Countryside Alliance Chief Executive Tim Bonner writes:
Following years of Countryside Alliance campaigning, we believe we are beginning to see an improvement in BBC coverage of rural issues. This is cause for celebration and congratulations to those in charge of the BBC’s countryside coverage, but yet another breach of impartiality rules by the Springwatch’s Chris Packham shows there is still much work to be done.
The Countryside Alliance has long campaigned for a BBC that is neutral on rural issues and reflects the interests of people in the countryside. This campaigning has taken many guises, but one cause we have been keen to champion is the implementation of the 2015 BBC Trust Impartiality Review, which looked specifically at rural coverage.
That Review made a number of recommendations, some of which remain unimplemented nearly four years later. One such finding became particularly relevant last year. The Review reported that “the BBC relied disproportionately on a small number of external bodies for input and comment,” and had a tendency to focus on conflicts or protests, turning all rural topics into a binary argument rather than helping listeners understand the subject at hand. So when the BBC’s Farming Today reported on the launch of a new game meat marketing board by interviewing anti-shooting activists, we pointed out that the BBC was still doing precisely what the Trust’s Impartiality Review had told them not to do. Shortly thereafter, the Alliance met representatives from Ofcom and contributed to their ‘thematic review of representation’, pointing to this failure to implement this element of the 2015 Impartiality Review.
Since then, we have noticed an improvement in the output of Farming Today and Countryfile. Farming Today hosted an entire week of interviews with gamekeepers, taking the time to understand the issues that drive their work. Then last Sunday, we saw some excellent coverage of the Invermark Estate gamekeepers. It is great to see some progress in this area, with real rural people taking air time that might once have been given over to debates between rival tribes of campaigners.
Unfortunately, as we make progress in some areas, we see that other issues remain unresolved. The campaigning of Chris Packham has long been a thorn in the side of BBC impartiality, as was acknowledged in the 2016 BBC Trust report. That report affirmed that Mr Packham must cease his campaigning two weeks before the commencement of any of the BBC Watches, and must then “desist from any public comment on potentially controversial subjects” until one week after the programmes are over.
The Alliance has consistently argued that these safeguards are worthless and archaic. We are well into this enforced period of campaign silence, and yet Mr Packham keeps a rant about foxhunting pinned to the top of his Twitter feed, so it is the first thing any visitor to his Twitter profile sees while he presents the BBC’s flagship wildlife programme. Worse still, with each passing series Mr Packham’s flouting of these guidelines becomes more brazen.
This past week, days before Winterwatch is about to begin, Radio Times published an interview with Chris Packham about the BBC programme. Mr Packham took this opportunity to comment on his anti-shooting campaigning, comments which were then repeated up by the Telegraph, Mail, Express and various online outlets.
The BBC guidelines, as stated in the 2016 report, make it clear that the restriction on campaigning around the Watches is to ensure that “his widely known personal views on subjects did not affect the output or impartiality of the Watches.” That report also found that the BBC must subject Mr Packham’s campaigning to regular and formal review. The BBC has refused repeated Freedom of Information requests that have asked whether these reviews are in fact taking place. If they are, then someone must be asking whether using a nationally-reported interview about BBC programming to promote a personal anti-shooting agenda, days before the programme airs, just might be affecting the perception of BBC impartiality.
Follow me at @CA_TimB