Wednesday 1 February 2017

Shameless BBC bias

The BBC has been running what amounts to a campaign today. I have rarely made an official complaint but I decided to do so on this occasion. This is an extended version of what I said (the BBC complaints form limits the word count)...

Your coverage of the debate about whether to ban smoking and so-called 'junk food' in and around Welsh hospitals was in clear breach of the BBC's obligation to be impartial when covering controversial issues.

The report, which appeared on the BBC website on 1 February 2017 and was written by Rachel Flint, discussed BMA Cymru's call for smoking to be completely banned on NHS property outside hospitals, regardless of the wishes of the hospital manager. It also covered an additional demand from the National Obesity Forum for food that is high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) to be banned from sale in hospitals.

These are controversial issues that will affect many people, including staff and visitors, but the BBC makes no attempt to quote those who oppose either of these policies, nor does it make any attempt to discuss the negative consequences of these policies, such as the restriction of freedom, the restriction of choice and the cost of enforcement.

Dr Phil Banfield of the BMA and Mr Tam Fry of the National Obesity Forum are quoted at length without any contrary opinion being offered. It is unclear why the BMA (a trade union) and the National Obesity Forum (a tiny pressure group) merit unopposed media coverage.

I have no doubt that opposing views could have been found if the BBC had been inclined to find them. Indeed, it would be easy to find people who believe that the Welsh proposals go too far as they stand, let alone that they should not go any further.

It should also be noted that the term 'junk food' - which was used without quotation marks in the story's headline - is a campaigners' phrase that has no scientific definition. The proposed ban would actually affect food classified as HFSS, a broad category of food that includes many products that are not generally considered unhealthy, such as cheese. The implications of banning such a wide range of food products are not mentioned in the report.

The news report was accompanied by a video lasting 1 minute 45 seconds in which everybody interviewed was in favour of a total smoking ban on hospital grounds. Again, there was no opposing view, nor any hint that opposing views exist.

This news report was promoted throughout the day with tweets from BBC Wales News which were as one-sided as the article. Tweets included '"Everybody has the right to breathe fresh air" Bosses are worried about smoke drifting into wards', 'Should hospitals be "role models" for healthy living' and 'With junk food sold and bosses powerless to stop people smoking outside, are hospitals really "places of health"?'

The most extraordinary tweet was sent at 1.30pm and read 'Is it time to stub out the fags at hospitals for good - with no exceptions'. It was accompanied by a video that could easily be mistaken for a promotional film produced by anti-smoking campaigners. The video begins with the words 'A new law could finally BAN smoking at all Welsh hospitals'. The word 'finally' strongly implies that such a ban is overdue. This, of course, is opinion.

The video goes on to explain that a clause in the proposed law would allow smoking in designated areas. Given the endless difficulties experienced by hospitals that have attempted to enforce a total outdoor ban, many people would agree that designated smoking areas (away from the main entrance) are a reasonable solution that respect the rights of smokers and nonsmokers alike. Such people are not given a voice by the BBC, however. Instead the video cuts to a group of Year 8 school pupils who 'think it's time for a change'. They are pictured saying 'Please don't smoke outside our hospitals' in unison and the video ends with the (apparently rhetorical) question: 'Is it time to stub out smoking at hospitals for good?'

Nobody in the video makes the case for designated smoking areas (let alone for having no outdoor ban at all) and none of the arguments against the ban are mentioned. The use of children is the crudest form of propaganda. These children are too young to understand the issues involved and had clearly been prompted to say what they did.

This is just the latest in a long line of BBC stories about smoking, diet and alcohol that reveal an obvious bias towards regulation that many of us feel is heavy-handed, unnecessary and illiberal.

The BBC claims that: 'Impartiality lies at the heart of public service and is the core of the BBC's commitment to its audiences.' It says that its output 'must be inclusive, considering the broad perspective and ensuring the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected.' It rightly notes that the BBC Charter requires it to 'ensure controversial subjects are treated with due impartiality in our news and other output dealing with matters of public policy or political or industrial controversy.'

There is no hint of impartiality about the way it has covered this, and many similar, issues.


It seems that the BBC's Rachel Flint has a strong view about these things. Perhaps she should leave her opinions at home?

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