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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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Labour will win the London elections – they’ve just lost the spin war

The question is, does that matter? 

Cancel the champagne in Jeremy Corbyn’s office? A new YouGov poll for Queen Mary’s Mile End Institute shows Labour slipping back from the record-breaking heights of 53 per cent in the local elections in London… to the still record-breaking heights of 51 per cent.

There are two things to note first off: the first, of course, is that Labour would still be posting the best result of any party in the capital since 1971, and its best since these boroughs were founded. The second is that as the change is within the margin of error, it could all be noise.

My sense, from talking to the local parties throughout the capital is that there has been a slight fall in Labour support but it is not evenly spread. In Barnet, the party’s ongoing difficulties with antisemitism have turned what looked a certain victory into a knife-edge fight. In Wandsworth, stories in the Standard about the local Momentum group have successfully spooked some residents into fearing that a Labour victory in that borough would imperil the borough’s long history of ultra-low council tax, while the presence of a fairly well-organised campaign from new party Renew is splitting angry pro-Remain vote. But elsewhere, neither Labour nor Tory local activists are reporting any kind of fall.

However, it does show how comprehensively Labour have lost the spin war as far as what a “good” set of local election results would be next week: as I laid out in my analyses of what a good night for the major parties would be, Wandsworth and Westminster councils, both of which would stay blue if this poll is borne out, should not be seen as essential gains for Labour and should properly be seen as disastrous defeats for the Conservatives.

However, CCHQ have done a good job setting out a benchmark for what a good night looks like to the point where holding onto Bexley is probably going to be hailed as a success. Labour haven’t really entered the spin wars. As I noted on our podcast this week, that’s in part because, as one senior member of Team Corbyn noted, there is a belief that whatever you do in the run-up, the BBC will decide that there is merit in both sides’ presentation of how the night has gone, so why bother with the spin war beforehand? We may be about to find out whether that’s true. The bigger question for Labour is if the inability to shape the narrative in the face of a largely hostile press will be a problem come 2022. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.