something I agreed with. Eventually Paxman did give him space, and I did."
He also used a football metaphor to illustrate the unfairness of such encounters. "It's a bit like being a Premiership team but having to play every game against Manchester United, and where every match is played away at Old Trafford."
Prebble used the example of British National Party leader Nick Griffin's controversial appearance on Question Time to show that the BBC should not be afraid of including extremist opinions in its output. "In the end he appeared, gave a performance which many found unconvincing, and has more or less vanished without trace," he said. "The world did not stop spinning on its axis, and it turns out that very few views are so powerful and persuasive that we cannot trust the public to hear them."
The Trust report recommended that the BBC appoints "story champions" for major running stories in order to ensure that a full range of opinions was included in the corporation's coverage, including those which might not fit with the consensus. "There should be a renewed determination to seek out opinions which "people like us" may find unpalatable, and to examine and challenge them with a view to better understanding of other viewpoints."
The report accepted that coverage of extreme views would leave the BBC open to criticism by media rivals but called on its new leadership to foster a culture of "self-belief and risk-taking". It said: "Giving platforms to views our instincts may tell us are unpalatable is likely to give rise to unwelcome headlines in some sections of the popular press, and the BBC would need to feel robust in its justification for doing so. This in turn requires a culture of support for self-belief and for risk-taking, which is a challenge for the BBC which goes to the very top."
Prebble noted that the BBC's College of Journalism website, a resource for all its staff, carried a lecture by the BBC's former Environment Correspondent Richard Black "entirely devoted to sustaining the case that climate change is effectively 'settled science' and that those who argue otherwise are simply wrong". The BBC Trust author said that the piece should also reflect that "dissenters (or even sceptics) should still occasionally be heard because it is not the BBC's role to close down this debate".
The BBC was also urged to look beyond the Westminster village and to ask itself "how will this play on a housing-estate in Merthyr or Aberdeen?" The report stated that "the paparazzi photos of a topless Kate Middleton were being reported as an issue about press-intrusion, only for the public to suggest that it was in part about why she didn't keep her bikini-top on!"
The report included the views of some senior figures inside the BBC and Richard Klein, controller of BBC4, admitted he had concerns over the lack of diversity of opinions in the output. "Where is the white working class?" he asked.
Referring to the reliance of BBC News on Twitter as a source of information, it said: "There is a terrible danger of mistaking the 'Twitterati' for the general public, instead of the still relatively small and self-selecting group that they are."
Although the report was broadly supportive of the BBC's coverage of religious affairs, it recommended that BBC management might consider a more over-arching role than that currently held by Aaqil Ahmed, the BBC's Commissioning Editor Religion and Head of Religion & Ethics.
A BBC spokesperson said: “Stuart Prebble has concluded, overall, that our coverage of immigration is “broad and impressive”, that on the EU we offer “a wide and comprehensive range of information and viewpoints” and that the BBC’s coverage of religion is “comprehensive and impressive.” He also states that the overwhelming number of journalists within the BBC leave their personal politics at home. However the report provides some interesting insights. We agree it is always vital to guard against unconscious bias or “group think” and will continue to do so and we’ve committed to a number of actions to improve our coverage even further.”
Seconds out ...
Jeremy Paxman v George Galloway just after he wins the Bethnal Green and Bow parliamentary seat, 6 May, 2005
JP: Mr Galloway, are you proud of having got rid of one of the very few black women in Parliament?
GG: What a preposterous question. I know it’s very late in the night, but wouldn’t you be better by starting by congratulating me for one of the most sensational election results in modern history?
JP: Are you proud of having got rid of one of the very few black women in Parliament?
GG: I’m not … Jeremy, move on to your next question.
JP: Well, you not answering that one?
GG: No, because I don’t believe that people get elected because of the colour of their skin. I believe people get elected because of their record and because of their policies. So move on to your next question, because I’ve got a lot of people who want to speak to me.
JP: Are you proud ….
GG: If you ask that question again I’m going, I warn you now.
JP: Don’t try and threaten me, Mr Galloway, please.
GG: You’re the one who’s trying to badger me.
JP: I’m not trying to badger you, I’m merely asking you whether you’re proud of having driven out of Parliament one of the very few black women.
John Humphrys v BBC director general George Entwistle after the Newsnight investigation which wrongly accused a senior Conservative figure of child abuse, 10 November, 2012
JH: When did you know that this film was being broadcast and when was it drawn to your attention that it was going to make extraordinarily serious allegations about a man whose identity would inevitably be uncovered – wrongly as we now know?
GE: The film was not drawn to my attention before transmission.
JH: At all? Nobody said anything to you at all?
GE: No John. But I need to explain there are an awful lot of pieces of journalism going on around the BBC which do not get referred to the editor-in-chief.
JH: But you must have known what happened a tweet was put out 24 hours before, 12 hours before, telling the world that something was going to happen on Newsnight that night that would reveal extraordinary things about child abuse and would involve a senior Tory from the Thatcher years, you didn’t see that tweet?
GE: I didn’t see that tweet John, I now understand ....
JH: You have a staff ... an enormous staff of people who are reporting into you on all sorts of things – they didn’t see this tweet that was going to set the world on fire?
GE: John, this tweet I’m afraid was not brought to my attention so I found out about this film after it had gone out.
JH: Can I just be absolutely clear? Nobody said to you, or to anybody on your staff who would then report it to you at any time ‘look we’ve got this Newsnight film going out’ (Newsnight should already lit a few bulbs with you) ‘but we’ve got this film going out on Newsnight that is going to make massively serious allegations about a senior, a former senior political ... in the context that we understand, nobody even mentioned it?