A BBC Complaint – The Resolution Foundation

fraser_article2On Friday February 5th this year, a story hit the headlines of BBC Scotland.  According to the broadcaster, an independent Think Tank had published a report which analysed the the effects of raising income tax in Scotland.

The report from the Resolution Foundation was very favourable to the Scottish Labour party.  Key conclusions of the report chimed with Scottish Labour claims regarding the party’s income tax proposals.  BBC Scotland saturated its news coverage that day with these conclusions.

Below are three clips which give a flavour of how Radio Scotland covered the report that day.  The clips are followed by the Reporting Scotland item as it appeared that evening.

Here’s a snippet of the kind of news bulletins BBC Scotland ran on Friday morning on Good Morning Scotland.

 

The news reports were a godsend to the Scottish Labour party.  According to BBC Scotland, Kezia Dugdale’s proposals could variously “reduce the impact of spending cuts”, “weigh most heavily on higher earners” and “boost the income” of the poorest.

The so-called ‘independent analysis’ was also covered online by Douglas Fraser in an article headlined Tax rise plan ‘could reduce cuts impact by a third’.  Fraser appeared on Good Morning Scotland explaining the findings of the ‘analysis’ to listeners.

 

The author of the report, it emerged, was Torsten Bell.  Torsten Bell is the current Director of the Resolution Foundation.  Below is his interview with Good Morning Scotland presenter Gary Robertson.

 

Below is how the report was covered on Reporting Scotland.

However all was not as the BBC was claiming.  It soon emerged that there was no report published by the Resolution Foundation.  What BBC Scotland was describing as an ‘independent report’ was in fact a personal blog written by Torsten Bell and published on the Resolution Foundation website.

There was more.  Until the 2010 General Election Torsten Bell had worked for Alistair Darling as a member of the Council of Economic Advisers in HM Treasury.  He later became Ed Miliband’s policy director.  The former advisor to senior Labour party figures was appointed Director of the Resolution Foundation in September 2015.

BBC Scotland had withheld both of these highly significant and relevant facts from the public.  A complaint was lodged that accused the broadcaster of a misleading and highly inaccurate broadcast.

On March 10th, after two futile attempts at getting BBC Scotland to acknowledge it had indeed misled the public and broadcast inaccurate information, the complaint was forwarded to the Editorial Complaints Unit [ECU] at the BBC.

Below, in bold, is the response from the ECU Complaint Director.  Comments from the complainant have been added in blue.  These comments form the basis of the complainants attempt to move the complaint to the next stage.  The complaint is still live.

The Resolution Foundation describes itself as “a non-partisan and award-winning thinktank that works to improve the living standards of those in Britain on low to middle incomes”. It has no affiliation to any particular political party, is funded by voluntary donation (principally from the Resolution Trust) and employs people from across the political spectrum; it therefore meets the generally accepted definition of politically independent.

This is irrelevant to my complaint.  However I shall deal with it anyway.

Torsten Bell’s predecessor at the Resolution Foundation was one Gavin Kelly.  Kelly joined the Resolution Foundation from No 10 Downing Street, where he worked as Deputy Chief of Staff to Gordon Brown.  Kelly had also been a member of Tony Blair’s policy unit.

Kelly himself had replaced Sue Regan who was the Resolution Foundation Director from 2005 to 2010.  Regan had been a Special Adviser to Labour MP David Blunkett at the Department for Work and Pensions.

The Resolution Foundation has been very closely associated with the UK Labour party, there is little doubt.  But the Torsten Bell ‘report’ wasn’t the first time the BBC had been criticised for presenting publications from the Resolution Foundation as politically neutral when the truth was far from the case.

In January 2013 the BBC ran a news item based on what the broadcaster said was an ‘independent’ report published by the Resolution Foundation.  The report highlighted the plight of the low paid if council tax bills were to go up.  The report’s author was Matthew Pennycook.

The report was seized on by the UK Labour party who used it to attack the ten per cent cut to council tax support which was being proposed by the Conservative led government.  The report coincided with the deadline for local authorities in England to submit their plans for changing council tax benefit.

However what the BBC failed to reveal was that, at the time of the report, Matthew Pennycook was a fully paid up member of the Labour Party.  Mr Pennycook was also the Vice Chairman of Greenwich & Woolwich Labour Party, as well as a local councillor.  Pennycook is now the Labour MP for Greenwich & Woolwich.

There have also been claims that researchers and analysts from the Resolution Foundation worked in Number 10 under the previous Labour administration.

As I say, the political ‘neutrality’ of the Resolution Foundation is irrelevant to my complaint, chiefly because my complaint deals with a personal blog and not a report published by the Resolution Foundation.

I note you have drawn attention to the fact the Director of the Foundation, Torsten Bell, previously worked for the former Labour leader but I also note, for example, that the Executive Chair, David Willetts, was a minister for four years under David Cameron and served in John Major’s Government. That would appear to indicate a cross-party workforce and rebut your assertion of a lack of independence.

You are misrepresenting my complaint.  Notwithstanding the very clear evidence that the Resolution Foundation has strong links to the Labour party, my complaint has nothing to do with the independence [or otherwise] of the Resolution Foundation.  I have complained that a personal blog has been misleadingly described as a Resolution Foundation ‘report’ by BBC Scotland.  On other BBC broadcasts this blog has been described as ‘independent analysis’ and an ‘independent report’ published by the Resolution Foundation.

I would also suggest that anything published on the Foundation’s website can reasonably be taken as something which the organisation is prepared to endorse or with which it is prepared to be associated, regardless of the particular author or their previous employment background.

The organisation may well wish to be associated with a personal blog on its own site.  Whether it endorses the contents of the blog cannot be taken as read, given there is at least one former Conservative minister on the board.  However, even if every member of the Resolution Foundation agrees with everything Torsten Bell said on his personal blog, it is still irrelevant.

A brief review of the “Media>Blog” section of the Resolution Foundation website shows numerous authors have contributed “blogs” on a wide range of subjects and there is nothing to suggest these are intended to be read as purely personal opinion pieces.

This is a ridiculous statement.  Blogs are indeed personal opinion pieces.  The name ‘Blog’ derives from the term ‘Web Log’.  A web log is a de-facto online diary.  It contains the personal views, experiences and/or opinions of an individual.

I would add that Mr Bell’s blog actually presented a range of views on the impact of raising income tax rates in Scotland and sought to present “three hard facts about the proposals that can improve the quality of debate – whichever side you come from”. I do not share your view it was “supportive of claims made by the Labour party in Scotland”.

 

I note he concluded as follows:

Scottish political parties have set out more concrete proposals for tax changes in the run up to May’s election than we have seen in any previous Scottish election. Now is the time for those proposals to be tested and debated. Indeed one of the benefits of proposals being set out now is that the debate can take place before the election rather than after it.

Advocates of Scottish Labour’s plans to raise income tax and reduce spending cuts can correctly argue that the proposals would raise money and do it in a progressive way. But those opposed may argue that there are even more progressive ways to bring in revenue, that the plans will still take money from middle earners pockets, or that cutting spending is the right thing to do in the first place. Let the debate commence.

Here is the headline on the BBC Scotland online article published that day: ‘Tax rise plan could reduce cuts impact by a third

Here is the intro to the item on Reporting Scotland: “Raising income tax in Scotland could reduce the impact of spending cuts and would weigh most heavily on higher earners, that’s according to an independent report.  Both Labour and the Lib Dems have called for a tax rise in April when new powers are handed to Holyrood.

These claims echoed the pre-election campaign line from the Scottish Labour party at the time.  Scottish Labour claimed that their tax plans reduce cuts to public services and reduced austerity.  The party claimed their proposals were progressive, would hit the highest earners and would increase the income of those on the lowest pay.  Scottish Labour also argued that basic rate income tax payers will also have to pay more.

To claim that the blog and its subsequent coverage on BBC Scotland was not supportive of claims made by the Labour party in Scotland defies logic.  Indeed I am genuinely shocked that you can even attempt to make such a claim given the broadcasts that demonstrate the contrary.

I also include links to four separate BBC Scotland broadcasts from that day which make perfectly clear the BBC was presenting the blog as being sympathetic to Scottish Labour claims.  Torsten Bell is actually interviewed in one of the clips where he not only endorses the claims being made by Scottish Labour, but challenges the claims being made by their main political rival, the SNP.

The fact the Reporting Scotland report included a contribution from David Finch, the Foundation’s Senior Economic Analyst, would appear to support my understanding the Resolution Foundation was prepared to endorse Mr Bell’s “blog” and it should be considered as rather more than a personal opinion.

It would not appear to support your understanding.  What it would suggest is that David Finch agrees with Mr Bell on the areas he directly commented on.  Mr Finch of course worked at the Department for Work and Pensions for eight years under the last Labour government where he authored and contributed to several reports.  His writing is decidedly left wing.  Again though, whether Mr Finch agrees with Mr Bell is is not the point.  A personal opinion is just that, regardless of who may, or may not agree with it.

Finally, I take your point Mr Bell’s article was described by the BBC as “an independent report” (my emphasis) but in order for me to regard the use of this word as a breach of the BBC’s editorial standards I would have to consider the description to be materially misleading and likely to leave viewers with a seriously inaccurate impression of the status of the article or its contents

I have explained why I believe the Resolution Foundation can reasonably be described as politically independent and why I think the content of the article can reasonably be regarded as the published view of the organisation. In that context, the use of the word “report” as opposed to “blog”, “article” or “view” (or some other similar description) was unlikely to have any significant effect on the audience’s understanding of its status or the weight that should be afforded to it.

The complaint comprises not one, but two directly linked elements, neither of which relate to the ‘independence’ of the Resolution Foundation.  You are free to believe that the organisation is politically independent if you wish.  It is completely irrelevant.

You have already conceded one part of my complaint – there was no published report, only a blog.  The second part is crucial.  Did the BBC cause more weight to be afforded a blog [and thus the public to be misled] by withholding the political background of the blog author?

The issue is whether Torsten Bell’s very senior role within the Labour party should have been made clear by BBC Scotland. Was it appropriate for BBC Scotland to describe a personal blog as an ‘independent report’ and ‘independent analysis’?

Thus, the questions you have to ask yourself is this: Would a blog written by Ed Miliband’s former policy advisor have carried the same weight as an official report published by an independent organisation?  Did this failure to fully inform the viewers and listeners lead to the blog being afforded more weight than it ought to have done?

Correspondence ends … for now.

This complaint will likely take months to conclude.  I don’t expect it to succeed.  What does this say about the BBC?

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NOTICE: This week saw the launch of a ‘final push’ appeal to help complete the documentary based on my book ‘How the BBC stole the Referendum’.  Donations to the appeal can be made by clicking here.

 

 

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