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Is the BBC biased against Jeremy Corbyn? Look at the evidence

New research compared BBC and ITV coverage. 

Last week the Media Reform Coalition published research into the news media's treatment of Jeremy Corbyn.  It was the third such report to have been produced in recent months.  The first, published by the Media Reform Coalition late last year, examined newspaper reports during Corbyn's first week as Labour leader, which it found to be overwhelmingly negative.  

That was followed by a much more extensive piece of research carried out by academics at the LSE's Department of Media and Communications, published last month.  That research affirmed those earlier findings and concluded that "most newspapers [had been] systematically vilifying the leader of the biggest opposition party, assassinating his character, ridiculing his personality and delegitimising his ideas and politics."

The latest report, produced by the Media Reform Coalition jointly with the Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies at Birkbeck, University of London, focuses on the coverage of the attempted "coup" against Corbyn which followed the Brexit vote.  It reported similar findings on the press, but is particularly notable for being the first systematic examination of television coverage of Corbyn and his supporters.  

Its most striking findings relate to the BBC. The researchers' quantitative analysis of BBC News at Six shows that critics of Corbyn were given twice as much airtime as his supporters, and that the issues mobilised by his critics were given much greater prominence. The researchers also noted the pejorative language BBC reporters used to describe Jeremy Corbyn, his team and his supporters.

Allegations of BBC bias are so ubiquitous that it is easy to become cynical about such claims.  But given the centrality of the news media, and the BBC in particular, to British political life, it is important that such debates do not collapse into nihilism.  

It is true that any political party or movement will seek advantageous media coverage. Similarly, it will likely detect "bias" when the news media offers a platform to alternative or opposing views, or reports on events or statements which are likely to be to its disadvantage.  

It is also important to recognise that even if all parties perceive the BBC to be biased against them, or at least claim as much, it does not follow that all such claims are equally valid and accurate.  Defenders of the BBC often note that the Corporation gets attacked from "all sides". But they then tend to treat this as though it were evidence of balanced reporting. This argument is misconceived. It is rather like claiming that if two people who disagree with each other both say you are wrong, then you must be right.

One of the problems here is that more powerful political actors have far more resources at their disposal to mobilise claims of "bias". Perhaps more fundamentally, they have more ability to shape the political climate against which balance and impartiality are assessed. This is why it is important for any serious discussion of "bias" to be informed as far as possible by evidence. It is why academic research is so crucial. This latest report should be viewed in the context of decades of scholarly research, which has consistently found that BBC reporting favours the interests of powerful groups in society.

Regrettably, the latest evidence of this has been treated in a remarkably dismissive fashion by the BBC. A spokesperson describing the Media Reform Coalition as a "vested interest group". This is not acceptable. The Media Reform Coalition, with which I have been rather loosely associated (I once co-edited a partner website), campaigns for a more pluralistic media and for more ethical journalism. Referring to it in this way is rather like dismissing Oxfam research on poverty, or Greenpeace research on environmental abuses, on the basis that those organisations campaign on these issues.

Evidence needs to be taken seriously. The findings of this latest report are a real cause for concern.  Had the research solely examined BBC News then the Corporation might have been able to respond that its negative treatment of Corbyn simply reflected what was going on - that accurately reporting on the vote of no confidence by Labour MPs and the wave of resignations naturally meant its output would appear "biased" against Corbyn.  But crucially, the research compared the BBC's reporting with that of ITV's evening news, where the airtime allocated to critics and supporters of Corbyn was broadly balanced, and the prominence given to particular issues was less dramatically weighed against Corbyn.

Further research may reveal how far these patterns of reporting hold across other programmes, and other reporting periods. But as things stand, the BBC has questions to answer. 

Tom Mills is a London based sociologist.  His book, The BBC: Myth of a Public Service, will be published by Verso in November.


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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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