BBC statistics review – missing the point?

You may have missed it, but the BBC Trust is conducting a review of how the Corporation uses statistics in its news coverage, focusing on economics, welfare, migration and health – which pretty well covers the main domestic issues of controversy.  The Trust has called for submissions from interested organisations and individuals with specialist knowledge – notably not from the ordinary licence-paying listening and viewing public, who might be expected to have a view on such a key subject at a time when the BBC’s reputation as an impartial news organisation is somewhat tarnished.

Professor Simon Wren has already written a quietly devastating submission on how the BBC covers economic issues. He argues that on the big issues of deficit reduction the BBC’s selective use of statistics has effectively backed the Government’s narrative – he writes, among other things, that a failure to draw on the resource of the wider economic community meant that the view of financial sector economists on the need to reduce the deficit – which were quite different from those of the mainstream – dominated the BBC’s narrative.

Wren also describes how the message on health spending was distorted by using the wrong comparators – how, if you look at health spending as a proportion of GDP rather than a headline figure, it becomes obvious that spending has not been protected and the funding crises in the NHS are suddenly explicable. And that’s hugely political, because it goes to the heart of responsibility for the crisis.

To what extent is the use of statistics a symbol of a wider issue of selectivity?  I’d argue that there’s a serious problem of confirmation bias at the heart of BBC news gathering – they appear to pick the statistics that suit the story – along with an increasingly shallow approach to news that suits the voracious demands of rolling news for new content rather than the study of issues in depth.  Hence, for example, the fact that the pressure group Migration Watch, with its very clear political agenda, is routinely treated as a source of expert advice.

A review of how the BBC uses statistics is welcome.  But perhaps the wider issue is one of cheap, lazy journalism – you cannot take £50m and 200 posts out of a news organisation over two years without affecting quality.  In particular, the demand for constantly new content is a recipe for churnalism, in which corporate press information goes unchallenged and in which the usual suspects can easily be wheeled out for interview with minimal effort.  And that is before one considers the political pressure on the organisation and the predominance of political commentators – Nick Robinson, Andrew Neil, Andrew Marr – with roots on the right and centre-right, in many eyes undermining the BBC’s reputation for impartiality further.

The BBC needs to be thinking about rather more than the use of statistics.  And that is something in which all viewers and listeners have an interest, and deserve a voice.

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