BBC journalists are to be sent on a compulsory training course about the European Union (EU) in an attempt to ensure impartiality ahead of Britain’s referendum.
BBC News director James Harding told parliament’s European scrutiny committee that all BBC reporters, including newsreaders, will be sent on the mandatory retraining course, and admitted the state broadcaster’s impartiality would be “tested” by the referendum.
The BBC has frequently faced accusations of pro-EU bias.
Just last month, Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin used on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to accuse the corporation of “cultural bias” in favour of the European Union, something strongly denied by presenter James Naughtie who called Jenkin’s complaint “tedious”.
Yesterday, Mr Harding told MPs: “We know this will be a period really of great scrutiny of our coverage, so our view is that we should reinstate mandatory training of all BBC journalists, so that they are as well-informed as possible of the issues around the workings of the institutions of the EU and its relationship to the UK.”
He also defended the BBC’s tendency to refer to the EU as “Europe”, a practice that has been slammed by UKIP leader Nigel Farage as “inaccurate” and “dishonest”.
Mr Farage wrote in an open letter:
“The Electoral Commission has suggested that the question be ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’
“I believe reporting should reflect this deliberate selection of words. The debate is not about whether Britain should remain in Europe, a geographic reality, but the European Union, a political construction.”
However, Mr Harding said: “My view is that we should try at all times to make the point that it’s the EU, but we’ve also got to accept that there will be conversational circumstances in which at the second, third, fourth reference people will use ‘Europe’ as shorthand. I think that as long as it’s clear and understood, that works.”
Meanwhile, The Telegraph also reports that David Jordan, the BBC’s director of editorial policy, confirmed drama and comedy shows will also be covered by impartiality rules.
The BBC’s comedy output has come in for particularly strong criticism, especially comedy shows on Radio 4, which face regular accusations of left-wing bias.
As polls begin to suggest rising support Brexit, Mr Harding also pledged that the BBC will give less coverage to opinion polls in the run-up to the referendum, after pollsters failed to predict the Conservative victory in this year’s General Election.
The government has yet to set a date for the referendum on Britain’s EU membership, but it will likely be held either next autumn or spring 2017.
“The BBC will work to ensure the public goes into the referendum full and fairly informed of the choice between them,” Mr Harding promised.