Eric Pickles has been at war with the BBC over the way it reports council cuts for a while now. But today the battle took on a new front following the corporation’s reporting of a report on council tax benefit cuts. This morning the Beeb picked up on a report from the Resolution Foundation which warned council tax bills for the poorest families could rise by as much as £600. The way the story, which you can read online here, was reported has angered Jake Berry, PPS to Grant Shapps, sufficiently to fire off an angry letter to BBC director of News Helen Boaden.
The letter, which I’ve seen this afternoon, says:
This morning BBC news outlets gave heavy prominence to a report on council tax benefit from the Resolution Foundation.
The report was highly critical of Government policy concerning changes to council tax benefit. In turn, it provided an easy hook for the Labour Party to voice its opposition. I am writing to register concerns about the corporation’s editorial integrity over this story. BBC reports described the Resolution Foundation as “a not-for-profit research and policy organisation”. Viewers, listeners and readers might therefore expect that the report was wholly independent of party political interests.
However, this is clearly not the case. The author of the report, Matthew Pennycook, is a paid up member of the Labour Party. Mr Pennycook is the Vice Chairman of Greenwich & Woolwich Labour Party, as well as a local councillor. It is worth noting that the BBC calls Policy Exchange “a right-wing think tank”, but this one is supposedly “independent.”
Your reports this morning stated that there is a “highly charged, political context to this issue”. It is therefore concerning that the BBC presented the report as an independent and authoritative voice, rather than the work of a Labour Party activist.
Other senior figures in the Resolution Foundation also have close links to Labour. Its chief executive Gavin Kelly was a former Deputy Chief of Staff to Gordon Brown, and a number of researchers and analysts worked in Number 10 under the previous Labour administration.
The BBC has a longstanding reputation for high journalistic standards. Public trust in it is rightly undermined when it fails to note the political motivation of those who criticise the Government. To clear the issue up, I would ask you to amend the story on the BBC’s website to make clear the obvious political bias in the Resolution Foundation’s work.
The Communities and Local Government department, which oversees the reform of council tax benefit, argues that the changes will give councils stronger incentives to support local business and encourage people back into work. Council tax benefit will be replaced in England with local schemes of support for council tax designed by the local council, with one of the aims of this change being discouraging councils from hiking up council tax bills. This week Pickles also criticised BBC reporters for acting as a ‘backing group’ for the Labour party.