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BBC London and the mayoral campaign

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Mike Macfarlane | 16:46 UK time, Monday, 28 May 2012

Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson

Local politics is the lifeblood of our democracy. In a big city like London it's also big political business, responsible for issues like transport and policing that affect millions of lives.

Local politics in the capital, like its national big brother, can be a tough old business. Nowhere does this apply more than in the political rough and tumble around the London Mayor and the city's assembly. To add to the mix, the two mayors to win so far are politicians with a strong national profile in their respective parties, and a sometimes tricky relationship with their respective leaders.

In these circumstances it is the job of the BBC to analyse as impartially as possible what is going on - and that can ruffle feathers.

The Guardian on Monday carried a story about how Guto Harri, the recently departed director of communications for Boris Johnson, tried to influence the screening of an interview on the Politics Show with the Mayor's biographer Sonia Purnell.

It is part and parcel of any political campaigning that the BBC comes under pressure from one side or another about their treatment, and Mr Harri's intervention was by no means unusual. It's pressure we resisted robustly at the time.

BBC London is not alone in focussing on the details of London politics, but we do have a responsibility to try to get it right. Boris Johnson is a larger than life character who is viewed by some of the papers, and some in his party, as a potential leader-in-waiting. He attracts acres of coverage in the national media, little of which concerns the detail of his day job. This means that BBC London sometimes finds that it is asking uncomfortable questions that go into a level of detail that the mayor and his advisers, like many other politicians, may find inconvenient.

It was one such question - a perfectly legitimate inquiry about the approach Mr Johnson took to commercial sponsorship - which caused the mayor to use the F-word on air about our political editor Tim Donovan.

Donovan was asking the question not because he had a hidden political agenda but because he rightly believed it was a matter of genuine public interest. The commercial deal in question happened to involve News International at a time when that that company's activities were coming under increasing police scrutiny. The mayor has to ride many horses: as well as batting for the city, he is charged with holding the Metropolitan Police to account.

Equally, Ms Purnell's biography raised some pertinent points about the mayor's style and when it was published last October it was reasonable to offer her an interview on the regional section of the Politics Show.

But it is ridiculous to suggest that BBC London takes a view one way or the other about which politician holds the mayoralty. We asked tough questions of Ken Livingstone during his term in office, many of which he didn't like either. That does not mean it was wrong to ask them. As you would expect of a political editor, Donovan broke a number of stories (including the existence of Ken Livingstone's three additional children, and allegations of corruption against one of his aides) that the Livingstone team would have preferred did not see the light of day.

Our audience research suggests that the BBC is the most trusted of all sources news and that trust - which we value above all else - is born from being independent, impartial and accurate.

The BBC is owned by all its viewers, listeners and online readers. Their opinions cover the whole political spectrum and BBC News has a duty to pose the questions they want answering. Politicians are passionate and for the most part honest public servants.

But those who represent political parties have, almost by definition, the most committed point of view, and it is they who tend to shout loudest when confronted with the reality of impartiality.

Mike Macfarlane is head of BBC London.


  • Comment number 1.

    'You are 3709 characters over the limit for this comment'

    Yours runs to 3839. Like most else from the BBC 'we want your views' stable, until you decide on a level playing field, you are best left in the bubble of your own delusions.

    'they who tend to shout loudest when confronted with the reality of impartiality' often are those controlling the mic & broadcast system.

  • Comment number 2.

    ''The BBC is owned by all its viewers, listeners and online readers.''

    No its not, its owned by those on twitter, closely followed by those on facebook.

  • Comment number 3.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 4.

    "Many complaints with evidence of bias & twisted reporting and non-reporting of main events were presented to ECU but seems no action."

    Standards were maintained, it would seem.

  • Comment number 5.

    I'm sorry. Complete, general impartiality is impossible. An implicit assumption of norms is always made, and people are entitled to disagree about whether these are proper.

    The BBC's repeated claim to be "100% good and pure" in this regard is as silly as it is pompous and patronising.

    French broadcasts often have acknowledged left and right wing commentators whose positions are known.

  • Comment number 6.

    True Statement: "Our audience research suggests that the BBC is the most trusted of all sources news..." That, in my opinion, should read: more independent, more impartial, and more accurate than the opposition, but not always unbiased.
    BBC can be biased; this bias can interfere with pure honour-ability when reporting on such topics as Israel, Syria, & protecting the hind-end of the USA.

  • Comment number 7.

    "The BBC is owned by all its viewers, listeners and online readers."

    Really? Then why did I have to buy a those Dr Who dvds if I already owned them?

  • Comment number 8.

    " BBC is the most trusted etc. " You must be joking, the BBC has now become a clone of the worst of independent television celebrity opinion pushing . In addition, political correctness has taken over from truth in many cases, and sometimes, to get a balanced view of news means going to alternative sites where there is no anti British or diversity axe to grind.

  • Comment number 9.

    As for BBC sometimes asking uncomfortable questions the mayor & his advisers, like many other politicians, may find inconvenient, the questions posed by Tim Donovan were not suffering from political acumen but from shear taunting; this sort of reporter-bullying is so easy to accomplish & so embarrassing for the reporter who ends up his own victim because the audience is not deaf and blind.

  • Comment number 10.

    Ms Purnell's biography: It was reasonable to offer her an interview on regional section of Politics October, 2011. But she & the book aren't really a topic NOW, are they? Why you would choose to mention the book NOW when it's impact had otherwise dwindled. My interpretation of this article: BBC's defensive posture for manner in which it interviewed & otherwise dealt with Boris Johnson.

  • Comment number 11.

    I used to trust the BBC to be objective & balanced but since the Global Financial Crisis hit my research shows it's NOT.
    The significant number of anti-established financial critics, commentators & economists that believe the big banks didn't just cause the crisis but deliberately engineered it, still fail to get a voice on any of the BBC programs.

  • Comment number 12.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 13.

    OK then, explain why Johnson's victory margin was narrow at 3% and Hollandes victory margein was clear at ... 3%.

    BBC not biased? Cue Jim Royle.

  • Comment number 14.

    4. At 21:18 28th May 2012, Roland D :
    Standards were maintained, it would seem.

    There are so many, some have to be.
    Not sure this notion of hitting The Editors to say 'We're right/trusted/loved/thebestthingsincesliced bread according' is quite convincing as it once did, mind.

  • Comment number 15.

    Interesting in comparison to media coverage of local South African politics right now with the move by the ruling ANC to ban a satirist publishing a less-than-flattering president Jacob Zuma painting. I doubt the BBC would survive long if it replaced the local broadcasting authority!


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