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BBC condemned for urban bias

The BBC is letting down many of its 12million rural viewers and relies too heavily on a small number of charities and NGOs for countryside stories, a BBC Trust review has found

The review, led by former civil servant Heather Hancock for the BBC Trust, also concluded that, while the broadcaster’s countryside coverage is generally free from party political bias, urban bias and a lack of contacts with expertise and experience of rural life does affect its content, especially when it comes to news and current affairs programmes at a network level.

One of the critical shortcomings highlighted is the BBC’s over-reliance on a small number of organisations as sources for stories and views, with the RSPB being singled out as the most used source.

In the report, Ms Hancock writes: “It is inappropriate for this one organisation [the RSPB] to have been the unprompted first response for all but three of the BBC programme makers or journalists to whom I spoke. There are many other bird and wildlife charities: the British Trust for Ornithology, for example, did not feature as a source in any of the material we reviewed.”

Ms Hancock also warned that BBC journalists must be wary of the underlying agendas of such organisations, saying: “the RSPB is both a source of expertise and a campaigning organisation and the BBC must be mindful that such bodies seek and benefit from publicity to build support and finance to their cause. This demands due challenge by BBC journalists, and a perceived lack of push-back or questioning has been very much noted by other organisations who want to contribute to the BBC on rural affairs.”

The NFU was also noted as featuring in a majority of farming stories, and the report concludes that participants in rural programming should be less stereotypical, with greater input from ordinary people at ground level – people who are “just farmers” – as opposed to spokesmen / women for associations. Organisations including the Countryside Alliance are picked out as possible facilitators to open up pathways for such contributions.

A further criticism is that coverage is skewed towards environmental subjects, with areas of economic and social importance for rural areas going unreported. This problem is worst at network level, and reporting is more representative at a national level in the devolved nations (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), as well as at regional and local levels. While rural issues are covered at a local level, the review finds that all too often they do not filter up to network level in England, leading to urban bias in news and current affairs programmes. The inclusion of celebrities in rural news stories was also criticised.

The review describes country sports, including shooting and hunting, as “an area of tension and deep conviction” and criticises the broadcaster for taking a “binary” approach to reporting and giving undue emphasis to stories of conflict and not enough airtime to explaining the facts behind the debates.

Ms Hancock highlights the increasing importance of balanced coverage of wildlife issues in rural areas, saying: “Aside from the specific field sports angle, I think this issue about country people’s relationship with wildlife will become more acute: possible Government action on the hunting ban; issues of population balance or control of grey squirrels, mink, deer; the re-wilding argument and discussions about reintroducing once-native species. All these have dimensions of the relationship between man and wildlife in the countryside.”

The report’s headline recommendations include broadening rural contact lists, re-establishing the post of rural affairs correspondent, appointing an individual with editorial control to champion rural affairs coverage across the BBC’s network, improving the transfer rate of rural stories from local to national news, and holding regular internal meetings.

The BBC has been asked to submit an oral report to the BBC Trust in six months time to assess its progress, followed by a written report in September 2015.