orwell

A Wall of Silence

It’s been two months since BBC Wales broadcast their “Scrum V Special“, a supposed “debate” about the current crisis in Welsh rugby. A group of us who were at the recording wrote a letter of complaint to the BBC expressing our concern about editorial bias in the programme.

The BBC eventually responded:

Thank you for your letter regarding our special Scrum V debate. We are sorry to hear your concerns about alleged editorial bias, the editing process and the interactivity of the debate.

 In your complaint, you raise concerns about the billing of the programme. I’d like to clarify that the programme was never billed  as a “Question Time” style debate. It was planned largely as a panel debate with some contributions from the floor.  The audience was asked if they had any questions they wanted to raise and a number of contributors sent their questions in beforehand. Our presenter saw these questions and he highlighted a few people he could turn to during the debate. As there was a wide range of issues to cover during the course of the 45 minute programme, we could not turn to every individual that wished to ask a question. However, we are satisfied that most of the key issues were raised during the course of the programme.

The audience was selected by the programme team and our aim was to reflect a broad editorial balance of those with a relevant opinion about Welsh rugby. We featured contributions from a regional and grass roots supporters group, a player representative, a legal expert, Paul Thorburn, supporters of Irish and English clubs, Mark Davies and former WRU and Regional Rugby Wales Chief Executive David Moffett. As well as the regional supporter groups, over 180 Welsh clubs were invited to send representatives to be in the audience and those who attended came from Cross Keys, Neath, Canton, Newtown, Penarth and Llanelli. A volunteer referee and people involved in Women’s rugby also attended.

Prior to the recording of the programme, members of the audience were asked to raise their hands, clap and show its reaction politely, but they were not encouraged to boo the contributions of others. The audience was clearly told, both by the floor manager and the presenter, to show respect for speakers and not to shout or barrack.  The reaction and interaction from the audience was important to this debate and we feel it was fairly reflected. The programme was pre-recorded and and it is not unusual that the recording overruns and the programme is edited to time. Some elements of the debate were dropped from the final edit because they weren’t deemed to be as editorially relevant when considered against the programme as a whole. I am satisfied, however, the programme was fairly edited and was impartial, accurate and balanced. 

We weren’t satisfied with the BBC’s response. So we wrote to them again. At the time of writing, we still haven’t received a response. Here’s what we had to say about their response to our complaint:

Thank-you for your response about the BBC Scrum V Special programme broadcast and recorded on 19th January 2014.

We believe your response contains a number of inaccuracies regarding the programme and fails to adequately address a number of the concerns in our original complaint.

For these reasons we are copying the BBC Trust Unit in our reply here.

We must stress that several of us were present at the recording of the programme.

Firstly, you state that the programme was not billed as a “Question Time” style debate. That is not true. I quote from the invitation email from a member of the production team, Cathy Williams:

“The programme is presented by experienced journalist Gareth Lewis (former Scrum V Presenter), speaking to a panel of 4 guests. There will be a chance for the audience to ask questions if they wish, or just listen and enjoy the debate!”

We can confirm that no audience members were allowed to ask questions during the recording of the programme. This is clear from the broadcast version.

Secondly, you state that the key issues were raised during the course of the programme. Whilst it may be true that a number of issues were raised during the RECORDING of the programme, quite a few of the important points raised did not make it to the edited version which was broadcast. For example, at one point, the presenter directly asked Roger Lewis for his view on the comments of Cardiff Blues Chairman Peter Thomas (for clarity, Thomas is on record in the Rugby Paper as saying that the Welsh Regions have “no confidence” in Roger Lewis). Mr Lewis repeatedly avoided answering that question. Most of the exchange on this topic was edited out of the broadcast version of the programme.

You claim the pieces that were cut from the programme were not deemed to be “editorially relevant.” We would strongly contest this view: what we had was a statement from one of the key protagonists in the issue, expressing his lack of confidence in one of the other key protagonists. This kind of statement is clearly relevant to the debate.

Thirdly, you list the various “contributors” in the audience. These included supporters of Irish and English rugby clubs. We were very disappointed that the Irish and English supporters were given more time to speak than the Welsh supporters, when the programme was supposed to be about Welsh rugby, broadcast to a Welsh audience.

Fourthly, you describe the encouragement audience members were given to show their reaction to what was being said in the debate. We can confirm that the floor manager, the bald gentleman with a headset, definitely told the audience that they could audibly show their appreciation or lack of appreciation of what was being said, in whatever manner they liked, and this included booing. He even made a booing gesture with his mouth to illustrate this. The only caveat he used was that we were to show respect and not use any offensive language.

At several points during the recording, the audience loudly expressed their displeasure and derision at the inability of Roger Lewis to give a straight answer to a simple question. However in the broadcast version, the audience’s reaction was only audible on one occasion, when Roger Lewis repeatedly tried to avoid answering a question. Technical shortcomings cannot be used as an excuse, as applause at the beginning and end of the programme was quite clearly recorded.

Finally, you have failed to address our original question about the presence of the WRU’s legal representatives at the TV studios on the day of the recording. We are still very concerned that their presence had a detrimental effect on the partiality of the editing process, and indeed, the entire format of the programme.

In our view, based on the evidence described above, the programme was not impartial and did not address the issues in a manner which was fair to all the participants. Unfortunately, this is only one example of the BBC’s consistently poor and unbalanced reporting of what is the most serious issue to affect Welsh rugby in the professional era. For example, when Regional Rugby Wales recently issued a very detailed critique of the WRU’s negotiation tactics in a letter to the National Assembly (see the RRW website, http://www.regionalrugbywales.com/2014/02/28/response-questions-raised-chair-communities/) this was almost completely ignored by BBC Wales television and radio.

We would appreciate a full and frank response to our concerns this time, and we would be happy to meet the production team to discuss these matters further.