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17 May 2017

Right-wing newspaper headlines bring bias to the BBC

Today's parroting the anti-Labour press undermines the impartiality rules TV and radio are meant to abide by

Every morning on the BBC’s agenda-setting Today programme, broadcasters operating under strict impartiality regulations give their listeners a flavour of the headlines from that morning’s newspapers. It’s a familiar routine that accompanies the drinking of millions of cups of tea and coffee and provides a taste of the feisty print culture that, apparently, millions of people might otherwise be unaware of.

The trouble is that reading out selected headlines is a long way away from staying “impartial” simply because of the in-built bias towards the Conservatives in the daily press. In the 2015 general election, the share of press support for the Tories (measured by circulation) was 71 per cent compared to 15 per cent for Labour and 5 per cent for the Liberal Democrats. If anything, the press has moved further to the right since then, as reflected by the recent appointment of George Osborne (former Conservative MP and chancellor) to the role of editor-in-chief of the Evening Standard.

In the early weeks of the 2017 general election, we’re already seeing a systematic overrepresentation in the press of Tories over Labour (50 per cent versus 33 per cent) and of May over Corbyn (32 per cent versus 21 per cent). The Tories have seen a 15 per cent increase in press coverage in comparison to 2015 with the SNP and Ukip the most obvious losers so far.

In this context, reading out a sample of newspaper headlines is always likely to favour the Tories: to highlight the issues with which they are most comfortable and, in particular, to repeat the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn. Of course there’s nothing wrong with a balanced critique of press agendas (informed by empirical research and relevant interviews) but that’s hardly the point of Today’s press review.

Just take last Friday’s edition of the Today programme in which Nick Robinson summarised coverage of the leaking of Labour’s manifesto with references to stories from the SunMailTelegraph and the i – none of them Labour-supporting outlets. Robinson even took the time to explain the Sun’s headline – “CRASH BANG WALLIES” – without then reading out any press coverage that might rebut the Sun’s assertions. Robinson, when challenged about this by Labour’s Barry Gardiner in an interview a few minutes later, simply retorted that listeners “expect us to read out newspaper headlines which we’ve been doing for many years without backing them, endorsing them or criticising them”.

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But why should listeners have to put up with a sample of coverage that is almost guaranteed to have a Tory bias – particularly on a platform that is required to be “impartial”?

One problem is that our impartiality rules (that apply to broadcasting and not the press) are unable to account for some of the structural flaws of journalism – its intimacy with powerful elites, its appetite for immediate reaction as opposed to more careful reflection, and its reluctance to depart from a narrow consensus. We may feel smug that we do not have the regulatory wasteland of US broadcast news (as epitomised by Fox, by far the most popular news outlet) but we do not have the critical and fearless journalism that many of its proponents think we do.

It is true that coverage of the current general election is superficially ‘impartial’ in the sense that, at least on TV, equal time is being devoted to both of the main parties. But this says nothing about the tone of the coverage, the questions posed, the issues ignored and the ‘Corbyn is not a viable candidate’ meme endlessly repeated. So we are now likely to see a broadcast campaign where the media’s entrenched hostility towards and dismissal of Corbyn and Labour’s manifesto more generally threatens to overwhelm their formal attachment to a quantitative balance of coverage.

The idea that broadcasters can “report” headlines from the national press during an election campaign in a way that is free of bias and distortion is simply not logical given the domination of right-wing titles.

Des Freedman and Justin Schlosberg are the former and current chairs respectively of the Media Reform Coalition, which is running a petition calling on the Today programme to drop its press review during elections