Hard Evidence: How biased is the BBC?

Does the BBC really have a left-wing, anti-business agenda as certain elements of the press like to claim? Or is there more to it than that? Cardiff University Lecturer Mike Berry crunches the numbers to see where Auntie's leanings really lie.

This article was originally published on The Conversation, where it forms part of Hard Evidence, a series of articles that looks at what the data say about some of the trickiest public policy questions we face. Academic experts will delve into the available research evidence to provide an informed analysis of current affairs you won’t get from politicians or vested interests. Here, Cardiff University Lecturer Mike Berry uses his research to tackle a question as old as broadcasting itself: is the BBC really impartial?

If you are a reader of the right end of the British press you will be familiar with stories claiming that the Corporation has a liberal, left-wing bias.

Only last week the Daily Telegraph reported a new study had found that the BBC “exhibits a left-of-centre bias in both the amount of coverage it gives to different opinions and the way in which these voices are represented”. Other critics have accused the BBC of having a pro-EU and anti-business slant. But how true are these accusations and what does the evidence suggest about the range of views the corporation features in its news output?

Along with a group of colleagues at Cardiff University, I recently completed a major content analysis of BBC coverage. This research was funded by the BBC Trust as part of an ongoing series of studies examining the impartiality of its reporting in areas such as regional news, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Arab Spring, business and science.

Our research had two strands. One examined the range of topics and sources featured in BBC broadcast news and how that compared to what was provided by other broadcasters. A second strand looked in detail at the BBC’s online and broadcast reporting of immigration, the EU and religion. We analysed news coverage from both 2007 and 2012 in order to identify any possible changes over time.

Tories get more airtime than Labour

One of the most striking findings was the dominance of party political sources. In coverage of immigration, the EU and religion, these accounted for 49.4% of all source appearances in 2007 and 54.8% in 2012. In reporting of the EU the dominance was even more pronounced with party political sources accounting for 65% of source appearances in 2007 and 79.2% in 2012.

Political sources were also much more likely than other sources to be featured in the opening sections of news reports which had the consequence of reports being framed from party political perspectives which other sources then had to respond to.

Among political sources, Labour and Conservatives dominate coverage accounting for 86% of source appearances in 2007 and 79.7% in 2012. Our data also show that Conservatives get more airtime than Labour. Bearing in mind that incumbents always receive more coverage than opposition politicians, the ratio was much more pronounced when the Conservatives were in power in 2012.

In strand one (reporting of immigration, the EU and religion), Gordon Brown outnumbered David Cameron in appearances by a ratio of less than two to one (47 vs 26) in 2007. In 2012 David Cameron outnumbered Ed Milliband by a factor of nearly four to one (53 vs 15). Labour cabinet members and ministers outnumbered Conservative shadow cabinet and ministers by approximately two to one (90 vs 46) in 2007; in 2012, Conservative cabinet members and ministers outnumbered their Labour counterparts by more than four to one (67 to 15).

In strand two (reporting of all topics) Conservative politicians were featured more than 50% more often than Labour ones (24 vs 15) across the two time periods on the BBC News at Six. So the evidence is clear that BBC does not lean to the left it actually provides more space for Conservative voices.

A win for Euroscepticism

So what about the accusation that the BBC is pro-EU? Again the evidence points in the opposite direction.

In each sample period, a single story was dominant in broadcast coverage. In 2007 it was the Lisbon Treaty, which accounted for 70% of coverage and in 2012 it was negotiations over ratifying the EU budget which accounted for 72% of coverage. In both cases the debate was dominated by the representatives of the two main parties and the EU was framed narrowly as a threat to British interests.

In 2007 debate revolved around three points argued by Conservative Eurosceptics: that Britain hadn’t secured her “redlines” on maintaining British sovereignty; that the treaty was a repackaged version of the EU constitution; and that a referendum was necessary to ratify it. Labour contested these arguments. In 2012 the budget debate pitted the Conservative leadership (for the budget settlement) against the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party and Labour who opposed it.

There are two points to be made about this coverage. First, it saw Europe almost exclusively through the prism of political infighting between Labour and the Conservatives so a rounded debate about the multiplicity of ways the relationship between the EU and UK affects Britain was almost completely absent. Second, although UKIP received very little airtime, Euroscepticism was very well represented through Conservative politicians.

Voices arguing for the benefits of EU membership were very sparse. This was a consequence of Labour politicians being unwilling to make the positive case for Europe because of its perceived unpopularity amongst voters. This meant that business lobbyists provided much of what little pro-EU opinion was available.

Business as usual

What about the accusation that the BBC is anti-business? Once again the evidence shows that the opposite is the case.

In both 2007 and 2012, across all programming, business representatives received substantially more airtime on BBC network news (7.5% and 11.1% of source appearances) than they did on either ITV (5.9% and 3.8%) or Channel 4 News (2.4% and 2.2%). When we compare the representation of business with that of organised labour, the findings are even more striking.

On BBC News at Six, business representatives outnumbered trade union spokespersons by more than five to one (11 vs 2) in 2007 and by 19 to one in 2012. On the issues of immigration and the EU in 2012, out of 806 source appearances, not one was allocated to a representative of organised labour. Considering the impact of the issues on the UK workforce, and the fact that trade unions represent the largest mass democratic organisations in civil society, such invisibility raises troubling questions for a public service broadcaster committed to impartial and balanced coverage.

City voices

The robustness of these findings is reinforced in research on how the BBC’s Today programme reported the banking crisis in 2008. The table below shows the sources featured during the intense six weeks of coverage following the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

Today programme banking crisis interviewees 15/9/2008 to 20/10/2008.

 

The range of debate was even narrower if we examine who the programme featured as interviewees in the two week period around the UK bank bailouts. This can be seen in the next table.

Today programme banking crisis interviewees 6/10/2008 to 20/10/2008.

 

Here opinion was almost completely dominated by stockbrokers, investment bankers, hedge fund managers and other City voices. Civil society voices or commentators who questioned the benefits of having such a large finance sector were almost completely absent from coverage.

The fact that the City financiers who had caused the crisis were given almost monopoly status to frame debate again demonstrates the prominence of pro-business perspectives.

So the evidence from the research is clear. The BBC tends to reproduce a Conservative, Eurosceptic, pro-business version of the world, not a left-wing, anti-business agenda.

The funding for some of the research discussed in this article was provided directly by the BBC Trust.

The ConversationThis article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

Men walk past a bank of television screens displaying BBC channels in the BBC headquarters at New Broadcasting House. Photo: Getty

Dr Mike Berry is a Lecturer at Cardiff University School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle