The BBC has stood by its defence of a Panorama investigation exposing shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) among healthcare workers, after a formal complaint from the culture secretary.
Oliver Dowden, in a letter to the BBC director general, Tony Hall, claimed the corporation was at risk of losing the public’s confidence amid accusations of political bias.
Last week Panorama reported that gowns, visors, swabs and body bags were left out of the government’s stockpile when it was set up in 2009. Some of the items are now in short supply.
Since the programme aired, a number of NHS workers who were interviewed for it were reported to be either longstanding members or supporters of the Labour party.
Dowden also referred to another recent incident in which the BBC admitted it had made a mistake by reporting that a boss of an NHS trust had contacted the broadcaster with concerns about the provision of gowns for staff during the coronavirus crisis.
“I am sure you will agree that it is vital that public confidence is maintained in the BBC’s longstanding reputation for fair and balanced reporting, and that any damage to that would be deeply concerning,” wrote Dowden.
The minister also said he was aware the Panorama programme had been the subject of a number of complaints to the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom.
“Concerns have been raised that a disproportionate number of those interviewed in the programme were political activists or had clear links to a political party. This both was not made clear to viewers and does not reflect the balance of views of an institution as large as the NHS,” he wrote in the letter, excerpts of which have been published by the Mail on Sunday.
A spokesperson for the BBC confirmed on Sunday that it had received Dowden’s letter, adding it would respond in due course. It referred to a statement issued last week that said sources for its PPE revelations were not the doctors who appeared on the show.
The BBC’s journalists had spoken to dozens of healthcare workers in the course of making the programme, some of whom were members of a political party and some not, it said.
Given that NHS trusts had discouraged healthcare workers from discussing the lack of PPE, the statement said it was perhaps not surprising that those willing to speak out were more involved with campaigning around the NHS.
Responding further on Sunday in relation to Dowden’s letter, a BBC spokesperson said the broadcaster would like to highlight comments by the prime minister earlier this week in relation to PPE.
Speaking at the No 10 briefing for the first time since recovering from the virus, Boris Johnson said: “I’m not going to minimise the logistical problems we’ve faced in getting the right protective gear to the right people in the right place, both in the NHS and care homes.”
There was also support for the BBC from figures including the broadcaster James O’Brien, who said of Dowden’s letter: “I read this twice and can’t see a single reference to, never mind refutation of, the testimony given by the medics on the programme. It’s the starkest example yet that the Vote Leave government is trying to make confected tribal allegiance more important than evidence. Again.”
Alan Rusbridger, the principal of Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford, and a former editor of the Guardian, tweeted: “It’s really not the job of the culture secretary to bollock the BBC for what your govt regards as bias, @OliverDowden Leave that to @Ofcom.”