BBC News Impartiality: Government's Role — [Hannah Bardell in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:26 am on 27 February 2024.

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[Hannah Bardell in the Chair]

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Conservative, Northampton North 2:30, 27 February 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the Government’s role in upholding the impartiality of BBC news coverage.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I refer the Chamber at once to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am grateful to have secured time for this important debate.

The BBC is a much-treasured national institution. Its news service is relied on by millions of British people and others around the world. Impartiality is rightly the foundation stone of the BBC’s operational guidelines and the very reason why it has garnered the trust of its users over many years. Its journalists provide an invaluable public service, often in trying and sometimes even dangerous circumstances. It is with great regret, though, that I have concluded that the BBC’s impartiality has been brought into disrepute. The BBC has found itself at the centre of ever-increasing controversy in recent years, and the organisation’s coverage of the Israel-Hamas war has led it comprehensively to fail the British public.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Conservative, Northampton North

I will make a little progress, then I will give way. The tragic events in Israel and Gaza undoubtedly pose a challenge to any media outlet given the strength of feelings that they elicit. However, a careful review of BBC output shows a clear failure to uphold its obligation to impartiality. In doing so, BBC News’s broadcasting and online content has actively inflamed community tensions here in the United Kingdom, fuelled the appalling rise in antisemitism and, in at least one particularly shocking case, harmed diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the violence.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

Before we move on to the in-depth part of my right hon. and learned Friend’s speech, is not one of the problems with the BBC that it lays down rules then just ignores them? For example, what Gary Lineker wants to say is up to Gary Lineker. However, if the BBC says, “You do not have the right to do that,” when he then does it and waves two fingers, does that not completely undermine the BBC’s editorial content?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Conservative, Northampton North

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The BBC’s failure to adhere to standards and deal with those problems when they arise is a fundamental, systemic and systematic problem; I will come on to that.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet

Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for bringing forward this debate. I apologise to him and to you, Ms Bardell, for not being able to be here throughout; I have a meeting with a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Minister. The right hon. and learned Member is right to set out the case on Israel and Hamas. If we look at the BBC’s bias against Brexit and Northern Ireland, it cannot even name our country right; indeed, its correspondent is called the Ireland correspondent. My goodness me. How long will it be before the BBC understand that when the Welsh correspondents are called Welsh correspondents and the Scottish correspondents are called Scottish correspondents, the people of Northern Ireland should have a Northern Ireland correspondent? We are part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That is who we are. The quicker that the BBC catch on, the better.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Conservative, Northampton North

The hon. Member makes a good point. The examples of biased content are great in number, and I simply do not have the time to document all of them.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet

Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Conservative, Northampton North

I will share a sample in a moment, but I will give way first.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet

One of the most worrying examples of biased content on the BBC was their coverage of the bombing of the al-Ahli Arab Hospital, where its rush to accept the Hamas allegation that it was caused by Israel genuinely created problems on the ground and made it harder to resolve things. It had a real-life impact. That is an example of how the BBC needs to be much more careful in its coverage of Israel.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Conservative, Northampton North

My right hon. Friend makes a good point, and I shall come on to that in more detail momentarily.

BBC News has been roundly and deservedly ridiculed for its abject failure to identify Hamas as a terrorist group. Under immense pressure, the BBC eventually chose to acknowledge in its ongoing coverage that Hamas is proscribed in the United Kingdom, but it still refuses to explicitly label it as a terror group. That double standard was clear for all to see just weeks after Hamas’s heinous pogrom on 7 October, when BBC News immediately reported on its website an incident in Brussels as a “terror attack” linked to Daesh. Not only is the BBC failing to uphold the law of this country when it refers to Hamas as anything other than a terror group, it is effectively becoming complicit in Hamas’s well-orchestrated disinformation campaign.

The most dangerous example of the dissemination of disinformation during the current conflict came on 17 October—as my right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers has said—when the BBC inaccurately reported that Israel was responsible for an explosion in the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital. BBC News’ breaking news Twitter account hurriedly notified its 51 million followers:

“Hundreds feared dead or injured in Israeli airstrike on hospital in Gaza, Palestinian officials say.”

BBC News’ international editor Jeremy Bowen told television audiences that “hundreds” had been killed and “thousands” injured after the hospital was “destroyed” in what he described as “the attack”—terminology that would clearly lead viewers towards the wrong impression that Israel was responsible.

There was an urgent Israeli investigation into the explosion at the hospital, subsequently independently confirmed by non-Israeli sources, which revealed that the incident was in fact caused by a misfired terrorist rocket launched by Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Even then however, BBC News saw fit to present claims and counter claims on its website, as if there was some sort of moral equivalence between a democratic state whose leaders are elected by their people and whose courts deal with their government, and a genocidal terrorist group that oppresses its people and murders children and innocent civilians.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Conservative, Northampton North

I will in a moment.

That particular incident at Al-Ahli Arab hospital had profound real-world implications. It led to the cancellation of a Head of State-level regional peace summit and violent protests erupting across the middle east, and the World Jewish Congress said it contributed to a spike in antisemitism globally—including the burning of synagogues in Tunisia and Germany. Such were the repercussions of that one misreport.

Reasonable people accept that mistakes can be made in any profession. However, it was the dismissive nature of the BBC’s response to the Al-Ahli coverage debacle, and the continuing pattern of troubling output since then, that does not reassure that lessons have been learned. Disgracefully, when Jeremy Bowen was interviewed about the incident he dismissively said he did not “regret one thing”, and that he did not

“feel particularly bothered about that.”

Bowen seemingly downplayed Israel’s discovery of evidence—including guns—that confirmed Hamas’s military operations within Gaza’s Al-Shifa hospital, saying it was “not convincing”. Perversely though, he said

“wherever you go in the Middle East you see an awful lot of Kalashnikovs and it’s not inconceivable that…I dunno…perhaps the security department of the hospital might have them.”

Repeated preparedness by the BBC to disseminate unverified claims provided by a proscribed terrorist group with a track record of disinformation should trouble us all.

Photo of Simon Jupp Simon Jupp Conservative, East Devon

My right hon. and learned Friend is making a great speech detailing some of the failures of BBC editorial policy. However, it is not just the BBC that does not describe Hamas as a terrorist organisation, other public service broadcasters such as ITV and Channel 4 do not do so either.

As politicians, we have to be a bit careful about asking broadcasters to bow to our whims as Members of Parliament when it comes to proscribing things and making editorial decisions. As a former BBC journalist myself, I think there is a real need to balance that with editorial justification and impartiality—and I am sure my right hon. and learned Friend will come on to that in his speech. It is important to recognise that other public service broadcasters also do not describe Hamas as a terrorist organisation.

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development Team Member)

Before the right hon. and learned Gentleman continues, I remind Members that interventions should be short and brief.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Conservative, Northampton North

What we want, need and expect from the BBC is a lack of bias and proper impartiality—that is all anyone expects. It is supposed to be a leader in its field and to set an example for other smaller broadcasters. I make no apology for expecting high standards from the BBC.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Chair, High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill Select Committee (Commons), Chair, High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill Select Committee (Commons)

In relation to the point made by my hon. Friend Simon Jupp, is it not the case that, when we have a criminal case in this country, the BBC describes the people in those criminal cases as murderers, burglars or whatever else they are? We have a legal framework in this country that has determined that this is a terror organisation, and the BBC should apply the same rule in that situation.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Conservative, Northampton North

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As my example indicated, it does that for Daesh, which is another terrorist organisation. It will not do it for Hamas, and that is because of a link with Israel. Not all examples are as flagrant; the bias of BBC News and its journalists can be seen in other ways, which shows the depth of the problem. The BBC follows Hamas’s cynical policy of not distinguishing between civilian and combatant casualties. BBC News reports routinely add what amounts to disclaimers on information released by Israel or the Israeli army as being unverified. Time and again, that same rule is not applied to information released by Hamas. It was only after another pressure campaign that the BBC even started informing viewers that casualty figures in Gaza were provided by a terrorist-controlled Hamas health ministry, yet that seldom comes with a disclaimer about how they are unverified by the BBC.

For example, take a story on the BBC News website from just 2 February this year, in which it reports:

“More than 26,750 Palestinians have been killed and at least 65,000 injured, according to health officials in the Gaza strip.”

It then states:

“Israeli officials say that 9,000 of those killed were Hamas militants but have not provided evidence for the figure.”

By the way, Hamas have subsequently said that they had lost 6,000 fighters, still half of what Israel has claimed, but the BBC has chosen to ignore that Hamas statement, unlike many other news outlets. That happens daily. Each time the message that it conveys to readers, viewers or listeners is that Israel is not to be trusted over the word of a proscribed terror group that are known to wage information war.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

On the broader question of the charter itself, a royal charter confers a privilege, which is effectively a kind of monopoly. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the licence fee payers, who come from all over the country, are themselves paying for disinformation on the basis of what he is saying? That, if it were a product liability issue, would lead to all kinds of legal consequences.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Conservative, Northampton North

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Of course, it puts the BBC in that elevated status where the taxpayer is obliged to pay for it, and there are consequences from its poor leadership in this area. The BBC’s coverage of weekly pro-Palestinian marches has displayed an extraordinary disconnect from reality. It has repeatedly stressed that the marches are “mostly peaceful”, yet television reports have featured BBC journalists amidst crowds chanting genocidal refrains and brandishing flagrantly antisemitic placards. Not all viewers will have an understanding of those deplorable scenes and it is incumbent on the BBC to cover them responsibly.

On 30 October, the BBC posted a news item on its news app headlined, “Met Police chief wants clarity on extremism”. The article actually concerned the appalling displays of antisemitism and violent rhetoric at those pro-Palestinian rallies, but strangely the BBC saw fit to use a photograph of an Israeli flag as the banner image accompanying the piece. The message that would send to the casual reader is unmistakable: Israelis, or pro-Israel individuals, are the extremists.

I would like to touch on BBC Arabic now, which has repeatedly presented former Palestine Liberation Organisation Major General Wasif Erekat, who has celebrated the “heroic military miracle” of 7 October, as an independent military expert. Erekat has appeared on BBC Arabic at least 12 times since 7 October, despite having admitted to firing artillery shells on what he calls “Zionist positions” from Lebanon, and making outrageous remarks about how Hamas does not target civilians.

Concerns about bias within from the BBC are perhaps unsurprising when one considers some of the employment controversies engulfing the organisation, which I would like to touch on now. A scheduling co-ordinator for BBC3, Dawn Queva, branded Jewish people “Nazi apartheid parasites” and referred to the holocaust as the “holohoax”. In the wake of 7 October, BBC News Arabic journalists likened Hamas to freedom fighters and spoke of a morning of hope. A Beirut-based correspondent on BBC Arabic, Sanaa Khoury, tweeted that Israel’s prestige is “crying in the corner” and liked a comment about receiving sweets that were distributed in celebration of Hamas’s attack.

We have heard about Gary Lineker, who encapsulates the problem within the BBC. Lineker has shared a video with 8.9 million of his followers, with the offensive accusation that Israel is committing genocide and mourning the death of a Palestinian footballer, who was later revealed to be a “martyr fighter” for Hamas. He also shared a message calling for Israel to be banned from international football tournaments. Lineker has frankly made a mockery of new social media guidelines that had been drawn up following an earlier controversy over his politicised posts.

Amid that sorry state of affairs, it is perhaps unsurprising, though no less distressing, that the director-general of the BBC, Tim Davie, recently acknowledged that antisemitism was within the corporation. Perhaps that is not surprising, when “The Apprentice” star, who we have heard about recently, tweeted that Zionists were “odiously ogre-like”. The BBC compliance department apparently ruled that that was not antisemitic. Instead, they sent him on a diversity course. If Zionism were just a policy, and not a euphemism for Jews, as we all know it is, how can someone who supports a policy, of any sort, be physically ugly? That gives the lie to the whole charade. What they are really talking about when they say Zionists is, of course, Jews. Shamefully, BBC employees were prohibited from attending a major march against antisemitism last year, on the spurious grounds that it was controversial. Compounding that, BBC News saw fit to describe that as a pro-Jewish march.

The BBC has been criticised by Ofcom for its coverage, as many will recall, of a vile antisemitic attack on Jewish students in London in December 2021, finding that it had

“failed to observe its editorial guidelines on due impartiality and due accuracy.”

In that episode, the BBC had falsely accused Jewish victims of making anti-Muslim slurs. That was swiftly disproven, but the BBC failed to update its online news article for nearly two months, with no regard for the wellbeing of the attack victims and the wider Jewish community.

Simply, there have been too many examples of a lack of impartiality for the BBC to keep dismissing concerns. The BBC’s biased coverage throughout this conflict has undoubtedly had an impact on the public’s perception and the understanding of it, and has steered it in a more anti-Israel direction.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

What response has the right hon. and learned Member had from the BBC when he has raised these concerns? Is it taking action?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Conservative, Northampton North

I will be coming to that. We know that the BBC has received myriad complaints. The consequences of its lack of impartiality have been particularly acute for the UK’s Jewish community. Just as the Al-Ahli misreporting led to a violent spike in antisemitism across the world, so too has the relentless bias of BBC News coverage contributed to the record level of intimidation and attacks on British Jews.

It is interesting to note that more than three quarters of Jews in Britain—77%—believe that BBC coverage of the war in Gaza is biased against Israel, according to a recent poll by Survation for a newspaper. Dozens of current Jewish employees at the BBC are understood to have filed formal complaints related to their concerns about antisemitism, describing it as a “grim” and “frightening” time to be Jewish at the corporation. The BBC’s senior management has fundamentally failed to deal with this problem and uphold its own guidelines. The organisation now appears complicit in peddling misinformation and allowing antisemitism to fester. In those circumstances, I have come to the conclusion that the BBC is institutionally antisemitic.

It has now been 20 years since the Balen report into the BBC’s anti-Israel bias. The organisation has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds of hard-working licence fee payers’ money to suppress that 20-year-old report. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to join me and add her voice to the calls for the BBC to finally publish that report. I wrote to the director general before Christmas, and he declined to release it. I also ask the Minister whether she would agree that the time has come to finally say that the BBC’s ability to mark its own homework must be removed. Existing complaints procedures are ineffective and do not command confidence.

I shall end by recounting the words of 22-year-old Noah Abrahams, who left his dream job at the BBC after its refusal to unequivocally call Hamas what it is: a terrorist organisation. Noah said that words have the power

“to fuel hate and put fuel on the fire…Words impact how we think, how we react, how we act. They have influence.”

I challenge all of us here to stand up for truth, challenge the BBC in its deeply entrenched bias, and call for accountability.

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development Team Member)

I remind hon. Members to bob if they wish to be called to speak. I hope to call Front Benchers by 3.28 pm, so I ask those who are speaking to be mindful of that.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 2:52, 27 February 2024

I congratulate Sir Michael Ellis on securing this debate. I will start, as indeed he did, by quoting what anyone can get if they go on Google and ascertain the BBC’s main contribution to wider society on its website:

The BBC is the world’s leading public service broadcaster. We’re impartial and independent, and every day we create distinctive, world-class programmes and content which inform, educate and entertain millions of people in the UK and around the world.”

That was indeed the case many years ago. I hope that the BBC can salvage something of its reputation and return to that high-sounding statement of what it sets itself up to be.

The right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton North alluded to the high-profile on-screen talent, as they are called. The most expensive, well-paid employee in the BBC is Gary “Multimillionaire Lefty” Lineker. Mr Lineker was taken to task whenever he made his initial contribution, which it was felt breached the guidelines. The BBC agreed that he did indeed breach the guidelines to which he and others were expected to adhere. Within a few hours, however, some of Mr Lineker’s on-screen friends—some of whom were in his employ—decided to down tools, and they walked out. We had one edition of “Match of the Day” without Gary Lineker in situ. Then the director general of the BBC caved in, instead of saying to Mr Lineker and those who were with him, “There’s the door. If you don’t like the guidelines, off you go and get jobs elsewhere.” That is what the director general should have said—and did not. He caved in, and Mr Lineker returned, smirking at his ability to thumb his nose at the guidelines.

Then the BBC revised the guidelines and Mr Tim Davie was asked: if Mr Lineker says again, under the guise of the new guidelines, what was in breach of the old guidelines, is he in breach of the new ones? The director general could not really answer the question. I do not know whether Mr Lineker decided to test the water again, but off he went. The right hon. and learned Member for Northampton North alluded to what he said the next time; and, of course, no action was taken. Unfortunately, this is a blatant example of how the BBC seems to be prepared to take whatever the woke or the leftist agenda is as something they must endorse. If there is a breach of the guidelines, it turns a blind eye to it.

Photo of Simon Jupp Simon Jupp Conservative, East Devon

The hon. Member is making a very good point about high-grade staff at the BBC. Does he agree that, whether someone is a staff member or a star, the social media guidelines for working in the BBC should be exactly the same?

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Yes, I do, and the penalty should be the same as well. That should go without saying, but unfortunately we have to say it.

I wish to turn to the comprehensive analysis that the right hon. and learned Member for Northampton North gave about Hamas and Israel. He spoke with in-depth knowledge, and I do not wish to add anything other than to agree with him. I watched aghast at some of those breaches, whether it be Jeremy Bowen or the BBC News Arabic journalist, and the whole plethora of issues he raised.

The BBC has some excellent investigative analysis programmes, such as “Panorama” and BBC Northern Ireland’s “Spotlight”. From time to time, they do very comprehensive, in-depth investigations into issues that are in the public interest. That is exactly what they should do, and they are to be commended when they do it. But over a period of years, there has been an issue of huge public interest, not just in Northern Ireland but across the UK, and it is a concept that I have consistently ridiculed, because I have personal experience of it: the hard border on the island of Ireland.

There could have been a “Panorama” or “Spotlight” investigation to show how ludicrous it is and how porous the border is. It was nonsense to be bullied by the EU to agree to some sort of trading regime between the UK and the EU because of the threat of a hard border when it could not materialise, because there were 280 physical crossing points on the land border, which only stretches for 300 miles. It would take a military force of some hundred thousand personnel to man up, and we had 30,000 personnel when there was a murder campaign and they could not create a hard border. But there was no “Spotlight” or “Panorama” investigation into the concept of a hard border.

Similarly, at the moment we have a trading issue between Northern Ireland and GB, which is hopefully being resolved. We could have an investigative programme into the problems that some people have in trying to get plants and seeds from GB into Northern Ireland. A simple reporter, with a photographer, cameraman and a sound person, could go on the ferry from Belfast to Stranraer, acquire a few plants and seeds, put them in a car, drive back to the ferry and return to Northern Ireland with no problem caused to the EU single market. Yet the EU demands certain regulations, which we hope are being resolved. There is no investigation by the BBC, when it could and should be doing one.

Another issue that is coming up is a BBC Four programme called “Shooting the Rapids”. It is to be broadcast this weekend, although I will obviously reserve complete judgment until I watch it. In it, a former director-general of the BBC says that the British public were not being told the truth about the troubles in the 1960s and 1970s in Northern Ireland because—I apologise for the language—

“the bloody Protestants were running the BBC in Northern Ireland.”

I do not know where he has been for the last 30 or 40 years, but he needs to come back and check who is running the BBC in Northern Ireland now. Martin Bell and Denis Tuohy of the BBC also say that the BBC was prevented from telling the British public about discrimination against Catholics in education, work and housing. If they had come to me or gone to people I would have recommended they speak to about disadvantage in education, work and housing, they would have seen that it is not the people they think, but many Protestants, who are currently disadvantaged in those sectors.

So there are some programmes, and I hope the Minister will take on board the issues. I do not expect her to respond to every assertion about individual programmes, but there is an Ofcom responsibility and a Government responsibility, particularly regarding the recent mid-term review, to tell the BBC that there have been a plethora of assertions and allegations made against its coverage and its partiality and partisanship in news reporting.

Photo of Paul Girvan Paul Girvan Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Education), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

There is very much an imbalance within the BBC in relation to those in frontline reporting being from one section of the community or another. The difficulty we have is that there seems to be a hidden agenda in terms of what happens not only in Northern Ireland but in this House. What is deemed important is what is made important by the media, not necessarily the general public; it is what the media want to portray as the most important thing to focus on.

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development Team Member)

Order. Before the hon. Member responds, let me say that I am sure we are all looking forward to him making his peroration so that everybody gets a good crack of the whip.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Thank you, Ms Bardell, and I will bring my remarks to a close. I agree with my hon. Friend. These issues have to be investigated. Hopefully the Minister, who I know takes a deep interest in these issues, will be able to raise them with the director-general and we will see, not words, promises and new guidelines, but action from the BBC, both nationally and in the regions.

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development Team Member)

Before I call Steve Double, let me say that I am going to impose a formal time limit of four minutes to allow interventions and to make sure that everybody can get in.

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay 3:03, 27 February 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Michael Ellis on securing this important debate. He made an excellent opening speech and, as I have only a few minutes, I will not cover the ground that he covered. He made great points and cited specific cases where the BBC is clearly failing in its responsibility to be impartial, particularly in regard to the reporting of the events in Israel and Gaza.

The BBC enjoys a privileged position in our country, particularly in the broadcast media. It is funded by the licence fee—it is, effectively, publicly funded—and we have a right to expect it to uphold higher standards than anyone else. Comments were made about other broadcasters, but we expect the BBC to set the standard and to provide the leadership that others will hopefully follow. I believe that it has failed to do that in recent months with regard to Israel and Gaza.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton North cited a number of incidents, but I will highlight the case of the rocket that hit the hospital. It felt like the BBC could not wait to jump to the conclusion that it must have been Israel. It seemed almost disappointed when it came out that it clearly was not and it grudgingly had to admit that it had got its initial reports wrong.

That raises a number of serious concerns about what is going on at the BBC. I sometimes wonder whether it has a blind spot and is so blinded by its views about Israel that it cannot see how biased it is being in its reporting, or whether it is aware that it is being biased but just does not care. I am not quite sure which it is, but it has to be one of those two. The BBC seriously needs to assess what is going on and the way the conflict is being reported on its broadcast news media, because it has a role in shaping public views. Clearly, we have seen a rise in the number of antisemitic incidents taking place in recent months in this country and the shameful treatment of a number of members of our Jewish community across the country. It is difficult to come to any other conclusion than that, sadly, the BBC has contributed to that because it has presented Israel in such a poor light over recent months.

I am not saying that Israel is faultless and never gets anything wrong, but it feels like the BBC will report Hamas reports, statistics and numbers without any qualification, without any sense of caution that that information is coming from Hamas, yet when Israel reports something, it is highly qualified as though the BBC is saying, “It is Israel telling us this. Therefore we need to treat this cautiously.” I think that that is having an impact on the public’s view and on the public perception of what is happening. Sadly, that is feeding through into what we are seeing on our streets.

In the mid-term release on the BBC, assessing its charter responsibilities, the Secretary of State did lead on the issue of and concerns about impartiality. That leads me to believe that the Government perhaps share many of our concerns about the impartiality of the BBC, so I simply ask this in concluding: what further discussions are going on with the BBC to hold it to account and to its obligation to be impartial and to fulfil its public service obligation in reporting the news from Gaza and Israel?

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Chair, High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill Select Committee (Commons), Chair, High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill Select Committee (Commons) 3:07, 27 February 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Michael Ellis on securing this debate.

All reporting on this conflict should be done from the starting point of remembering that on one side we have a Jew-hating, gay-hating, misogynistic, terrorist death and rape cult, and on the other we have a democratic, liberal state with strong independent processes, which was attacked on 7 October. The fact that 77% of British Jews—remember that just 0.5% of the population of this country is Jewish—do not consider its coverage to be fair should be taken by the BBC as a cry of pain from the Jewish community, and it should take that very, very seriously.

My right hon. and learned Friend mentioned the director-general’s recent email. I ask the Minister to follow up with the director-general to ask what he is actually doing to respond to these examples of antisemitism in the BBC. In a debate a couple of months ago, I described the BBC as Israelophobic, and I think that the words that my right hon. and learned Friend used—about it having an institutional problem with antisemitism —are absolutely true. That is fuelling not only hate towards the Jewish population in this country; the way in which the BBC is presenting this conflict on television is also fuelling hate towards Members of Parliament.

Why do I say that? We have heard my right hon. and learned Friend talk about how the BBC continues to quote as fact casualty figures from Hamas—an organisation that has previously misrepresented casualty figures. Meanwhile, Israeli witnesses to the rape of Israeli women on 7 October had their story told on the BBC with the proviso that the BBC had been unable to verify those claims. That was not applied to Hamas, of course. The BBC has deliberately presented this conflict from the point of view of civilians in Gaza and contrasted that with the Israeli military or with Israeli politicians, including those at the most extreme ends of the Israeli Government, with whom all of us on the Government side of the House would have little to do and who, at the end of the day, have little impact on the positioning of the Israeli Government’s policies.

The BBC has chosen to subject viewers to an antisemitic “The Apprentice” participant. Even when it became aware of that, it offered him sensitivity training. I have written to the BBC numerous times asking who provided that training and what the specific content was on antisemitism, because none of the charities that deal with this and have expertise on this, such as the Antisemitism Policy Trust, were involved, and the BBC will not tell me.

As Hamas perpetrated its massacres on 7 October, the BBC aired an interview with Refaat Alareer, a lecturer at the Islamic University of Gaza, who described the attacks as “resistance” and “legitimate and moral”. A senior BBC broadcast journalist joked about a woman whose grandmother was abducted by Hamas as receiving an “inheritance”. On Christmas eve, the BBC reported unverified and false claims from Hamas that the Israel Defence Forces were carrying out summary executions—it had to apologise for that. Today we see an example of that with the coverage of civilians in Gaza. Of course, there is absolutely no doubt that civilians are suffering, but the coverage provided on the BBC today is not something that was given to members of Israeli society or to those victims. I would like to go on, but the speaking time in the debate is so limited that it is impossible to.

In my final few minutes, I will ask the Minister to do a couple of things. One is to ask the BBC for a full review of how its coverage of this conflict contrasts with others’, and the other is to ask whether the BBC plans to offer proper antisemitism training, provided by actual members of the community with expertise on the subject.

Photo of Adam Holloway Adam Holloway Conservative, Gravesham 3:11, 27 February 2024

I, too, am concerned about the BBC’s persistent failure to fulfil its legal obligation to be impartial. We saw this with Brexit. To give an example, News-watch, which is an independent monitoring organisation run by a former BBC producer, said that, on Europe, there were twice as many remainers as pro-Brexit speakers, with an even greater imbalance in the amount of time people had to speak, at 7:3, or nearly 9,000 words against 4,000 words. No wonder the political elites of this country were stunned by the result of the referendum—they did not see it coming.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet

The BBC, in its language about Brexit, was not impartial, as illustrated by it persistently describing leaving without a deal with the EU as a so-called cliff-edge Brexit. No one wanted that outcome, but the BBC should not have been portraying it as a potential disaster via the terminology it used.

Photo of Adam Holloway Adam Holloway Conservative, Gravesham

I wish I had thought of that for my speech. The reality is that the BBC fails to impartially report the multiplicity of viewpoints in the UK. It prides itself on diversity, but it has a real lack of diversity of thought. There is an intellectual homogeneity, which means there is no real balance of opinion among its staff. There is no recognition among those who make the decisions at the BBC that a recruitment policy that broadened its culture would better serve licence fee payers and better reflect the BBC’s viewers and the wider country.

Today the stakes seem very much higher, as we heard in the superb speech by my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Michael Ellis. Given that the BBC has these huge resources made available to it via the licence fee, and given the heightened tensions here as a result of the crisis in the middle east, we thought it really could do a bit better. In 2021, colleagues and I wrote to the Prime Minister and urged him to consider directing Ofcom to deal directly with all impartiality events at the BBC, rather than letting the BBC do those itself in the first instance. Of course, that would need to be accompanied by some changes in Ofcom; to deal with complaints impartially and objectively, its contents board needs to change, because it seems to be stuffed with former BBC lifers. I also urge Ministers to consider requiring the BBC to set up an independent unit to monitor bias on an ongoing basis.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee 3:14, 27 February 2024

I would first like to refer to some figures from the past five years on the complaints made by licence fee payers—that is, taxpayers, 90-odd per cent of whom pay for the BBC. According to the figures, there were 1,935,179—nearly 2 million—audience complaints to the BBC from 2017 to 2023, of which only 3,692 progressed to the BBC executive complaints unit. Only 147 complaints were upheld or partially upheld by that unit, and only four of the 1,067 escalated to Ofcom were decided to be BBC breaches of the broadcasting code. It goes from 2 million complaints to four breaches upheld by Ofcom.

That tells us a great deal. Anyone with half a brain would realise that the rest of the 2 million complaints must have contained, and do contain—as people know from their common sense and personal experience—gross breaches of impartiality. I have been talking to Ministers about that for several years. To my great regret, the mid-term review was revealed to the public by a mere written ministerial statement, when it should have been done by an oral statement on the Floor of the House. I hope I have got that right, but that is my understanding.

Secondly, we need a proper, full debate. I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Michael Ellis for raising this issue, with particular emphasis on the Hamas-Israel situation. However, the problem goes very much deeper. It is an endemic, almost perpetual problem, to which there appears to be no answer. Great importance should therefore be attached to the need to propose or implement an effective and workable regulatory structure between the BBC and Ofcom, and to reform Ofcom’s role in the complaints framework.

An inadequate reform of the complaints framework has been going on, and particularly the intended roles of the BBC board and the editorial guidance and standards committee. Despite the Government’s recognition of the inadequacies of the BBC, there has been a failure to initiate an independent framework for handling complaints. Although we need a vital reform to facilitate the closer scrutiny of impartiality, with no reason specified that has unnecessarily been postponed until the next charter review in 2027.

A major omission of the review is a failure to define “impartiality”. The review actually claims that the task was too complex. I find that astonishing, particularly when one considers that the Oxford dictionary definition of “impartiality”, which is pretty standard stuff, insists quite clearly that

“official judgements and reports should be based on objective and relevant criteria, without bias or prejudice”.

All the evidence points in the other direction. The figures that I have given are absolutely astonishing, and it is a great failure for us not to have managed to get this right.

I pay tribute to this Minister, and to other Ministers who have participated in this process, but I have to say that it has not met the degree of performance for which we would have hoped. We were hoping for a mid-term review that would deal with the issue of impartiality, and I regret to say that this will need a bigger debate on the Floor of the House, with the Minister giving a full account and every Member having the opportunity, cross-party, to get this thing right once and for all.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell 3:19, 27 February 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Michael Ellis, whose opening speech covered such a wide area, with many vital points backed up by the evidence that his fine legal mind was always going to bring to this debate.

My Jewish constituents are bloody terrified now. It was bad enough leading up to the 2019 general election, when many of them felt that they would leave this country, but they had fairly good faith that the Labour party would not win that election. Now, they are truly terrified. I have heard my hon. Friend Andrew Percy say that he feels safer in Israel than on the streets of his own country. That is true for a great number of my constituents who, to make matters worse, are seeing an in-built bias in the BBC almost justifying those launching antisemitic attacks against my constituents.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Chair, High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill Select Committee (Commons), Chair, High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill Select Committee (Commons)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I did not get chance to say this because of the limited time, but will he consider the coverage today on the BBC? Once again, the picture being painted by the BBC is of suffering Gazans—who inevitably are suffering, of course—versus a well-armed Israeli military trying to deal with Hamas. There are no images of Hamas fighters or the hostages being held. It is this picture of civilians versus the Israeli military that gives a wholly false impression of the battle going on. There is a whole day of it today on the BBC, and all that will do is lead to more threats and abuse for Jewish people in this country. Nobody has been able to verify any of the information coming out, and we know that people cannot speak freely because Hamas control the message and control people. The coverage today is appalling.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He brings to the debate a unique perspective on what is actually happening to the Jewish population in this country; it is more than I could hope to describe at this time.

There are several ways in which how terrible the Israelis are just creeps in, especially when listening to the radio, when we do not necessarily have the pictures. For example, “Israel have bombed a refugee camp”—most people believe that a refugee camp is an area full of tents and people who have been displaced and are suffering. These are historical refugee camps, with concrete buildings and towns that have been built around them. The laziness about going further and actually describing the situation adds to these issues.

The BBC is a very important institution in this country. There is always a role for public service broadcasting, but I hear so many of my constituents say that they hate the BBC. I would argue that what they hate is BBC News, not the BBC itself, but the reality is that the BBC’s bias is coming through in so many ways. Gary Lineker can say what he wants, but those who said that he could not say it and then did nothing about it are doing untold damage to the credibility of the BBC.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Would my right hon. Friend like to lay a bet that these particular proceedings will not appear on “Today in Parliament” tomorrow morning?

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

That is quite amusing. I was sat here wondering if we would actually make “Today in Parliament”; I think it may get a mention, but it will probably be quite well edited. The reality is that we live in a world where people are willing to be more militant. If the BBC does not grasp this problem and deal with it, people will stop paying their licence fee and damn the consequences. They can overwhelm it with social media, a bit like when the poll tax happened and it basically got dropped because no one was paying it. That is one of the issues for the BBC.

If we ask people, they say they listen to BBC Radio and football coverage a lot. A public service broadcaster has an important role in any country. When we have these debates, we must be careful not to give the impression that we want to abolish the BBC. What we all want is quality, independent, impartial news coverage that allows the public to get a view of what is actually happening in the world. There are plenty of television and news stations, especially in the advent of digital television, that will pander to people’s opinions if they want that. A public service broadcaster must always be above that.

I cast my mind back to when, on the “Today” programme, Amol Rajan was interviewing the Home Secretary, who told him

“if you’re just going to make a statement, I can go and get a cup of tea”.

I had never heard that on the “Today” programme. It is vital that some of the most hard-hitting questions should be put to politicians, and we should be able to answer them. I do not care how bad they are, as long as everybody gets the same toughness of interview and questions. But it is not up to journalists to sit there and make statements towards the politician they are interviewing; it is up to them to probe the policies they are running and where they are at. If that ends up embarrassing the politician, so be it, but it has to be equal across the board.

I have a great concern that what is happening at the BBC is undermining the entire institution. What potential conversations can the Minister have to ensure that those who are setting the rules to protect the impartiality of the BBC, but are doing absolutely nothing to enforce them, can be held to account? I believe that this institution is vital across the world and to this country, as long as it is doing what it is supposed to be doing, and, at the moment, it is not.

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development Team Member)

I thank Members for their brevity. We come to the Front Benches earlier than expected, starting with the SNP spokesperson.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 3:25, 27 February 2024

Thank you for your work in chairing today’s debate, Ms Bardell, and I congratulate Sir Michael Ellis on obtaining the debate. I will cover a few things, some of which have been covered and some of which have not been so much.

Public service broadcasting is incredibly important, and it is incredibly important that impartiality is measured and is there in the broadcasting. Many UK Government decisions have undermined the impartiality of the BBC, including the director-general being a former Tory candidate, and including a personal friend of Boris Johnson being made the chair of the BBC—a Tory donor who donated £400,000 to the party and lent £800,000 to Mr Johnson specifically. So there is an issue with impartiality—an issue with being seen to be impartial, as well as with potentially being impartial.

I have a BBC studio in my constituency that does local news in Aberdeen and has also been involved in some big events that have happened. For example, when the Queen passed away, it was the first on the scene reporting. I want to be clear to those people working in my constituency, and across the BBC, that we are not saying—nobody in this room, I think, is saying—that any of them individually are antisemitic, other than perhaps the ones that were mentioned by name. It is not—I do not think, from anyone—an attack on these individuals. I want to be clear that we value the work that they do and the fact that they do report in sometimes incredibly difficult conditions. Sometimes reporting is got wrong from every broadcaster; mistakes are made and they need to be as swiftly as possible rectified.

I want to be clear about the BBC’s position on what happened in relation to al-Ahli Hospital. It said that

“contrary to many reports—the BBC did not claim that the Israelis were responsible for the attack. We, along with many other…media organisations, reported initial claims by Palestinian officials and eye-witnesses…that this was an Israeli air strike…We attributed the claim to those making it.”

The BBC sought a response immediately from the IDF, and when

“the Israeli authorities countered those claims”, the BBC “prominently and consistently” reported the position of the IDF. That is the BBC’s position. It may be an idea to watch back some of that coverage to see what exactly was said by the journalists at the time.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Chair, High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill Select Committee (Commons), Chair, High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill Select Committee (Commons)

I like the hon. Lady and I hate to criticise her on this, but I think that that is not really credible. The BBC reported it, and I believe—I will check this—that it went out on push notifications. The fact remains that as a serious public broadcaster, on an issue as sensitive and as serious as this, the BBC should have applied independent verification to this story—as it demands and requires Israel to provide on claims—before it put that out and gave it such prominence. So I do not think that its response is really credible, with respect to the hon. Lady.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I just felt that this was the BBC’s position and I wanted that to be clear, because it does not have a voice in this debate right now.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Conservative, Northampton North

It may just help if I repeat the BBC’s breaking news Twitter account—the push notification to 51 million followers:

“Hundreds feared dead or injured in Israeli airstrike on hospital in Gaza, Palestinian officials say”.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Which, in that, is attributed to Palestinian officials, but absolutely—I think it is worth watching it back. But the BBC position is that it was very clear about that.

On the ideas around the bias or the lack of impartiality, apparently 36% of the public see the BBC as neutral; 15% see the BBC as pro-Palestine; and 17% see it as pro-Israel. There have been protests outside BBC studios throughout Scotland suggesting that the BBC is in fact too pro-Israel. Those protests have taken place outside a number of BBC studios in Scotland, including twice in Aberdeen. Any of those things are concerning and worrying for staff. People absolutely have a right to protest. Whichever the view of the protesters, the protests can be worrying for people who are perhaps not anywhere near reporting on either what is happening in Gaza or on any other sort of foreign affairs.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Chair, High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill Select Committee (Commons), Chair, High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill Select Committee (Commons)

I am sorry to do this again, but I heard this when I met the BBC. I have had it said to me that, “Look, a lot of people think we are pro-Palestinian. A lot of people think we are pro-Israeli.” That is irrelevant. It is about the actual coverage; it does not matter what the perception is. That does not mean that there is not an issue here. I have so far not found a single example of a BBC journalist who has had to be dealt with, suspended or reported for making pro-Israeli statements on their social media accounts, whereas there are plenty that relate to this. The fact that there might be that perception does not alter the fact that there is an issue.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Actually, I do think the perception is important. It is also important that, as the hon. Gentleman said, 77% of Jewish people in the UK think that the BBC is biased. Having said all of that about the views of the general population, it is none the less incredibly important to listen to the communities who have a long history of persecution, particularly Jewish people. It is incredibly important to listen to those views and to understand that, if a community feels that the BBC is doing something wrong, it needs to take that incredibly seriously.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Conservative, Northampton North

The hon. Lady has been generous in giving way. I reiterate the point, which I am sure she will agree with, that it is very easy for people to make any sort of claim or counter-claim, but there needs to be some evidence. I like to think that in my speech I gave numerous evidenced examples. If people are going to say that there is evidence of BBC pro-Israel bias, they need to be able to cite some examples of that. I do not think they will be able to do that.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Given that I came to talk more generally about the impartiality of BBC news and I had few notes on the conflict in Gaza, I am afraid I do not have an answer. I am not here to defend the BBC. I just wanted to be clear on what its position was, particularly around that one incident that was mentioned.

I met representatives of the Union of Jewish Students in the wake of the beginning of the conflict. We spoke about what was happening at the University of Aberdeen and how safe or unsafe they felt on campus. They raised concerns with me about reporting, but the concerns that they raised were not specifically about the BBC; they were about reporting in general. It is very important for us to listen to those people who are saying, “We are being discriminated against” or “There is bias against us” because, as a non-Jewish person, I do not feel, see or hear all the undercurrents. It is not only we as parliamentarians who must listen to such views; the BBC must ensure that it listens to members of the community who are the experts in this when providing diversity training, as Andrew Percy mentioned. I absolutely agree with his suggestion that the training should be carried out by those people who are genuine experts, such as Antisemitism Policy Trust. I will declare an interest. Members can look at my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in relation to that.

It is important to think about the regulation of the BBC. We recently had the first Media Bill in 20 years. It has been a long time since there was a change to the regulation of public service broadcasting in general. However, the BBC is governed by the charter and the agreement that comes alongside it. In some ways, Parliament is unable to take action on this; that is more in the remit of the UK Government. I ask the Minister, when she is looking at this, to look at some of the genuinely good work the BBC has done around increasing diversity—I have spoken to it about that in recent times—and to assess whether she, the Government, and the communities that are impacted feel that the 10-point plan and the impartiality and diversity training the BBC has put in place are sufficient, so that the BBC can be impartial, continue to be respected, and provide the public service broadcast that so many people rely on in order to get their news.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 3:35, 27 February 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Bardell. I would like to begin by congratulating Sir Michael Ellis on securing this important debate. Impartiality has always been, and must remain, a crucial underpinning of the BBC. It is right that the BBC is operationally and editorially independent from Government, and that impartiality is embedded in its governance at every level. As a result, not only do eight out of 10 UK adults consume BBC news on average per week—double the next nearest provider—BBC news is unique in its ability to gain the trust of audiences in the UK regardless of their political persuasion.

As has been discussed in this debate—we have heard opinions from across the House, and indeed across the country, from East Londonderry, St Austell, Brigg and Goole, Gravesham, Stone, and Elmet and Rothwell—many are deeply concerned about the impartiality of coverage regarding the terrible events in Israel and Palestine, where over the past few months we have seen an intolerable loss of life and an unacceptable growing humanitarian disaster in Gaza. There has been some debate over the way the BBC chooses to use the word “terrorist”. To be absolutely clear, Hamas are terrorists, and proscribed as such in UK law. Hamas has committed brutal atrocities and I call it a terrorist organisation, as is only right. The BBC is responsible for its own editorial guidelines, and it is not for politicians to tell it what should and should not be included in them. However, I will use the word “terrorists”, and it will report that I did.

On the BBC’s coverage of the topic more broadly, concerns over impartiality have been raised by people of many different persuasions and backgrounds. A poll conducted by More in Common found that roughly equal numbers of people find the BBC’s coverage to be as pro-Israel as pro-Palestine. However, an even larger percentage of the 2,000 people polled said they felt that the public service broadcaster’s output on the conflict between Israel and Hamas had been mostly neutral. That is not to say that the BBC makes no mistakes, and when it does, it must work swiftly to rectify them. That is particularly important at a point where community tensions are high. The Community Security Trust, a charity that works to eradicate antisemitism, has reported a staggering 500% rise in antisemitism, and Tell MAMA, a project working to address anti-Muslim hatred, has reported over 2,000 Islamophobic incidents between 7 October and 7 February—more than triple the 600 reported during the same period the year before.

We must denounce hate crime in the strongest terms, and I expect to see a robust response to all incidents of hate associated with the conflict. I recently met the Community Security Trust, Stand Up! and Maccabi GB to discuss the worrying rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia and the work going on in communities to promote tolerance and integration. There is no place in Britain for antisemitism or Islamophobia, and all of our media outlets have a duty to report responsibly and accurately on both the conflict itself and the rise of hatred in this country. With that in mind, it is concerning that Jewish employees at the BBC have raised complaints about its coverage. The BBC says it has well-established and robust processes in place to handle any issues, concerns or complaints, so I would hope and expect that to be dealt with fairly and accordingly.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Does the hon. Lady agree that although the word “racist” is often used in this context, much of it is actually to do with divisions of opinion on matters of religion, and that is very much at the heart of a lot of these problems? If she does not know that, does she recall that Gandhi himself, when asked what the most important question about politics or religion is, said that those who do not understand that politics is secondary to religion do not know what they are talking about?

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point; he has certainly put it on the record. I would like to move on.

On the BBC’s record on impartiality and its complaints processes more broadly, it is timely that the Government’s mid-term review has finally been published, as it looked directly at those issues. Indeed, the review noted that the BBC has completed the implementation of its 10-point plan, following the Serota review, with measures including impartiality training for staff, internal content reviews and regular staff surveys on impartiality. Further to that, following the independent review by John Hardie in 2023, the mid-term review also notes the new social media guidance for BBC presenters who do not cover news, current affairs or factual journalism.

The Government also found in the review that BBC First delivers fair complaints decisions that withstand scrutiny from the regulator. In terms of improving that further, the review makes a number of recommendations, including external scrutiny of complaints, improving the visibility and clarity of the process, ensuring the quality and timeliness of responses, and giving greater transparency on decision making. It is important that action is taken to work on those, and that Ofcom looks at progress in those areas when it reviews BBC First before the charter renewal.

Like any institution, the BBC does not get everything right. It is, however, a cornerstone of our creative economy and an important part of our day-to-day lives. The BBC is an important national institution, and we believe we must secure its future as a universal, publicly owned, public service broadcaster, not least in a world where misinformation is rife and public interest journalism is becoming harder to access.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology) 3:41, 27 February 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I thank my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Michael Ellis for securing an incredibly important debate on the impartiality of the BBC, and the Government’s role in upholding it. I am also grateful to every hon. Member who has contributed this afternoon, as well as the Opposition spokespeople, including Stephanie Peacock, whose contributions have been constructive.

I appreciate the important words that were said in relation to Hamas as a terrorist organisation, and a clear understanding that the Government have taken action, but will keep a lot of these matters under review. I think there is unanimity here that the BBC is an incredibly important organisation, the integrity of which we all fundamentally seek to uphold. That is why we are here today talking about this issue. There is a collective desire in this House to focus the BBC on its core purpose when it comes to news, to report on the world with a relentless dedication to facts and truth. That is the foundation on which trust is built.

Trust, in my opinion, is the BBC’s currency in a very complex, ever-changing world where regional events can ricochet with great consequence into the communities and neighbourhoods of the UK. Hon. Friends have spoken of that and given examples, and it causes me a great deal of concern, both for my constituents and for my Jewish and Muslim friends, who have received pretty horrifying attacks from the same source—Islamist fundamentalism.

That worries me deeply, and nobody in the UK wants to see that play out in our streets. We have a duty to try to lower the heat, and also to have difficult, complex arguments on this issue. That is why we all feel strongly about the BBC’s role in that. We have an implicit social contract that grants the BBC a unique place in national life, with an equally unique funding structure in the licence fee, because it is bound by duties that commit it to that truth-telling and the reflection of communities in every corner of the UK.

Having a public service broadcaster structured in such a way says something very important about our values as a society, where a commitment to freedom of expression and openness provides an increasingly stark contrast to jurisdictions where the truth is manipulated or suppressed, or focused only on stories of the powerful. We can see that in how conflicts are reported around the world in other countries.

Indeed, the first public purpose listed in its royal charter requires the BBC to provide duly accurate and impartial news and information. The impartiality of the BBC goes to the heart of the contract between the corporation and all the licence-fee payers it serves. The public rightly expect the BBC to be an exemplar of impartiality and accuracy, while allowing a range of opinions to be offered and debated.

Of course, the BBC is not there as an instrument of Government. Ministers seeking to interfere with editorial decisions or the day-to-day running of the organisation would be in nobody’s interests, in seeking to build the trust that is so fundamental to its core purpose.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Will the Minister commit to putting forward the idea that there should be a proper definition, along the lines of the Oxford dictionary, as I mentioned, so that we have a definition of impartiality in the charter, as well as the statement she has just made about it?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I am always happy to engage with my hon. Friend on those sorts of issues, which we have engaged on in relation to the mid-term review. I shall look into the particular issue he raises on the definition of impartiality, although I suspect that it is written down in some of the documents. It may not be in the charter itself, but we do talk to the BBC about this on a very regular basis.

As hon. Members will be aware, I tread a fine line here. I appreciate that there may be a desire from colleagues for me to go very far in sticking the boot into the BBC on certain issues. I want to ensure that I am always on the right side of that line, because I would not seek to undermine the trust that the BBC must put at the centre of its compact with the public.

By the same token, if concerns are expressed by citizens of this country, and by hon. Members on their behalf, about how the BBC is carrying out its duties to fair and impartial news, and the structures that hold it to account, then I think that requires a response. No organisation, particularly one of the BBC’s nature, should be exempt from scrutiny. If large numbers of citizens are questioning the legitimacy of the BBC’s funding model as a result, in a way that I fear might risk undermining the future sustainability of the organisation, then it is fundamentally in the interest of the BBC for there to be a response.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

We often find the left screaming that the BBC is a Tory mouthpiece and the right screaming that the BBC is a left-wing mouthpiece—that is political opinion, and it probably means that it has got it roughly right. But there are indisputable facts that are black and white, as with the bombing of the hospital and the failure to verify sources. That is where the BBC is taking a wrong turn. That is what is fundamentally undermining the credibility of its impartiality. It is not the knockabout politics we have on particular issues; these are black and white facts.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

That is the point that I am trying to make. We do not seek to interfere with the BBC editorially, but where there is a risk that trust and faith in the organisation will be undermined because of how it is being run, that should be of concern to the BBC, of concern to Ofcom and of concern to the Government.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Chair, High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill Select Committee (Commons), Chair, High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill Select Committee (Commons)

Further to the point from my right hon. Friend Sir Alec Shelbrooke, I feel we are being trolled in this debate. Someone has just sent me a picture of the main banner running alongside the BBC News website at 3.39 pm today, which says:

“Gaza health ministry: 29,878 Palestinians killed”.

We are being trolled in this debate. There is no reference to that being Hamas’s figures. There is no reference to the fact that we know that thousands of those people who have been killed are Hamas operatives. These are the very issues we have raised today. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that there are facts, and then there are opinions. It is a fact that these are Hamas’s figures, but they are not being presented as such. In this very debate in which we are calling this out, the BBC is trolling us. It is having a laugh.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

As I say, I am trying to get the line correct between giving the BBC editorial independence and expressing concern.

In the mid-term review, we have tried to ensure that there is much greater power for the BBC board to conduct thematic reviews of complaints and to have much more independence from the editorial teams, so that if there is a clear pattern coming through in the nature of the complaints about the BBC’s reporting and editorial decision making, the BBC can look into it. That is a new innovation from the mid-term review.

I note that Samir Shah, the incoming chairman of the BBC, has made reference to the idea that there may be an opportunity to review how the BBC is reporting on foreign conflicts, to ensure that the corporation is getting it right. This goes to the fundamental currency of the BBC: it is a trusted organisation, but with that level of trust comes a much deeper level of responsibility. Hon. Members have spoken about how licence fee payers are paying for this content and therefore rightly expect certain standards to be adhered to.

A response is needed, not so that we can kick the organisation and its dedicated reporters, but so that the BBC can discharge its fundamental duties to be a beacon of trusted information in an era of water muddying, truth bending and industrial disinformation. That is precisely how we worked in the mid-term review. Halfway through the royal charter, the review was an opportunity to pause, examine and evaluate the effectiveness of the BBC’s governance and regulation. The review focused on a range of issues, including editorial standards and impartiality, and our recommendations were unambiguous about the fact that there is scope for material improvement across a variety of areas.

The review highlighted that impartiality continues to be a major challenge for the BBC. Audience perception that the BBC is not sufficiently impartial is an ongoing issue. Within a culture of continuous improvement, we think that more can be done. Following direct and constructive dialogue with the Government, the BBC is implementing major reforms, although perhaps not major enough for my hon. Friend the Member for Stone.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

That would be true. Surely an improvement would be to have a test within a few months—a review of what has already been done under the new system that has been created. If that fails, the whole system fails.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

My hon. Friend and I discussed the mid-term review and its findings just before it was launched, and I said to him that there is an opportunity to see how it is playing out, which will inform some of our discussions about charter renewal and future funding debates. A review of the funding model for the BBC is forthcoming. We will invite all hon. Members to engage with that review, which may be an opportunity for my hon. Friend’s views to be aired loudly and persistently.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

I am grateful to the Minister for highlighting the fact that there will be a funding review, but how the BBC is funded is not the issue. The BBC has built a reputation as the trusted news source, and it is letting that reputation down. There will be a BBC no matter how it is funded, and people will turn to it. The problem now is that there is a bias being launched against Israel. That is a fact. Stephanie Peacock talked about a survey in which people felt that it was balanced, but they are the ones receiving the news, not the ones involved in it. It does not come down to how the funding is put in place; it is about how we ensure that the BBC keeps its impartiality.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I was referring to the next staging posts down the line. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone suggested that the mid-term review was not meaty enough for his tastes, so I was simply encouraging him to engage in the next stages of the conversation. It is an incredibly important national conversation that will involve not just hon. Members, but the general public.

I have expressed to the director-general a concern that in public life we sometimes focus on the micro issues in relation to the BBC. I am not suggesting for one moment that this is one of those issues, but we get involved in regular tussles without asking fundamental questions about what we want the BBC to be going forward. That is something that I hold very close to my heart, because we are entering a very uncertain world in which misinformation and disinformation are being industrialised, and the BBC has an incredibly important role. It is in our interests as a nation, and as a western nation, to try to ensure that its future is safeguarded and that it maintains its public perception of trust and impartiality. I simply encourage hon. Members, in advance of the charter renewal process and in advance of discussions on the funding fee, to ask some of those big, searching questions about what we truly want the BBC to be.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Chair, High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill Select Committee (Commons), Chair, High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill Select Committee (Commons)

As we are on the topic of asking questions, will the Minister write to the director-general to ask him what his actual plan is to deal with the institutionalised antisemitism in the BBC, which I think he has acknowledged himself in his email to staff? Will she ask him what specific training was given to the antisemitic, racist star of “The Apprentice”—well, I will not call him a star, because he is not a star; he is just a nasty little racist—on content related to antisemitism, because the BBC will not tell me? Will she ask him whether the BBC has an editorial note on antisemitism within the newsroom and, if it does not, whether it will produce one?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I thank my hon. Friend for those searching questions. I have regular discussions with the director-general. Hon. Members regularly talk to me about their concerns relating to how the BBC is run, and I relay some of those concerns. We have open discussions when he comes to see me and vice versa. As my hon. Friend notes, an email has gone out to all staff within the BBC in relation to antisemitism. I will be happy to discuss his specific questions about training for the candidate for “The Apprentice” and the other issues in person with the director-general at our next meeting, if not before.

I have no doubt that somebody from the BBC will be listening to this debate and noting the concerns that have been expressed in this Chamber about how the organisation is run. It must be very difficult in BBC newsrooms when staff have concerns about other members of staff in relation to personal opinions on social media that have recently come to light. Again, it goes back to the fundamental interests of the organisation, which are to make sure that staff can work in the newsrooms with a drive towards the truth and without fear of intimidation from anybody else in that newsroom.

I return to the mid-term review. We worked very hard with the BBC and Ofcom to try to tackle the fundamental concerns that have been raised about impartiality. A new, legally binding responsibility on the BBC board will require it actively to oversee the BBC’s complaints process to assure audiences that their concerns are being fairly considered. I appreciate that many hon. Members in this Chamber wanted to move on from the BBC First complaints process. Again, that is an issue that will be considered in charter renewal. We will also be closely monitoring whether there is a substantial change in how complaints are handled as a result of the mid-term review changes.

We have recommended that Ofcom’s regulatory responsibilities be extended to the online content that the BBC produces. I believe that one hon. Member referred to a complaint about how an incident involving antisemitism on a bus in Oxford Street was reported. That was part of the BBC’s online material, and it is the kind of complaint that will be brought into scope because of the mid-term review.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Will the Minister be good enough to take into account the views of Baroness Deech KC, a Cross Bencher in the House of Lords who was a governor of the BBC? She wrote an important letter to The Times or The Daily Telegraph—it does not matter which—about the judgment of the BBC. Will the Minister look at Baroness Deech’s extremely interesting letter and speak to her about it?

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development Team Member)

Order. I have been generous in giving the Minister extra time to answer all the questions, but I hope she will afford the same consideration to Sir Michael Ellis and allow him to sum up.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I shall look into the specific issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone raised.

As I say, the mid-term review is by definition a stepping stone. It takes us to charter review, which will be the time to ask many more fundamental questions of the BBC. I do not wish to take up any further time. I thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton North again for securing this debate.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Conservative, Northampton North 3:57, 27 February 2024

I am grateful to you, Ms Bardell, and to Front-Bench and particularly Back-Bench colleagues.

The BBC is a treasured institution. We care about it and want it to prosper—that is why we are here—but it is failing. Ironically, as colleagues have mentioned, today the BBC is heavily pushing what it is calling its Gaza day. No one begrudges it that—that is what it is entitled to do—but has the BBC done an Israel day? If it purports to be neutral, it has to do both. Why not do an Israel day? If Uruguay and Paraguay were at war and the BBC did a Uruguay day, we would find it also doing a Paraguay day. Why not interview the victims, the injured, the Israeli families of the murdered of the pogrom or the hostages who have been released? Why not interview the heroes who saved civilians? If it purports to be neutral, it has to do both, so it is a highly topical example. It is suspicious, of course, because doing such an Israel day would be a lot easier to arrange and could perhaps have been done already.

Today the BBC is going some way to proving the case, but what makes the BBC institutionally antisemitic is not that there is bias or antisemitism within—sadly, there is a lot of that everywhere—but the fact that the management have not done what they should be doing about it. That is what makes it institutional. BBC employees suffering abuse from within, mistakes not being corrected, staff and so-called talent not being disciplined and erroneous reports not being corrected or being pushed out without responsible checking have inflamed community tensions here in the UK, fuelled the rise in antisemitism and harmed diplomatic efforts to end the violence.

To hold oneself out as neutral and to be biased is a form of corruption. The BBC can no longer be permitted to mark its own homework.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the Government’s role in upholding the impartiality of BBC news coverage.