UK Politics

Hall defends BBC's European coverage amid MPs criticism

BBC director-general Tony Hall
Image caption Lord Hall said the BBC was the only media outlet showing daily coverage from Brussels

The head of the BBC has defended its coverage of European issues in the face of suggestions from MPs that it is "not as impartial as it should be".

Lord Hall said the desire for balanced output "ran deep" within the BBC and he believed that this was being achieved.

He told the European Security Committee it was the BBC's task to offer context and constantly seek out "new voices".

But Conservative MP Sir Bill Cash said the broadcaster must explain the issue of "who governs Britain" more simply.

Answering questions from MPs, Lord Hall said the BBC took its coverage of European issues "very seriously", citing the breadth of coverage of proceedings in Brussels and Strasbourg on BBC Parliament, the Daily Politics and the Democracy Live website.

'Equal balance'

Sir Bill, who chairs the committee, said there needed to be a "complete and equal balance" in the BBC's output in the terms of the airtime given to those who supported further integration within the European Union and those who opposed it.

He said there was a "widespread perception" that the BBC had "a rather pro-European bias" and that this needed to be addressed.

Image caption Sir Bill Cash questioned the BBC's impartiality when it came to reporting European issues

"Don't you think, to put it bluntly, that there are many people who think that the BBC is in fact not as impartial as it should be in the manner it deals with these voices and diffused views?

"When it comes to the simple question 'who governs Britain' and the whole relationship of ourselves and the EU, that these are things that can be explained simply but in the interests of the public as a whole... that you have an absolute duty to make certain that as editor-in-chief that, when programmes go out, there is a structure that the viewer and listener gets a properly balanced view."

Lord Hall said the duty to ensure balanced, impartial output "ran very deep within the organisation". "You look to editors and others to ensure that you do that and I believe they do over time," he said.

'Complicated'

But he said there was not necessarily a "yes-no" answer when it came to public attitudes over how powers were shared between the European Union and member states and the debate was a "bit more complicated" than was being suggested.

"Our job is to ensure we are impartial and reflect all sides of an argument," he said.

"There are those who might say 'on this particular issue less integration and on this issue more integration' and we have to make sure we are reflecting all those views across all of our output."

Lord Hall rejected suggestions from Labour MP Geraint Davies that the BBC was partly responsible for the "widespread ignorance" of European issues among the public, saying its duty was to educate and inform the public about Europe and its institutions.

Sir Bill suggested that Lord Hall had been reluctant to appear before the committee and had turned down three invitations before being "formally summoned" to give evidence.

"Had you had refused again, I can assure you that there would have been a motion in the House of Commons calling for your resignation as director general," he said.

'Not dragged'

Lord Hall said parliamentary committees had an "absolute right" to scrutinise the BBC, its use of public money and its compliance with its obligations under the Royal Charter - and he had appeared before two other committees in his 22 months in the job.

But in deliberating whether to appear, he said he had to weigh this up against his duty to uphold the editorial independence of the BBC and to maintain public confidence that it was not being influenced by political pressure over its daily journalistic decisions.

"I don't think I have been dragged here to be honest. I don't understand that verb".

He added: "There is no other influence on me other than the correspondence that I have had with you and my own conversations with one or two people in the BBC about the right answer to it. The right answer is that I am here now."

Also giving evidence, the BBC's director of news James Harding said if the public was going to trust the BBC to be independent and report on politicians impartially it had to be clear that its journalists weren't "asked by politicians to come and account for what they do and in effect do the bidding of those politicians".

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