A complaint about BBC bias
I have this evening submitted the following complaint about an item on the Radio 4 news this afternoon.
I want to complain about an item comparing the election of Sheriffs in the USA with the UK Coalition government's proposals for elected Police Commissioners, This item failed to give both sides of the argument for and against using elections to hold police services to account. In particular, the item was biased in two key respects. First, while it included contributions from commentators critical of the US system, who were given an opportunity to criticise the election of Sheriffs and explain their concerns about it, there was inadequate opportunity for counterbalancing comment from a supporter of the American system explaining what benefits it might provide. Secondly and far more seriously, given that there are significant differences between Coalition proposals for the UK and the American system, there was no attempt whatsoever to explain those differences or note that most of the cricitisms made of the US system are not applicable or relevant to the government's proposals for the UK.
The news item to which I am objecting ran at about 5.20 pm this afternoon (23rd August) on the BBC Radio 4 News. It began by referring to proposals by the present UK government for election of Police Commissioners and pointed out that the USA has had elections for Sheriffs for many years.
The programme included comments from one candidate for Sheriff and an extract from a re-election broadcast from another. The latter was referred to by opponents and supporters alike as "America's toughest Sheriff" which raises questions about how representative he is: this would not necesarily have been an issue if a wider range of candidates for Sherriff had been discussed in the programme, but it was clear that both the candidates referred to had been chosen to illustrate particular criticisms of the system. One, with no previous law-enforcement experience, had been chosen to illustrate the concern that an elections might sometimes be won by a candidate with limited qualifications: the other had clearly been been chosen to illustrate concerns about how populism might influence policing.
While there the programme did give some air time to the case in support of those specific candidates, it was wholly lacking in any real opportunity for a supporter of the US system to explain properly what benefits they believe that system provides. Essentially the debate was framed on territory chosen by the critics of the US system, and this is the first sense in which the item was subtly biased.
My second criticism is still more serious. The US system allows for the direct election of the operational heads of local police forces. This is NOT what is proposed in the UK. Wholesale adoption of the US system would be equivalent to the election of Chief constables.
What the government is proposing to do is replace NOT Chief constables but Police Authorities, who do NOT have control over operational policing, with directly elected police commissioners. The existing Police Authorities consist partly of county councillors and partly of Home Office appointees. So rather than introducing control by elected officials over police operations such as exists in the States, the government is proposing to replace an existing tier of indirectly elected politicians and political appointees with an equivalent directly-elected official.
Consequently most of the arguments in the US interviews are simply not applicable to the UK proposals. If the British government had been proposing elections for Chief constables, the discussion about whether a retired journalist who is standing for Sheriff has enough experience for the job might have been relevant to the UK. Because they aren't, it wasn't.
People with no policing experience can and do become Chairman of Police Authorities now: so can people with vast experience. The current chairman of my local Police Authority is a county councillor who was previously an officer in this county's constabulary for twenty years. If the coalition plans go though, I would bet money on it that he will be elected as our first Police Commissioner.
But it is not essential for the Authority Chairman or Police Commissioner to have police experience in a system where operational control and management reside with a Chief Constable who does have that experience.
Similarly, the discussion about the "toughest Sheriff in the USA" covered the timing and locations of specific police operations against illegal immigration and whether these amounted to racist targetting of particular ethnic groups for electoral purposes. The programme made no attempt to address the fact that Chief constables in the UK have operational independence and politicians would not be able to order such operations under either the existing system or the proposed one.
You can certainly make arguments both for and against the coalition government's proposals. I have no doubt that the US experience of electing police chiefs might be relevant to some of those arguments - on both sides.
My complaint is that the programme focussed on two arguments which have been made in the States against their system in a manner which inferred that those arguments were also pertinent as criticisms of the coalition government's proposals, without any acknowledgement of the differences between the US system and the UK proposals which an informed person could reasonably believe made those criticisms inapplicable to the coalition's proposals.
Consequently I do not believe that an intelligent, well-informed and fair-minded person who listened to that broadcast could avoid the conclusion that the item comparing UK government proposals for elected Police Commissioners with US practice electing Sheriffs showed a lack of balance amounting to bias.