The 14 senior academics, from institutions including Glasgow University, Bath University and Kings College London wrote to James Harding, the director of BBC News, to ask for a meeting with senior management.
The group, which claims to represent “a breadth of personal political views”, are alarmed about the findings of a recent study which claimed BBC was among TV and online media that were “persistently biased” against Corbyn during the Shadow Cabinet resignations in June.
The study found the corporation gave twice as much airtime to Corbyn’s critics than his supporters on main evening news bulletins.
The Media Reform Coalition (MRC) report sparked a row between its chair Justin Schlosberg and the BBC, after the broadcaster called the Coalition a “vested interest group” and Schlosberg called the broadcaster “a mouthpiece for the right wing press”.
Schlosberg and four founders of the MRC are among the academics who have signed the letter, but the other nine claim not to be affiliated with the Coalition.
The letter, sent on August 2, said the coverage of Corbyn was not “in keeping with the spirit of the BBC’s impartiality commitments” and that “imbalances within main bulletin coverage cannot be offset by minority audience programmes.”
It claims the BBC’s editorial guidelines on impartiality are “vague” and “require clarification”, and asked for an urgent meeting to discuss them.
Media Reform Coalition co-founders Professor Angela Phillips, Professor Des Freedman, Professor Natalie Fenton and Professor James Curran, all from Goldsmiths, University of London have all signed the letter.
The list of unaffiliated academics who have signed, excluding two who did not wish to be named in connection with the letter, is:
- Professor Annabelle Sreberny (SOAS)
- Professor Graham Murdock (University of Loughborough)
- Professor David Hesmondhalgh (University of Leeds)
- Professor Greg Philo (Glasgow University)
- Professor David Miller (Bath University)
- Professor Bev Skeggs (Goldsmiths, University of London)
- Dr Martin Moore (Kings College, University of London)
The letter notes that although the research found BBC coverage to be more balanced online and in bulletins other than its flagship evening news, “we feel the BBC has a duty to exhibit balanced and impartial reporting within its main evening bulletins (which reach audiences several times that of other news programmes) and especially amidst such highly charged political controversies.”
“The BBC’s editorial guidelines (as well as the Broadcasting Code) are rather vague on this point and, we believe, require clarification. Imbalances within main bulletin coverage cannot be offset by minority audience programmes, or coverage over time, in a way that is in keeping with the spirit of the BBC’s impartiality commitments.
“Due weighting to the reach of programmes both in overall size and demographic mix must be taken into account, as well as to the particular need for caution when covering rapidly unfolding events in a major political controversy.”
“Given the critical nature of this on-going topic to the public interest, and the significant groundswell of concerns that have been raised in response to the BBC’s coverage, we would very much like the opportunity to meet with senior management from BBC News and Editorial Policy to discuss this.
“We do not necessarily expect our recommendations to be taken on board. But we do feel it is important, under the circumstances, that the BBC is seen to be engaging constructively with this research at this time.”
A reply from the BBC’s head of editorial standards Malcolm Balen, seen by The Huffington Post UK, said the News department “does not in fact respond to surveys or reports by outside agencies” as it receives so many that it cannot meet with authors of reports due to “practical necessity”.
The reply stated the BBC had “not adopted an official position” on the report.
Balen added that he thought Harding “would wish to discuss your report internally with his senior editor leaders given its contemporary relevance.”
On the point on editorial guidelines, he told the academics that he was “sure” that the BBC’s director of editorial policy, David Jordan, “will also reflect upon your thoughts and consider whether the guidelines need re-writing when next he comes to revise them.”
There have been repeated claims that the British media is unfair in its treatment of Corbyn.
In July this year an LSE report claimed only 11% of coverage of the Labour leader in national newspapers was positive and that he was “thoroughly delegitimised as a political actor from the moment he became a prominent candidate”.
Earlier research by the Coalition into press coverage of his first week as leader claimed newspapers “systematically undermined” him and 60% of coverage was negative.
Ex-BBC trust chairman Michael Lyons said in May that the broadcaster may be biased against Corbyn and there have been “extraordinary attacks” against him.
In January, Corbyn’s office complained about BBC coverage of an on-air resignation from the Labour party.
Schlosberg, an academic at Birkbeck, University of London, has since replied disputing the statement that the BBC has no “official position” on the report, pointing out it called his organisation a “vested interest group”.
He asks the BBC to “clarify as a matter of urgency whether the BBC stands by its initial response”, and if so “strongly urge the BBC to reconsider this position given the groundswell of legitimate concern that has been raised in relation to this issue over recent months. Such a position, in my view, threatens to undermine the very high levels of trust that the BBC currently enjoys compared to other media – particularly for younger viewers.”
“We do not expect an apology or even a direct response to our research,” he said. “That is partly why we gathered a number of signatories who were not involved in the research, or the Media Reform Coalition, but have nevertheless added their voice to the concerns raised. They do now, in my view, need a proper and reflexive response from the BBC.
“In particular, there needs to be an acknowledgement that the main BBC bulletins gave disproportionate airtime to critics of the Labour leadership during the attempted coup (a fact that can easily be verified internally if you do not wish to rely on or respond directly to our research), and that this raises legitimate questions as to whether the current editorial culture and guidelines are adequate amidst such acute political controversy”.
A second reply from Balen repeats the position and claims BBC News - as opposed to the BBC as a whole - “made no criticism” of the research and: “We had, and still have, absolutely no interest in making any.”