BBC Complaints: The link you need!

Thursday, 22 April 2010


This is a complaint I made to the BBC:

Throughout the general election 'Westminster Hour' is featuring Nick Watt of 'The Guardian' as one of its two main pundits, along with ex-Treasury advisor (until 2009) Prof Philip Cowley. As Mr Watt is an opponent of the Conservatives and Prof Cowley advised the Labour government, do you not think that this shows bias against the Conservative Party?

This is not new for 'Westminster Hour', which has featured few right-of-centre journalists since late last year but lots of left-of-centre ones.

I would have hoped that his pattern of bias would stop for the general election. It clearly hasn't. Please can a right-of-centre journalist replace Mr Watt for the remainder of the election? That would only be fair.

Here's their reply:

Dear Mr

Thanks for your e-mail regarding 'The Westminster Hour'.

'The Westminster Hour' is featuring Nick Watt during the election campaign but not as a 'left-of-centre' commentator. Nick isn't a commentator - he's a political reporter covering the campaign on a day to day basis and there's nothing to suggest that he is being biased against the Conservatives either in his reporting or in his comments on the programme. Indeed you have not provided any examples of occasions when you believe his reporting has been biased.

Similarly, you object to the programme featuring Professor Cowley because he has previously advised the Treasury. However, Government departments take on academics for short periods of time to give them specific advice about very narrowly-defined issues. Professor Cowley was not in any shape or form providing political advice during his time as a policy specialist.

Professor Cowley is a renowned expert on British politics who is trusted by all three main political parties and has regular contact with all of them.

He has also appeared on the programme many times in recent years and again there is no evidence to suggest that he is in any way biased against the Conservatives or in favour of Labour.

You also allege that the programme has only been using centre left journalists in recent months. I raised this issue with the Editor, who explained:

"To a large extent, it's horses for courses. For example, during the many occasions when there's been speculation that an attempt will be made within the Labour Party to remove Mr Brown from power, I've felt that a centre left commentator is usually better placed to comment because they tend to have very good contacts within the Labour Party. If it's a story about the Conservatives, I ask for comment from someone from the centre right. So, for example, when the Conservatives had their Spring conference we spoke to the political editor of the centre right Spectator magazine, James Forsyth. The Sunday before the election was called we spoke to a centre right commentator Iain Martin to ask him about his views of the Conservative strategy.

I should add that what I'm after more than anything else is quality. All the commentators, journalists and academics that I use have to be credible. They have reputations to protect. They want to get it right and provide accurate analysis and commentary."

I'd like to assure you that I've registered your comments on our audience log. This is the internal report of audience feedback which we compile daily for all programme makers and commissioning executives within the BBC, and also their senior management. It ensures that your points, and all other comments we receive, are circulated and considered across the BBC.

Thanks again for taking the time to contact us with your concerns.


Gemma McAleer
BBC Complaints

Yes, I think she's right about Prof Cowley. That's a good answer. I've doubtless done him a disservice.

I think she's wrong though about Nick Watt. It's true I didn't provide any evidence (as I was trying to be brief). I should have done. To say that he is only a 'reporter' and not a left-of-centre 'commentator', however, is absurd. Why do programmes like 'The Daily Politics' always set Mr Watt alongside a 'reporter' who might be considered right-of-centre? Because he is a left-of-centre 'reporter'/'commentator' and they clearly think it right to balance his opinions with someone from a contrasting perspective. Not 'Westminster Hour' though.
If you compare what I wrote with how Gemma re-writes what I wrote, you'll see that she has misrepresented my final point, turning it into a straw man:

I wrote: This is not new for 'Westminster Hour', which has featured few right-of-centre journalists since late last year but lots of left-of-centre ones.

She wrote: You also allege that the programme has only been using centre left journalists in recent months.
Earlier in the year I chronicled 4 months worth of such journalists and found Mr Forsyth (2 appearances) and Mr Martin (1 appearance) to be the only voices from the centre-right to act as the programme's 'all-seeing eyes'. Nick Watt, Kevin Maguire, Andrew Grice, Michael Savage and Toby Helm, all left-of-centre 'reporters', have dominated the programme's airwaves.

And, though the programme did indeed use Mr Forsyth for the Conservative Spring Conference (carefully chaperoned by Torysceptic Jean Eaglesham of the FT) and Mr Martin before the start of the election, it is hardly true to say "If it's a story about the Conservatives, I ask for comment from someone from the centre right." I have shown in some detail here how the programme has led again and again on stories that harm the Conservatives and it has not sought comment from someone from the centre right. For example, the 7/2 the programme opened with a discussion of the Conservative 'wobble' and whether their austerity message had been 'undermined', before moving on to discuss whether there had been a 'rowing back' on 'swingeing cuts'. Who was the chosen journalist? Nick Watt.
Time to reply.


  1. Yeah, I clocked how she'd misrepresented what you'd said. As much as one has a right to feel cynical about the Gemma McAleer's of this world, you still have to allow for the fact though it could have been an honest mistake. Given your objectivity, I'm sure you will.

    Let's see what she says to the wealth of evidence you have to provide to prove your point about a huge centre-left overbalance in guests. I'm sure if you threaten to send the evidence to David Cameron they'll be quaking in their boots (laughing in their socks more like!).

    Fortunately, as you're aware, there are other significant figures in the Conservative Party to send such complaints to who do not take the despicably craven attitude of their 'cuckoo in the nest' leader.

  2. Thanks for the comment. She was right about Prof Cowley! Just to confirm: I would have gone on secondment to Whitehall whatever party was in power.

  3. Thank you for your patience with me - a blogger who put 2 + 2 together and got 13!!


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