Huw Merriman is Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary BBC Group, and is MP for Bexhill and Battle.
In the two years since I became an MP, much has changed in our political landscape, but the arguments emanating from all sides of Parliament about perceived BBC bias have remained constant. The first to call this tune during this term was the SNP, elected en masse in Scotland, and using Parliament as a platform to blame the corporation for its loss in the Scottish election referendum. During the EU referendum, both sides of the argument saw it as their right to fire shots across the bows of the BBC. Most recently, a group of 70 MPs has written to the its Director General with a charge sheet which ranges from a lack of positive news following the vote to leave the EU to misrepresenting the country as xenophobic.
With the advent of a 24/7 media machine, where strong opinions count, the need for the corporation to deliver balanced output has never been greater nor more challenging to deliver. As my colleagues point out, licence fee-payers have a right to expect the highest standards of the BBC.
Equally, there is a danger that those of us with strong opinions (and this tends to include most Members of Parliament by default), are not always the best judges of balance. Having opted not to campaign for either side of the EU argument in favour of chairing and speaking in balanced debates, I have always seen both sides of the EU coin.
Having voted to Remain in the EU, but believing that the referendum result presents an incredibly powerful and exciting cause for optimism, as well as a set of challenges, I continue to keep an ear out for all arguments. I believe that the BBC delivers this range of debate, and also believe that I can hear it all, because I do not naturally react to a particular side which causes me to take umbrage.
This isn’t to say that I do not suffer from the same difficulty over matters which do grip my sense of outrage. Ask me if there are too many voices on the corporation calling for the removal of Arsene Wenger as Arsenal’s manager, or failing to debunk the myth that the strikes on Southern Rail are unjustifiable, and I will submit that there are. Those of a less passionate disposition on these two issues than I will perhaps say that the BBC’s broadcasting on these matters is balanced.
Ultimately, and as with any citizen, politicians have a right to call for the corporation to be held to account if they feel that there is a slant to be corrected. An open and confident BBC should always use these calls as an internal audit on its duty to uphold impartiality and deliver balanced output. Ultimately, as with the EU referendum, the people will decide. If the corporation is not delivering a balanced appraisal of national events, then viewers and listeners will switch off. That the public are not so doing suggests that somewhere between the two cases on Europe, as with other contentious matters it deals with, the corporation is getting it about right.
The BBC’s objective of balanced reporting gives it the legitimacy to continue to operate via a unique funding formula which, were it to be suggested today, would be rejected as uncommercial. But as history shows us, great ideas and institutions were born in the past. Where else on this plane can you get such an enormous range of broadcasting output for 40p per day? As consumers, we all have the right to make our views known. However, I worry that MPs judging the BBC’s impartiality is somewhat akin to asking Sir Alex Ferguson to referee a home game at Old Trafford.