The BBC could do more to reflect rural affairs, issues and points of view on its national network, an independent review has found.
The review, commissioned by the BBC Trust, found that on the whole the BBC’s reporting of rural affairs was impartial and that flagship programmes such as Countryfile and Farming Today were highly appreciated and did reflect a wide range of voices and opinions.
However, these two programmes, which were especially praised by the report, were expected to do a lot of “heavy lifting” when it came to shouldering the BBC’s responsibility for reporting on the countryside.
Review author Heather Hancock said that the same depth of expertise and reporting on rural affairs was not always apparent on network programming for the whole of the UK.
Ms Hancock, former managing partner at Deloitte and ex-chair of the BBC’s Rural Affairs Committee, highlighted the loss of a dedicated rural affairs correspondent as a key issue.
The post was abolished in 2012 and Ms Hancock said that “this was a retrograde step,” that led to non-specialists reporting on complex issues. One contributor to the review, Professor Michael Woods of the University of Aberystwyth concluded that “sometimes it [rural affairs reporting] almost appears as foreign news“.
The review also found that the BBC is relying unduly for opinions on a small number of vocal organisations such as the RSPB, NFU and National Trust. Coverage of rural issues often descends into reporting conflict rather than the underlying issues. It often focuses on big news stories in the countryside – badger culling and fracking – that barely registered among the concerns of most rural dwellers.
There was also concern at the focus on seeking opinions from celebrities. Feedback from audience research found this “distasteful.”
12 million people live rurally in the UK – some 50 percent more than in Greater London and the review stressed that people living in rural areas “must have confidence that the BBC is both reflecting their lives and, where relevant, telling national stories from a rural perspective.”
The BBC has responded to the review and will implement a series of measures including:
- giving three regional reporters a wider brief to feed rural stories into the national network.
- widening and deepening the range of contacts on rural issues
- appointing a senior editorial figure to take on editorial oversight of rural issues and champion them across output.
The BBC will report back to the Trust in six months and again in a year with an update on how these actions are progressing.