Biased BBC? A test case.

If you spend any time reading or writing about political and media issues in the UK, one of the things you get used to seeing again and again (sometimes even in your own comments threads) is the claim that the BBC are massively biased.  Confirming or refuting these repeated claims is always a little tricky, because, although you’ll find widespread agreement that the BBC definitely are biased, you’ll find less agreement about precisely how they’re biased.  As a general rule of thumb, anyone with a strong view on a particular issue will complain that the BBC’s reporting is biased against their point of view.  Interestingly, this general rule of thumb holds true for both sides on many issues, with the BBC being simultaneously accused of bias in both directions on a very large number of topics.

In these circumstances it would be very easy to become complacent, to assume that simultaneous claims of mutually exclusive bias cancel each other out, and to conclude, therefore, that the BBC is not biased.  This would be a mistake, of course, because the fact that both sides are complaining doesn’t necessarily indicate that both are wrong.  It’s perfectly possible for one side to complain with justifiable reasons, and for another to complain without.  To try and answer this question to my own satisfaction (if no-one else’s…), I’ve decided to compare and contrast the way various media outlets have covered a single political event.  This seems to me a good way of establishing whether or not the BBC is biased because it will enable me to look simultaneously at the factual content of the report and at the question of whether or not the BBC are ‘spinning’ the story in a way that is prejudicial to one or other side.

In terms of reaching a robust conclusion, it would clearly be better to attempt this compare-and-contrast exercise across a range of different subjects, but as just a bloke with a blog I don’t have the time or the resources to cover a whole range of topics.  That said, I hope you’ll agree that the event I’ve chosen to look at – the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement – is a reasonably good choice for my test case.  I think it makes a good choice because there is a hard, undisputed ‘core’ to the story (the underlying economic and fiscal situation, and the measures announced by the Chancellor), but it’s also an issue on which bias will be very readily identifiable; the way media outlets choose to headline their reports, and the details they choose to highlight, will be very revealing of the particular spin they are putting on the story.  One further practical consideration also influenced my selection – as a story guaranteed to be the leading domestic event of the day, I could be certain that prominent coverage would be found across a wide range of media outlets, which has made the process of comparing and contrasting a lot easier.

The rest of this post, then, will be taken up with screen-grabs of the homepages of various media outlets.  All of the screen-grabs were taken in the same 10-minute period (the first was taken at 14:08 today, the last at 14:17), and represent the immediate approach taken by the various outlets in the aftermath of the Chancellor’s speech.  Let me start with the way MSN covered the story:

Note that a key part of the factual core of the story – the worsening economic and fiscal position of the country – is relegated to the last of two bullet points and is not explained in detail, while the headline and bold-text summary spin the news in a way that will be extremely pleasing to the government.  This coverage is blatantly biased in favour of the government.

Next, the website of The Telegraph:

Note that the headline focuses on one of the few positive aspects of the factual core of the story – that the OBR forecasts are not quite as gloomy as the OECD forecasts published yesterday.  The summary provides detail of the lowered growth forecast for this year – though not the even lower growth (0.7%) next year – but also mentions the 3% growth forecast for the financial year 2015/16.  This coverage is not so blatantly biased as the MSN story, but picks and chooses the elements it highlights in a way that spins the story to the government’s advantage.

Now let’s compare the Telegraph’s approach with that of The Guardian:

Note that the headline stresses a part of the story that is not necessarily positive or negative (though some readers will see a cap on public sector pay as positive, others will see it as negative).  The summary of the story finds room for the weakened growth forecast for 2011, but not the recovery towards the end of the period, or the forecast that the UK will avoid recession.  The faster movement towards raising the retirement age is mentioned, as is the change to taxation on banks.  As with The Telegraph, the bias here is not blatant, and the summary includes elements that will both please and displease the government.  Nonetheless, the overall tone of the coverage here is biased against the government.

Next up, The Times:

Note that the factual details here are limited (though this is likely to be part of an attempt to lure casual readers behind the paywall, rather than anything more insidious).  The Times chooses to emphasise the public debt angle (the reference to ‘balancing the books’) rather than the substantially downgraded growth forecasts, which it fails to mention.  The headline reference to beating off the debt crisis when the statement confirmed that borrowing forecasts were in fact being revised upwards is also misleading.  Overall, this coverage is slightly biased in favour of the government.

Moving to the more populist end of the spectrum, let’s take a look at the Daily Mail:

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The headline of the main story emphasises the increase in public debt, but the claim of a ‘massive’ stimulus overstates a fairly modest package of infrastructure spending.  In addition, the summary of the main story claims that ‘The Chancellor […] warned we could be heading for a double dip recession’, when the OBR report, and the Chancellor’s comments on it, both state the exact opposite: that, contrary to the OECD report published yesterday, the UK is not forecast to go into recession, just a sustained period of very low growth.  The Mail’s coverage does a very poor job of covering the factual core of the story, directly misrepresenting simple matters of fact in some instances, but also failing to mention aspects of the story that other outlets saw as critical.  In addition, its coverage is heavily spun in support of its own agendas, such as the impossible-to-parody headline on the technical correction to overseas aid (the cash value of aid is being cut, but only in line with the forecast reduction in GDP; the target of 0.7% of GDP is being maintained).  The heavy-handed spin applied to a highly selective version of the factual core of this story make this coverage highly biased, even if that bias does not take a form that would please either the Labour or Conservative parties.

What about the BBC’s competitors in the broadcast news arena?  In common with the BBC they have a legal duty to present the news in an unbiased way, so comparisons between these organisations will be especially revealing.  This is how Sky News covered the story:

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Note that the emphasis is on the cuts to the growth forecast, and the use of the emotionally charged term ‘slashed’ in preference to an emotionally neutral alternative.  Note the blatantly biased tone of the feature article ‘Why Autumn Statement is Nothing But Bad News’; the Chancellor would, I’m sure, argue that many of the announcements (infrastructure spending, public sector pay) were good news – certainly he presented them that way in his speech – but none of these are mentioned in the headlines or summary.  Note that the claim ‘Britain faces further austerity’ is an unusual way to characterise a package of measures that involves modestly increased infrastructure spending, and are intended to be spending-neutral.  The cumulative effect of this produces coverage that is noticeably biased against the government

Next up, Channel 4 News (ITN):

Unlike Sky News, Channel 4 avoid biased language in their headline and summary.  Nonetheless note that both contain references to falling growth and rising borrowing, with no mention of any measures announced by the Chancellor to offset these problems.  I’m not quite sure this qualifies as bias (if it does, it’s bias-by-omission rather than active bias, as in the Sky News coverage), but the net effect is to produce coverage that subtly undermines the government’s case, and subtly reinforces the Labour party’s case.

So let’s summarise the story so far.  I’ve looked at a range of media outlets, and found evidence of bias in all of them.  This has ranged from the blatant distortions and highly selective reporting of the Daily Mail, via the heavily spun account of MSN, to the more subtly spun offerings in the Guardian, Times, and Telegraph.  Amongst the BBC’s broadcast competitors, Sky News, with its choice of emotive language and heavily biased feature articles, produced coverage that was slanted against the government.  Of all the outlets I’ve surveyed thus far, Channel 4 News has come closest to neutrality, although its decision to emphasise only the negative aspects of the story in its headline and summary falls some distance short of complete objectivity.

Now let’s turn to the BBC, and look at the way they were reporting this story.  Is there evidence of a determined anti-government bias (as some supporters of the government claim), or of a determined pro-government bias (as some opponents of the government claim?  Let’s take a look:

Note that the BBC’s main headline references the public sector pay announcement – the decision to emphasise this comparatively minor part of the speech matches the decision taken by The Guardian, and those people who believe there is a Guardian-BBC nexus in ‘liberal journalism’ may find this similarity noteworthy.  Despite this, the headline itself is flatly factual.  Since different people will take different views about whether a ‘pay cap’ is a good or bad thing, the headline can’t be said to be biased either for or against the government.

Turning to the remainder of its summary, the BBC finds room to mention the cuts to growth forecasts and increases to debt forecasts, but reports these in neutral terms (contrasted to Sky News’ ‘slashed’, and the Mail’s ‘George goes for broke!’).  It mentions the changes to the state pension age, and emphasises the prediction of the OBR that the UK will avoid recession.  The BBC has thus drawn equal attention to the parts of the story that tend to show the government in a good light (avoiding recession), and the parts that draw its actions into question (the growth/debt problems).  In terms of the factual core of the story, the BBC has by far the most accurate and complete coverage in its ‘splash’ (only the details of the infrastructure investment – heavily covered yesterday – is missing).  It has also managed to completely avoid the partisan spinning engaged in by the other news outlets.

This analysis has been reasonably shallow – it has only focussed on various outlets’ front-page splashes rather than their detailed coverage, although it’s at the headline level that bias is usually most apparent.  It’s also only focussed on a single news event – a more robust answer to the question of whether the BBC is or is not biased would require the analysis to be repeated across several stories, and to delve into the content of the various reports in more detail.  But nonetheless on this evidence, partial and incomplete though it is, it just isn’t possible to argue that the BBC are guilty of bias.  There’s plenty of evidence of bias on the part of other outlets, but none when it comes to the BBC.  Looking at the evidence of these screen-grabs it’s clear that the BBC do by far the best job of covering the factual core of this story, and included none of the selectivity of focus and emotionally-charged language that spun the coverage in other outlets.  This is what, I think, we want the BBC to be doing – giving us the facts, but letting us make up our own minds.

Do the BBC ever fall short of that?  Yes, I’m quite sure they do.  They’re a flawed and imperfect human organisation, after all, staffed by flawed and imperfect human beings.  There are times when I question the BBC’s editorial decisions myself, such as putting the Occupy London Stock Exchange coverage in the hands of the religious affairs correspondent, as though the place where the protestors had ended up was the most important thing about them – something that both supporters and opponents of the protests disputed, although for different reasons.  But the claim that there is a blatant, systematic and  unvarying bias to the BBC’s coverage just doesn’t stand up to analysis.

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