Leading Article: Fingers in the broadcasting pie

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The Independent Online
THE NATIONAL Council for One Parent Families can draw satisfaction from the Broadcasting Complaints Commission's decision to uphold its charge of unfairness against the BBC's Panorama programme. The complaint concerned an item transmitted last year on the politically sensitive question of social security benefits and single mothers. Entitled 'Babies on Benefit', it highlighted cases of young women who, it suggested, were content to live off the state rather than seek financial support from their children's fathers.

The commission has upheld the accusation that material in the programme was used unfairly and selectively, and Panorama will be obliged to broadcast a summary of the findings, in the interests of balance. The BBC says it intends to seek a judicial review of the matter.

The National Council for One Parent Families believes that Panorama should have dealt with such a sensitive subject in the most rigorous and balanced fashion, but that it failed to do so. The issue of single parents and the social security system was highly charged at the time of transmission, with the Conservative Party conference and the mercifully all-but-forgotten 'back to basics' campaign in the offing. To the complainants, this was an exemplary case of a powerful broadcasting organisation riding rough-shod over the interests of people ill-equipped to protect themselves, or to ensure fair treatment at the hands of the media.

The BBC sees it quite differently. It argues that a lobby group has, in the promotion of its own interests, hijacked a complaints procedure designed essentially to protect individuals. The corporation points out that no individual complaints were received about the programme. In other words, the BBC fears that, if it does not contest this case, the floodgates will be opened to pressure or lobby groups seeking influence over editorial decisions.

Two points emerge with clarity from this morass of ethical and political argument. The first is that there is a need to delineate the commission's powers; the question of whether pressure groups as well as individuals may bring a complaint about a programme is sufficiently ambiguous to cause confusion and should be resolved.

The second, more powerful point is that too many bodies have a finger in the broadcasting standards pie, causing confusion in the public mind and risking an unacceptable degree of editorial pressure on broadcasters. This point was recognised in the recent broadcasting white paper.

Let the remit of any unified body be clearly written, and its powers be understood by all.