Independent review on BBC’s migration coverage finds ‘risks to impartiality’

The most common problem identified was that the corporation ‘often tells migration stories through a narrow political lens’.

Hannah Roberts
Tuesday 07 May 2024 16:31
The BBC’s coverage of migration contains ‘risks to impartiality’, an independent review has found. (Lucy North/PA)
The BBC’s coverage of migration contains ‘risks to impartiality’, an independent review has found. (Lucy North/PA) (PA Wire)

The BBC’s coverage of migration contains “risks to impartiality”, an independent review has found.

The report, which focused particularly on news and current affairs, was undertaken by policy specialist Madeleine Sumption, who spoke to more than 100 people inside and outside of the company.

It concluded that while the corporation provides “a lot of excellent content on migration” there are “risks to impartiality that point in multiple directions”, despite there being “no consistent bias towards one point of view”.

External experts were interviewed for the review and while some argued that coverage implicitly promoted a pro-government agenda on migration, others argued it had a consistent liberal bias.

Ms Sumption said she did not try to add up these criticisms to identify which way coverage may lean as this “might miss the point”.

The most common problem identified was that the BBC “often tells migration stories through a narrow political lens, reporting what high-profile people are saying without really getting under the skin of the issue”.

The research found that some stories were not always fully understood by viewers and said “clear explanation and context” would be less likely to alienate an audience.

It also found that a lack of confidence, time or expertise meant BBC journalists sometimes failed to carefully examine claims and challenge “questionable statements”.

The report said that “fully interrogating political claims may help the BBC to avoid presenting an overly polarised picture of the arguments.”

As recent events confirm migration is a highly contested area of public policy, and that is why BBC reporting on it must meet the highest editorial standards.

Sir Nicholas Serota, BBC board member

The BBC’s reporting could also “do a better job of distinguishing between different types of migration”, according to the review, as audiences would sometimes come away with a false impression that most migration to the UK takes place via small boat crossings.

It added that “the perspectives and voices of migrants themselves are often missing entirely from BBC reporting” and said audiences want to hear more from from actual migrants.

Ms Sumption wrote that migrant voices would not make reporting biased and said “BBC coverage should have equal empathy for migrants and UK residents who worry about the impacts of migration”.

The report said its coverage should also reflect the nuanced attitudes towards migration in the UK and said migrant participants in the audience research wanted to see greater nuance in the news’ portrayal of migrants in general.

Alongside this was advice that journalists should used the term “asylum seekers” rather than “migrants” for groups of people that only include asylum seekers, adding that the words are not interchangeable.

Downing Street declined to comment on the findings but said Rishi Sunak is “acutely aware of the frustrations of the British people” with the number of small boat arrivals.

A No 10 spokeswoman told reporters: “The BBC’s reporting is one for them.

“But it is clearly an issue that is of paramount importance to many people in the communities who are facing pressures as a result of these crossings and absolutely those should be taken very seriously.”

She added: “For the Prime Minister’s part, he is acutely aware of the frustrations of the British people with the numbers of people who are unfairly jumping the queue by undertaking these crossings to get to the UK.

“And he’s also acutely aware of the pressures that these crossings are placing on local communities and public services. That’s why he’s taking the action that he has to break the business model of the criminal gangs.

“And he’s certainly aware of the importance of doing that and the importance placed on doing that.”

Sir Nicholas Serota, BBC board member and chair of the editorial guidelines and standards committee said: “As recent events confirm migration is a highly contested area of public policy, and that is why BBC reporting on it must meet the highest editorial standards.

The perspectives and voices of migrants themselves are often missing entirely from BBC reporting

Madeleine Sumption

“This board-commissioned review finds that BBC coverage of migration has many strengths, but that it could also better reflect the topic’s complexities, as well as ensuring coverage is not overly dominated by political and high-profile voices.

“We have asked the director-general and the executive to ensure all actions suggested in the review are implemented and the editorial guidelines and standards committee of the board will monitor progress to ensure all the challenges raised are addressed.

“Along with my fellow board members I want to thank Madeleine Sumption for her thorough review and extremely helpful insights, which I hope become indispensable to newsrooms both in and outside the BBC.”

The BBC executive has endorsed six key points from the report which it expects all journalists to consider carefully when working on stories about migration.

The summary points are; to cover the substance and not just the politics, make sure audiences have enough context, hear from migrants, explain migration terms clearly, represent the full range of opinions and remember that good stories also come from outside Westminster.

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