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BBC admits errors in TaxPayers’ Alliance reporting

In a recent post we asked who would be the first journalist to quote the TaxPayers’ Alliance and its “partners” – the Drivers’ Alliance and Big Brother Watch – in the same story?

The bad news is that the BBC almost won the accolade, scoring two out of three for its report, “Drivers ‘losing out’ to railways”. The good news is that an Other TPA member complained and received the following reply from BBC News Interactive UK Editor Pat Heery:

“I accept your point that we should have picked up on the link between the two alliances we quoted in our story. But, while the Taxpayers Alliance can be accused of many things, this was a legitimate report, carrying a rebuttal from another voice.

“I do not think that all Taxpayers Alliance stories have to be balanced by comments from The Other Taxpayers Alliance. However I have asked staff to avoid reporting stories which are generated solely by the Taxpayers Alliance and, where we do quote them, that we supply some context as to who they are.”

This is a big improvement on previous BBC replies, which have tended to be defensive or noncommittal. For example, here’s one from May:

“The Taxpayers’ Alliance is, as you imply, broadly right-wing in that it advocates lower taxes and concomitantly reduced social spending.  But in this case, they were not making a partisan point; they were talking about all politicians, arguing that public pressure had played a crucial role in the expenses story and observing that the public had realised that it could exert significant pressure on the establishment.

“The Taxpayers’ Alliance have been used reasonably regularly by BBC News on issues around taxation and public spending. If they had been making a partisan point on this occasion then it would have been incumbent on us to explain more about their standpoint, but in essence they were speaking as a pressure group who were critical of all parties.”

And here’s another from last December:

“We may not express a corporate opinion on matters of public policy (other than broadcasting) and are publicly committed to approaching controversial matters impartially. That does not mean that we merely provide a platform for others to express their views without those views being tested on behalf of our audience. We seek to ensure that, over a period, all sides of any public debate are explored and explained, so that viewers and listeners can be better informed in coming to their own judgement of events.

“I can assure you that your complaint has been registered on our audience log. This is a daily report of audience feedback that’s circulated to many BBC staff, including members of the BBC Executive Board, channel controllers and other senior managers.”

So it’s good to hear the BBC will now “supply some context as to who they are” when they quote the TPA. And I won’t quibble with Pat Heery’s remark that “[not] all Taxpayers Alliance stories have to be balanced by comments from The Other Taxpayers Alliance” – if only because our part-time and volunteer nature means we aren’t in a position to rebut everything that needs rebutting. But the onus remains on the BBC to balance TPA statements with other voices – and in the case of the roads vs rail report, the corporation should have quoted an environmental group like Friends of the Earth rather than just rail lobbyists Greengauge21.

As the TPA would say, it’s our licence money – so if you see an example of biased or credulous reporting, complain to www.bbc.co.uk/complaints and let us know the outcome.

Posted by Other TPA at 02:06pm on 6 November 2009
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