A minister appeared to confuse a BBC journalist with a former presenter of children’s programme Art Attack when asked to provide examples of bias by the publicly owned broadcaster.
Conservative rail minister Huw Merriman said there were some areas of news reporting where he felt the BBC “could do better” on ensuring it remains impartial.
Asked to provide examples in an interview with Sky News on Tuesday, he singled out a BBC reporter, saying he “always felt” the journalist “gave one side of the story and not the other side” when it came to the Tory Government’s universal credit reforms, which changed how benefits are administered.
The frontbencher named the reporter as Neil Buchanan in what appeared to be a mix-up.
Michael Buchanan is a BBC social affairs correspondent while Neil Buchanan is a former presenter of the programme Art Attack, fronting the show between 1990 to 2007.
A BBC source said: “Michael’s an excellent and impartial journalist who was named RTS (Royal Television Society) specialist journalist of the year last year, not to be confused with the presenter of a children’s art programme from the 1990s.”
Mr Merriman also suggested he found an episode he listened to on Friday of BBC Radio 4’s The News Quiz programme “completely biased”.
Labour branded his comments about a “satirical” programme “laughable”, while the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) said his decision to “impugn the work of an individual journalist” was “shameful.”
The comments come after Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer, who has said she believes the BBC has been biased “on occasion”, announced on Monday that media regulator Ofcom could gain enforcement action over BBC News website articles it does not believe meet relevant broadcast standards.
Mr Merriman, describing listening to The News Quiz, said: “For 10 minutes all I heard was – and it wasn’t satirical — it was just diatribe against Conservatives, not the Government.
“And I did listen to that and think ‘for goodness sake, where is the balance in that?’
“So yes, I’m afraid to say that, despite the fact that I’ve always been a big supporter of the BBC, that struck me as completely biased.”
Put to him that The News Quiz is designed to be a comedy programme, Mr Merriman said “there wasn’t actually anything in it” that “struck me as being sort of amusing”.
“It didn’t strike me as being particularly satirical,” he added.
Labour shadow culture secretary Thangam Debbonaire, responding to Mr Merriman’s comments, tweeted: “The Government spending another day undermining the BBC, this time for supposed bias in a satirical news quiz, is laughable.
“Is this the Tories for the next few months? Is this really all they have to offer working people? Scraping the barrel.”
The Government spending another day undermining the BBC, this time for supposed bias in a satirical news quiz, is laughable.
Is this the Tories for the next few months? Is this really all they have to offer working people? Scraping the barrel.
We need a General election now! https://t.co/bSbpMepjGL
— Thangam Debbonaire (@ThangamMP) January 23, 2024
A BBC spokeswoman said: “We’re confident our audiences know the difference between a longstanding and popular satirical comedy show and our news reporting.”
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary said: “Not content with demonstrating his lack of humour when it comes to topical satire shows, Huw Merriman felt the need to impugn the work of an individual journalist for the apparent crime of not lapping up his words of wisdom when he was batting for universal credit in a past ministerial gig.”
She said his behaviour was “shameful” and “does nothing to make a positive contribution to currently parlous standards of public discourse – something that politicians really need to take more seriously”.
Insiders at the broadcaster pointed out that The News Quiz is commissioned by Radio 4 as a comedy programme and is not made by BBC News.
They highlighted that it shares its 6.30pm slot on Friday nights on the station with other satirical programmes including The Now Show and Dead Ringers.
Downing Street could not give any evidence about Mr Buchanan, the BBC journalist Mr Merriman chose to target.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “I don’t have detail about that individual.
“There have been concerns raised by the public in relation to some aspects of BBC coverage, the mid-term review and Ofcom have found evidence that audiences feel that BBC impartiality is on a downward trajectory.
“It is for Ofcom to look at individual instances, it is not for me to opine.”