BBC complaints double in two years as political bias incenses viewers

The number of complaints about BBC programmes has more than doubled over the past two years to a record high of nearly half a million, figures have revealed.

Complaints to the broadcaster reached 462,255 in 2020/21, up from 218,253 in 2018/19, with anger about perceived bias driving up the numbers.

In the intervening year, 2019/20, the figure was 368,377, which the BBC said at the time was unusually high due to complaints about the 2019 general election and the first time it had topped 300,000 since records began.

The new figures were contained in the BBC’s annual report, published this week. 

The broadcaster acknowledged that it had a problem. Ian Hargreaves, chairman of the BBC’s editorial guidelines and standards committee, said: “The volume of complaints to the BBC remains a concern. This financial year has seen another sharp increase in the number of complaints received. 

“The committee has explored the reasons behind this increase in volume year-on-year and asked the executive to review the operational handling of complaints.”

BBC sources said that the rise in complaints reflected a “broader trend” during the pandemic.

BBC programmes with the most complaints 2020/21

That was backed up by Ofcom, which said on Friday that it had received an unprecedented number of complaints over the past year: 142,660, up from 35,545 in the previous year. The vast majority of those concerned content that audiences found offensive.

However, analysis of the BBC programmes which attracted more than 100 complaints in 2020/21 show that the biggest issue was perceptions of political bias.

The annual report noted: “Our research shows too many people perceive the BBC to be shaped by a particular perspective. This is not simply about the politics of Left and Right. We recognise that many feel the BBC does not get the world from their point of view.”

The list was topped by Emily Maitlis’s monologue about Dominic Cummings on Newsnight in May 2020, which prompted 23,674 complaints. She declared that Mr Cummings had “broken the rules” and “the country can see that, and it’s shocked the Government cannot”.

The BBC later ruled that the monologue “did not meet our standards of due impartiality”.

An edition of BBC Breakfast in which presenters Naga Munchetty and Charlie Stayt appeared to mock Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, over the size of the Union flag in his office, attracted 6,498 complaints.

Other accusations of bias were made over an Andrew Marr interview with Boris Johnson (1,712 complaints) and comments made by Sarah Smith, the BBC Scotland editor, suggesting that Nicola Sturgeon had “enjoyed the opportunity to set her own lockdown rules” (4,541 complaints).

A Panorama programme received 1,479 complaints from viewers who thought it was biased against people who were hesitant about the Covid vaccine.

In addition, a Radio 4 Woman’s Hour interview conducted by Emma Barnett with Zara Mohammed – the first female head of the Muslim Council of Britain – in which Barnett questioned her about the number of female imams, received 564 complains of bias. 

The BBC said that large volumes of complaints were sometimes the result of organised online campaigns. Sources also suggested that the accessibility of the broadcaster’s complaints procedure online encouraged people to register their negative feelings.

The second-most complained-about programme last year involved a reporter using the N-word when describing a racially-motivated attack on an NHS worker in Bristol. The third was an “insensitive” report by a reporter who drew up alongside a migrant boat in the Channel.

Piers Morgan dominates ITV complaints

In a separate report published on Friday, Ofcom released details of complaints received last year. It was dominated by ITV, as the broadcasting watchdog only deals with BBC issues as a last resort after complainants have been directed in the first instance to the BBC’s own complaints procedure.

The ITV list was topped by Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain expressing his doubts about claims made by the Duchess of Sussex in her interview with Oprah Winfrey. A total of 54,453 people complained to the regulator about him.

Morgan accounted for four of the top 10: the other three were two consecutive interviews with Helen Whately, the care minister, and one with Victoria Atkins, the safeguarding minister. Viewers accused Morgan of rudeness and bullying.

Four of the complaints concerned Britain’s Got Talent, with objections to Diversity’s Black Lives Matter-inspired dance routine; Alesha Dixon wearing a “BLM” necklace; race-related jokes from Nabil Abdulrashid, a stand-up comedian; and a revealing dress worn by Amanda Holden, which some viewers deemed to be unsuitable for a family audience.

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