Viewers trusted BBC's war coverage less than its rivals

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The Independent Online

The public considered BBC television coverage of the Iraq war less objective than that of its commercial rivals, a watchdog revealed yesterday.

The Independent Television Commission reported that both BBC1 and BBC2 were judged to be less "fair" in their coverage than Channel 4, Five, Sky News and ITV. The findings were released while the BBC is bracing itself for Lord Hutton's report into the death of Dr David Kelly, which is expected to criticise the corporation's journalistic standards.

The ITC findings suggest that the traditional public respect for the objectivity of BBC journalism is on the wane.

Of 4,000 television viewers polled, only 66 per cent thought the BBC1 coverage of the war had been fair to all parties, compared with 77 per cent who thought Channel 4 and Five had been even-handed. Sky News was thought to be "fair to all" by 75 per cent of respondents, and 70 per cent backed ITV1's impartiality.

Only 19 per cent of viewers thought BBC1, BBC2 and ITV1 were "always accurate" in news coverage, compared with 32 per cent for Sky News and 22 per cent for Channel 4.

In the report, 25 per cent of viewers said BBC1, ITV1 and Sky News were biased in favour of the British and American governments, while 8 per cent thought that BBC1 and BBC2 had been biased towards the anti-war lobby.

The BBC defended its coverage yesterday, pointing out that more viewers watched BBC news than any other news service during the war.

Noting that accusations of bias had come from rivals, a spokeswoman said: "BBC news was watched by more than 90 per cent of the population, so is bound to attract a greater diversity of opinion than services with lower viewing." She added that other polls, run by Mori and ICM, had shown that BBC news was the service that viewers trusted most.

But any suggestion of public distrust is worrying to the corporation, particularly because the ITC poll was conducted early in April, before Radio 4 broadcast Andrew Gilligan's controversial report on the Today programme.

The ITC report showed television was the main source of international news for 67 per cent of people, compared with 16 per cent who relied on newspapers, 13 per cent the radio and 1 per cent the internet.

During the Iraq war, viewers with multichannel television increased the time they spent watching news programmes from 118 minutes a week to 289 minutes. In homes with only terrestrial television, viewing of news increased from 171 minutes a week to 315 minutes.

On the use of embedded reporters, who travelled with British or US divisions, 69 per cent said this was an important and relevant way to show the reality of war, 13 per cent disagreed. In total, 52 per cent of respondents thought that television news as a whole was balanced, while 62 per cent said that was the case with radio.

Newspapers were less trusted, with 53 per cent saying The Sun had been biased in favour of the British and American governments. By contrast, 43 per cent said the Daily Mirror had been biased towards the anti-war lobby, an accusation that was also levelled atThe Independent (16 per cent) and The Guardian (17 per cent).

In the postal survey, 4,000 people were asked to respond to 22 questions in early April.