BBC bias and impartiality

So, my last-but-one post – the one about Brian Milligan’s not entirely convincing attempt to persuade us that it’s possible to have a delicious, varied, nutritionally balanced diet for £1 a day – exploded. I don’t know any other way to describe what happened. It was noodling along in a perfectly normal way for one of my better-read posts, and then at some point it suddenly started to be shared on facebook and twitter. Last Wednesday I had over 56,000 page views, almost all of them visits to that one post, and the days since have stayed well above normal.

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At one point, the post was being either liked, reblogged or commented on several times a minute. That’s extremely flattering, obviously, and I’m genuinely grateful to all the people who read it, or commented on it, or recommended it to other people. It’s also quite scary, though – a bit like having got used to living alongside a quiet country lane, only to find it has turned into a motorway overnight. I’m glad it coincided with a time of relative mental stability for me, at any rate, not one of the periods when I was in the grip of paranoia. That probably wouldn’t have turned out prettily. (For the benefit of people new to the blog – hello, by the way, nice to have you here – I have mental health problems. When I say paranoia, I’m using the word in its formal sense.)

Anyway, the purpose of this isn’t to give dull lectures on the condition of my psyche, or to brag about having written a (by my standards) popular post. I want to write instead about something that some people have raised in relation to that post – namely the suggestion that Mr Milligan’s article is part of a pattern, and that it represents bias, or even pro-government propaganda, on the part of the BBC.

It should be pretty clear, I hope, that I regard Mr Milligan’s pound-a-day article as a piece of disingenuous journalism. I was – and am – disappointed that a BBC journalist would write it, and concerned that the BBC’s editorial process didn’t pick up on the misleading nature of some of the claims made in it. I think he misrepresented the nature of food poverty in ways that may prove damaging to the interests of people who live in it for real, and I stand by my concern that Mr Milligan’s article ‘fits so neatly into the coalition’s demonisation of the poor’. But it’s a long way from that to arguing that the BBC is actively biased in favour of the coalition, or is spreading pro-government propaganda.

I’ve written on the topic of BBC bias before, when I looked at the way a number of leading news outlets covered George Osborne’s 2011 Autumn Statement. Back then, I reached the conclusion that the BBC was, if nothing else, the least biased of the outlets I looked at. That was a shallow piece of analysis (so shallow it probably doesn’t deserve the name “analysis” at all), since it only looked at screengrabs of the various outlets’ front pages in the immediate aftermath of the Statement. The method I chose was also inadequate for looking at bias by omission – the conviction many people have that the BBC’s failure to report on certain topics (or to give them limited emphasis) is the result of bias.

Systematically investigating the possibility of bias in the BBC’s output would be a mammoth task – certainly one that’s far beyond my capabilities – since it would involve monitoring and analysing literally hundreds of hours of output for every 24 hour period. I haven’t done that, or even come close, so it follows that any comments I make are going to be necessarily anecdotal. Those caveats notwithstanding, I just don’t see any evidence that the BBC is systematically biased, at least in party political terms.

I do think the BBC is biased in other ways. I think it has a metropolitan bias, both in the sense that it disproportionately reflects the views and interests of people (like me) who live in major cities, and in the sense that it assumes London to be the ‘centre’ and everything else to be ‘regional’. (Yes, London is the capital of the UK, and lots of interesting and important things happen there, but the overwhelming majority of us neither live nor work in it.) I also think it has an establishment bias – unsurprisingly, perhaps, given that it is itself a major plank of the establishment. Both of those biases can and do influence its political coverage.

The establishment bias is apparent in the way that the BBC struggles with political views that come from beyond the establishment. That was very obvious, for example, in its floundering coverage of the Occupy movement – it clearly struggled to report on an avowedly political campaign that didn’t have a leader and a manifesto, and couldn’t be handled in the neat “On the one hand X, on the other Y” rubric that underpins the BBC’s understanding of established politics. The metropolitan bias is apparent in the way the BBC understands politics as being something that happens in Westminster (and to a lesser extent Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh), rather than something that happens everywhere, and influences every aspect of our lives.

The intersection of the two biases is apparent in the way it covers politics as, essentially, gossip. Stop and think for a few minutes and it’s positively bizarre that the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, mainly covers politics by talking to MPs, rather than by investigating the issues themselves. Very, very often politicians from different parties make opposite claims on matters of empirical fact. In such circumstances, it’s the duty of any political reporter to investigate the facts and report on what s/he finds. Simply telling us what politicians have said about the issue at hand gets us nowhere – even if it does allow the BBC to demonstrate its impartiality by statistical analysis of the amount of time it spent discussing the views of a particular party. Genuine impartiality would come in sticking to the un-spun facts, even if those facts did support the view of one political party over another.

If the BBC’s understanding of impartiality is limited, at least it does have some understanding of what the concept means. This is often not the case with the people who accuse it of partiality and bias in its reporting. Very often, those accusations come from people with a very strong and decided view – they’re so utterly convinced that, say, the government are selling off the NHS, or that Labour are solely responsible for the international banking crisis, that any news report that doesn’t present the issues in those terms is perceived as biased. To such a person, neutrality itself appears as bias; simply by reporting that other views exist, and presenting those views without choosing between them, the BBC is seen to have abandoned impartiality. (These accusations also tend to come from people who surround themselves with media that reflect their own views back at them, and who have not developed or maintained the practice of reading sceptically – the BBC’s coverage may represent the only time they encounter views from outside their “filter bubble”, and seem outrageous as a result.)

The limited grasp some of the BBC’s critics have of what impartiality is, and what it looks like in practice, is neatly demonstrated by a comment left on a recent story about the BBC from The Guardian:

I think it’s a mouthpiece for whatever views have the most popular support, as it’s terrified of being on the wrong side in any argument.

That’s how it can be both against cuts, for savings, beatify Thatcher, but denounce her as divisive, fret about immigration, but laud individual immigrant success stories, hand-wring about climate change, but run Top Gear as a flagship show.

The BBC is one-nation populist, and is all things to all men depending on which demographic the show it’s producing at that time is aimed at.

That’s pretty much a letter-perfect description of impartiality – even-handed coverage of divisive issues, reflecting the views of people who take up diametrically opposed positions. The primary error is in ascribing those views to the BBC itself, as though it were some corporate variation on the White Queen, one that believes in eight incompatible things during Breakfast instead of six impossible things before breakfast. The secondary error, meanwhile, is in attributing the BBC’s desire to reflect contradictory views to terror of ‘being on the wrong side of the argument’, or to a desire to be ‘populist’. It’s neither of those things – it’s simply that impartiality requires that both sides of an argument are reflected in the BBC’s output. (And, yes, there is a problem in that the BBC tends to assume that there are only two sides of an argument, which can result in coverage that lacks nuance and depth.)

The conclusion that only indecisiveness can explain why the BBC airs different views can only have been reached by someone so unfamiliar with the concept of impartiality that they don’t recognise it as the obvious reason why views expressed on the BBC (not by the BBC) can welcome government “savings” at the same time that they deplore government “cuts”. And the perception that the BBC reflects differing views only because it lacks the confidence to express its own opinion can only make sense to someone who doesn’t understand that it is possible to present the views of others without expressing an opinion of one’s own.

These are really very basic errors, but they’re also typical of the way that accusations of BBC bias are discussed. Even observers who recognise that the BBC does not consistently promote one party political viewpoint above another think that it would do so if only it could find the confidence, or cast off the wish to be popular. Meanwhile, there are plenty of other observers who are convinced that the BBC does consistently promote one party political viewpoint above another (even if their reason for believing so is their mistaken assumption that any story that isn’t overtly critical of their political opponents must be biased).

Precious few people stop to imagine what impartiality and lack of bias would look like – it’s not a question of never encountering an opinion you disagree with, but of seeing opinions you agree with presented as well. And it’s not necessarily evidence of systematic bias if one particular article is not perfectly balanced – what matters is that different opinions are given broadly equivalent weight over time. (I’ll never forget the time I saw the BBC triumphantly convicted in an internet comments thread of a pro-business bias because a report by its business editor, Robert Peston, only covered the reactions of business to the budget – even though, elsewhere in the same bulletin, there had been other reports covering the reactions of others, including trade unionists. That kind of highly selective cherry picking is commonplace amongst critics of the BBC, whichever side of a particular argument they are on.)

I am aware that trying to convince people that the BBC is not biased in favour of one or other political party is a fool’s errand. People are so certain it is definitely biased to Labour, or definitely biased to the Conservatives, that it’s like trying to persuade them that water isn’t wet – they perceive it as something so obvious that it doesn’t have to be proved. I can live with that, although obviously I hope this post might persuade one or two people to think about the issue again – I wouldn’t have bothered writing it otherwise. But, even with people who remain convinced that the BBC is biased, I hope I can persuade them to agree with me that attacking the BBC as a proxy for their real opponents is a mistake.

I wrote my original post because I thought the BBC’s article was misleading and disingenuous (i.e., the journalist writing it must have known it was misleading). And I was motivated to write it because I thought the article was misleading in a way that might offer ammunition to supporters of the squeeze on welfare spending. But, as someone who opposes that squeeze, I recognise that my opponents are the government who are introducing it (and the right-wing press that explicitly champion it), not the BBC themselves.

Excepting those whose main concern is the existence of the BBC itself, attacking the BBC is always a distraction from what really matters. The BBC is close at hand and – for all its status as a corporate monolith – somewhat accessible: it can always be goaded into a response via its complaints unit, and will usually make conciliatory noises if pushed hard enough. But that doesn’t mean it has any actual power or influence: whether you object to windfarms or fracking, or to the Conservatives or to Labour, the focus of your anger should be the organisations and individuals responsible, not an organisation that reports on them.

Even if you sincerely believe that the BBC is massively biased on a particular issue that really matters to you, attacking it won’t actually change anything. In fact, it’s an almost literal example of that most clichéd way of describing misdirected anger or aggression: in attacking the BBC, all you’re doing is shooting the messenger. If you want to change the world, in how ever small a way, then you have to change the world, not change the way it’s reported.

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2 Responses to BBC bias and impartiality

  1. archiewahwah says:

    An insightful piece, and that on the whole I agree with – there are much worse and more biased reporting engines out there than the BBC.
    One quibble I may have is with your very last sentence to change the world, not ‘the way it’s reported’. In this media-driven era the weight of reporting cannot be underestimated and therefore it behoves us to ensure that the way that items are reported is as ideal as possible.

    I would also say that the BBC, although one of the more impartial news groups, is at times far from impartial. My mind immediately jumps back to the early 2000s, when they reported for months if not years on “The War on Terror”, words straight out of the mouth of Bush, picked up as a catch phrase by Blair and passed on into common usage in Britain by none other than the BBC. It was of course a war in Afghanistan, and a separate one in Iraq, and many of us at the time would have defined ‘war’ itself as a form of terrorism, making the whole phrase propagandist gobbledegook. There have been many instances of the BBC leading with government phraseology, both before and after that epoch, but it serves as one of the finest examples to demonstrate how they’re not entirely impartial.

  2. Pingback: In an era of permanent war, economic meltdown and climate ‘weirding’, we need all the champions of truth and justice that we can find. But where are they? |

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