My Skirmish with the BBC.

The original programme can be accessed here, https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000z788



4 September 2021.  My original email.

Woman's Hour on Friday 3 September 2021 carried a segment on the new Texas abortion law.  It was one of the most biased pieces of broadcasting I have heard for a long, long time.  

 

For a start, both invited contributors were, perhaps naturally American, but also robustly pro-abortion and fiercely opposed to the new law, as indeed was the BBC presenter.  Her role should have been neutral and inquisitorial.  Instead the discussion became a partisan threesome.  

 

Of course, abortion is an emotive issue, so all the more need for a balance of views.  So where was it?  Was anyone even invited to present the pro-life perspective, which, after all, had been democratically voted for by Texans?  Where was such a US spokesperson?  There is a strong pro-life constituency in the UK and some of its members would gladly have spoken in favour of the Texas law.  

 

This one-sided, 20+ minute segment was the BBC at its worst - wholly biased and wholly pro-abortion. The listening public deserve better than this. How do you propose to set about achieving this? I have asked several questions.

 

Fulsome answers would be much appreciated.


    John R. Ling.



11 September 2021.  Interim reply from the BBC.  Your Reference CAS-6901896-T7T1W1 

Thanks for contacting the BBC recently. Please do not reply to this automated email: it is from an outgoing address which cannot handle replies.

This is an update to apologise to you that although we normally aim to reply to most complaints within 2 weeks, we are currently dealing with a higher than normal volume of cases. This means it will take a little longer to reply to you at present. We hope you understand that this is why we are unable to respond within our normal service times.

We will of course respond as soon as we can, but in the meantime ask you not to contact us further and apologise if you do experience further delay. For full details of our complaints process please visit: https://www.bbc.co.uk/contact/how-we-handle-your-complaint.

Thank you for contacting us - we appreciate your patience in waiting for our response.

Kind regards

BBC Complaints Team
www.bbc.co.uk/complaints 

NB This is sent from an outgoing account only which is not monitored. You cannot reply to this email address but if necessary please contact us via our webform quoting any case number we provided.



15 September 2021.  Reply from the BBC.  Reference CAS-6901896-T7T1W1


Dear Dr Ling,

Thank you for contacting us about Woman's Hour, broadcast 3 September.

Thank you for your comments, which we've shared with the programme team. In our interview the journalist gave a summary of events so far, which was factual and explained the point of view from both sides. She was not representing one side or the other. The guest from Planned Parenthood, was the right guest as her ‘side’ had just ‘lost’ and she was talking about the impact on women as a consequence of the ruling.

Woman's Hour made no judgement on whether this was a good or bad thing. We explained the sequence of events in America for non -specialist audiences here, and explored the impact of the ruling on women in Texas. This was not an item about whether or not this law SHOULD be changed, but an exploration of the event and the impact of it.

The process by which this law came about is hugely controversial in Texas and across the USA, so the item was not just about the outcome but the due process – that many think is not democratic.

When it comes to due impartiality, our approach is not about a mathematical balance across the board. Instead, the approach we take depends on the context of the report, the programme and the editorial focus of the piece. Our editorial guidelines explain:

"Due impartiality usually involves more than a simple matter of ‘balance’ between opposing viewpoints. We must be inclusive, considering the broad perspective and ensuring that the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected.

We are committed to reflecting a wide range of subject matter and perspectives across our output as a whole and over an appropriate timeframe so that no significant strand of thought is under-represented or omitted.

In applying due impartiality to news, we give due weight to events, opinion and the main strands of argument. We may produce content about any subject, at any point on the spectrum of debate, as long as there are good editorial reasons for doing so".

We hope this goes some way in addressing your concerns and once again, thanks for taking the time to contact us.

Kind Regards
Hollie Bann

BBC Complaints Team
www.bbc.co.uk/complaints


20 September 2021.  Part Two of my Skirmish with the BBC.

 

Thank you for responding to my complaint about the Woman's Hour, broadcast 3 September, Case Number CAS-6901896-T7T1W1.

 

However, I consider your response woefully inadequate.

 

Of course, I understand that, ‘When it comes to due impartiality, our approach is not about a mathematical balance across the board.’  Nevertheless, on such a controversial issue as abortion, you invited two American pundits who were, by both conviction and profession, robustly pro-abortion.  In addition, the Woman’s Hour presenter was, by any measure, also pro-abortion and disapproving of the Texas law.  OK, so your remit might not be ‘a mathematical balance’, but 3 – 0 is indisputably one sided.  And you could so easily have made it 2 – 1, or even 2 – 2, by inviting pro-life commentators from the USA or UK.  But you purposefully decided not to.  I cannot comprehend how your approach on this broadcast satisfied the BBC policy that, ‘We must be inclusive, considering the broad perspective and ensuring that the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected.’  ‘Inclusive’, ‘perspective’, ‘range’ and ‘reflected’ were nowhere to be heard.

 

In other words, it is beyond cavil that the BBC took a strongly biased view of this controversial topic.  If, for example, you were to produce a program on Covid-19 and anti-vaxxers, would you seriously not invite a medical or scientific spokesperson to counter the misinformation and myths of the anti-vaxxers?  Would you allow anti-vaxxers to go unchallenged?  Of course not.  Or is the BBC riddled with conspiracy theorists and their like?

 

And finally, for my own interest, just how many other complaints did the BBC receive about this 3 September broadcast on the Texas law?

 

Yours,

 

            John R. Ling.


28 September 2021.  Another interim reply from the BBC.  Your Reference CAS-6901896-T7T1W1 


Thank you for taking time to contact us again recently. Please do not reply to this automated email: it is from an outgoing address which cannot handle replies.

This is to inform you that although we normally aim to investigate and reply at this next stage of the complaints service within 20 working days (around four weeks), we are currently dealing with a higher than normal volume of cases. This means it will take a little longer to reply to you at present. We hope you understand that this is why we are unable to respond within our normal service times. We will of course do so as soon as we can, but in the meantime ask you not to contact us further and apologise if you experience further delay.

For full details of our complaints process please visit: https://www.bbc.co.uk/contact/how-we-handle-your-complaint.

In the meantime thank you again for contacting us and we appreciate your patience.

Kind regards

BBC Complaints Team
www.bbc.co.uk/complaints


1 October 2021.  Second reply from the BBC  Reference CAS-6901896-T7T1W1 

Dear Dr Ling

Thank you for taking the time to contact us again about Woman's Hour on Sept 3. We’re sorry to learn that you weren’t satisfied with our earlier response.

It's not reliable to compare one topic with another when it comes to due impartiality. The context is key, and the editorial focus and remit of a programme will have more bearing on how an item is handled with 'due' impartiality than anything else.
 
We would not agree however, that on this instance the host was expressing any personal view or siding with the guests in their stance. We believe Anita scrutinised and challenged their points appropriately, in line with the aim of the item - which was not on the fundamental argument of the rights and wrongs of abortion, but on recent developments in legislation and the removal of what had previously been an approved healthcare service on its people.

The enforcement mechanism here was described as 'really unique' and the unique nature of the State law, and its application, were the focus. We heard how since 1973, there was a long-standing and concerted effort to reverse the policy of legalised abortion across the States. The steady progress of groups opposed to abortion was covered, especially the advances made under President Trump's tenure and the popularity of that movement among his supporters, and the many conservative and religious voters. It was made clear that states had the ability to restrict abortion, but that there remained a constitutional right for women to receive it, hence the treatment of these events as a new development of the legal precedent. As Anita said at the end, we’re sure to return to the issue, and keep listeners abreast of further developments.

We feel it was very clear to the audience that there were two distinct sides who had very different views about the ruling. We disagree that Woman’s Hour treated this ruling as a ‘negative thing’. In fact we examined impact of the ruling on both sides whilst acknowledging that it was a controversial ruling - both in process and result.

We produce complaints figures as required by Ofcom, when we receive a specified number. However, we don't report numbers when they fall short of that, and it is not a reliable indication of whether there has been a breach of editorial guidelines. While volume can be one indication, we look carefully at the feedback and perception, even when we receive only a handful of complaints - and we look at the overall range of feedback when it comes to claims of bias. 

This concludes Stage 1 of our complaints process. That means we can’t correspond with you further here. If you remain unhappy, you can now contact the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit (ECU). The ECU is Stage 2 of the BBC’s complaints process. You’ll need to explain why you think there’s a potential breach of standards, or if the issue is significant and should still be investigated. Please do so within 20 working days of this reply.

Full details of how we handle complaints are available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/handle-complaint/.

How to contact the ECU:

We’ve provided a unique link for you in this email. This will open up further information about how to submit your complaint. You’ll be asked for the case reference number we’ve provided in this reply. Once you’ve used the link and submitted your complaint, the link will no longer work.

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Kind regards

BBC Complaints Team
www.bbc.co.uk/complaints


11 October 2021.  Submission to the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit (ECU).

I am assuming that all ECU members have ready access to the email correspondence concerning my Stage 1 complaints about the Woman’s Hour broadcast (Friday 3 September 2021), which carried a segment on the new Texas abortion law.

I have since studied the BBC’s stance on impartiality as set out in Section 4 of its Editorial Guidelines.  Frankly, I consider they substantially strengthen my case.  In other words, I think that the BBC’s overall response to my complaints remains woefully inadequate.

The Editorial Guidelines support this contention.  For example, Section 4.1 states, ‘We are committed to reflecting a wide range of subject matter and perspectives … so that no significant strand of thought is under-represented or omitted.’  Since the issue of abortion is undoubtedly controversial, Section 4.3.4 ‘Controversial Subjects’ is especially relevant.  Section 4.3.6 states, ‘When dealing with “controversial subjects”, we must ensure a wide range of significant views and perspectives are given due weight and prominence, particularly when the controversy is active.  Opinion should be clearly distinguished from fact.’

Of the several facets to my original complaints, there is but one outstanding feature, namely that the broadcast was seriously one-sided.  After all, abortion is among the most obviously contentious and two-sided issues of our day.  Therefore the broadcast was likely to threaten the BBC’s impartiality policy.  As indeed, in the event, it did.

The broadcast’s one-sided agenda is exemplified by the two guest speakers from the USA, who were, by both conviction and profession, robustly pro-abortion and vehemently opposed to the Texas law.  As a consequence, the BBC’s principal shortcoming amounted to its failure to invite a speaker from the pro-life constituency, someone, anyone, who was in favour of this Texas law.  This is nothing to do with the rights and wrongs of abortion.  This is nothing to do with equality of airtime.  This is all to do with presenting the issue in context, namely a novel and radical law, democratically approved, which has enraged one section of the American public while also delighting another section.  Hence the topic is ethical, medical, legal and political dynamite.  Yet the Woman’s Hour programme ducked the nub of the issue by failing/refusing to invite the other side.

The programme could so easily have been enhanced and become more compliant with the Editorial Guidelines, by this one simple, cheap move – summon the opposition.  Why was not a spokesperson in favour of the Texas regulations invited?  It could have been a medical expert to defend the 6-week issue, or a legal authority to explain the regulatory concerns, or a politician to answer the accusations of misgovernment, or someone from Texas Right to Life, as referenced by the programme’s women.  That would have transformed a rather forlorn, one-side broadcast into a wholly impartial programme that would have been truly instructive, thought-provoking and fascinating to hear.

As it turned out, the guest speakers, with their provocative pro-abortion perspective, went unchallenged.  Therefore, the audience, faced with these one-sided answers, was left dangling.  ‘Why are we seeing such a restrictive law?’  ‘Who has been pushing for this law?’  These were among the questions raised by the presenter that demanded answers from those who are staunch supporters of the Texas law change.  So, where were these very movers and shakers?  Obviously not on this biased programme.  Why?  Because the Woman’s Hour production team had failed/refused to call them to come to the table.  Surely, at this point, the integrity of the broadcast had become debased and the BBC’s policy of impartiality had become spoiled.

Yet the prescriptions of the Editorial Guidelines are even more stringent.  Particularly while this Texan ‘controversy is active’ why was the ‘wide range of significant views and perspectives’ not presented?  Certainly, the input from the two guests did not satisfy this Section 4 criterion.  Furthermore, the Guidelines state, ‘We must always scrutinise arguments, question consensus and hold power to account with consistency and due impartiality.  Where our content highlights issues on which others campaign, we must take care not to endorse those campaigns, or allow ourselves to be used to campaign to change public policy.  But this should not prevent us highlighting issues and offering our audiences choices about how to confront them.’  This is robust stuff.

Did the BBC even consider inviting a speaker to present the opposing ‘significant views and perspectives’?  If that had been on the agenda, then the BBC could easily have approached numerous doctors, lawyers, politicians and others from either the US or the UK.

So what were the ‘good editorial reasons for [not] doing so’?  Where was this programme ‘highlighting issues and offering our audiences choices about how to confront them’?  The Guidelines are laudable, but when the rubber hit the Woman’s Hour road, they evidently disappeared into a mirage of bias.

There can be no doubt that impartiality is a complex affair and one that is difficult to maintain.  The BBC knows that full well.  However, on 3 September, the BBC committed a serious error in its Woman’s Hour broadcast, which was unquestionably one-sided, partial and biased.  Such a failing must not be allowed to happen again.



11 October 2021.  Interim reply from the BBC's Executive Complaints Unit (ECU).

Dear John Ling 

The ECU will investigate your complaint and aim to reply within 20 working days of receiving it, though some complaints take longer than others to investigate. A target of 35 working days applies to those complaints that require longer or more complex investigation.

Thank you again for contacting us,

BBC Complaints Team

www.bbc.co.uk/complaints 

Please note: this email is sent from an unmonitored address so please don’t reply. If necessary please contact us through our webform (please include your case reference number).


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