Letter: Bias and the BBC: the case for intervention

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The Independent Online
From Mr Norris McWhirter

Sir: The furore over the BBC has focused on several specific allegations of bias (Aitken, Panorama, Clause IV conference), but there are larger issues of principle at stake. In December 1993, I began a correspondence with the BBC that has revealed that it applies lower standards of impartiality to itself than were laid down for Independent Television and Radio by Parliament in 1990.

In the 1960s, the requirement for controversial subjects to be treated with "due impartiality" was weakened. Instead of being required within each individual programme, impartiality could also be applied to "a series of programmes considered as a whole".In 1990, the then Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) unsuccessfully recommended that this weakened provision should be further diluted to the point of fatuity: instead of impartiality over a series, impartiality over the entire output of a broadcasting service should be the sole requirement.

When the Broadcasting Bill went through its committee stage, the responsible minister, David Mellor, categorically stated that:

The IBA preference for the service to be `taken as a whole' is much too wide and could render the provision meaningless' (Standing Committee F, Official Report, 30 January 1990, Col. 417)

Independent television and radio thus remain obliged to achieve impartiality either in each programme or in each programme series. It therefore remains possible to monitor each programme or series of programmes to see if the fairness requirement is being met - something that would have become a physical impossibility if an entire broadcasting channel had to be "considered as a whole".

The BBC is supposed to take "due cognizance"' of the impartiality provisions laid down for its independent counterparts in the 1990 Act. It refuses to do so. Its Secretary, Michael Stevenson, has admitted to me, in a letter dated 28 June 1994, that the Corporation

can and does publish programmes containing committed opinion. These, however, figure in the context of the BBC's output as a whole, in which all significant strands of opinion are reflected over time. [italics added]

In subsequent correspondence, Mr Stevenson has failed to acknowledge that the BBC should be guided by the criteria set out in the 1990 Act. This means that the Corporation's commitment to observe "due impartiality" in theory is totally meaningless in practice.

Yours faithfully,

NORRIS MCWHIRTER

Chairman

The Freedom Association

London, SE1

5 April

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