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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.