Despite qualifying for Einstein’s definition of insanity, the Countryside Alliance will continue to lobby Ofcom and the BBC for fair, impartial rural coverage until it gets the result we want
When Einstein said, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results,” he may well have been talking about the BBC complaint procedure and the Countryside Alliance’s involvement with it.
The Countryside Alliance have submitted several formal complaints to the BBC over the past half of a decade and supplied evidence to the BBC charter review in 2016, a process that resulted in the complaints process moving to Ofcom as an independent arbitrator. Our work to date has, unfortunately, made little headway, but that has not stopped us standing up for our members, supporters and the rural way of life and with the new Ofcom system in place, progress is possible.
The latest complaint, submitted in May, was based on biased coverage on BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today programme. Farming Today broadcasted an interview with the managing director of the British Game Alliance (BGA), the new organisation aimed at stimulating the game meat market and introducing enforceable standards into game shooting to give the consumer peace of mind that the game they are buying is sustainably sourced. Despite this being a good news story for the countryside and the rural economy, the interview was immediately followed by a response from an anti-shooting activist from the League Against Cruel Sports.
Within the complaint, the CA highlighted two serious concerns about this programme. Firstly, the segment on the BGA was the only one in which an opposing voice was heard. The other subjects covered in the programme were pig tail docking and neonicotinoid pesticides, both of which can be classed as more controversial than improved marketing and standards for game meat. Both of those subjects were addressed by one speaker, with no input from either animal rights activists or anti-pesticide campaigners.
Furthermore, having decided to find a dissenting voice to talk about the BGA, Farming Today chose to invite comment from an activist from an organisation that is fundamentally opposed to the existence of game shooting.
Our complaint highlighted the continued problems with rural coverage, the clear bias when dealing with shooting issues and, more generally, the widening disconnect between the BBC and rural communities.
The 2014 BBC Trust rural review found a “gulf in understanding between the BBC and a significant section of the rural community” and it appears the situation has only got worse in the last four years. The issue of the BBC is one that our members raise with us most often and with the most passion. The BBC’s charter required the corporation to represent all the communities of the United Kingdom, and yet it is very clear that a large proportion of the people in the countryside do not feel that the BBC reflects their lives.
Following the introduction of the new BBC Complaints Framework, the escalation of a formal complaint makes its way through various departments of the BBC before a complainant can take it to Ofcom for the final decision. In the 15 months it has been running, and following a couple of complaints, the Countryside Alliance has already seen holes in this procedure. We have raised these flaws at a meeting with Ofcom and we are currently submitting evidence into their review of the process.
The BBC needs to remember that it is both bigger and more important than the presenters and journalists it employs. It has a lengthy set of guidelines that allows it to maintain its impartiality, but it needs to ensure that those working for the company uphold these guidelines.
The guidelines should not be stretched for certain presenters because they have a higher presence on social media or have been working at the BBC for a long time. It does not matter if they are pro- or anti-shooting outside of their work, they cannot be allowed to use the BBC or their platform within the BBC to extol their personal views.
Einstein may call us insane for repeatedly submitting complaints, but the work by the Countryside Alliance is making inroads. It is necessary that the BBC and Ofcom are aware that the rural population is not content with their continual misrepresentation of the countryside and the lack of high quality programmes on rural issues.
And we will continue to bang the drum in calling for the BBC to live up to their own policies and guidelines and portray our countryside in an adequate manner for the millions that live, work
and enjoy this green and pleasant land.