Sunday, 1 May 2016

Institutional bias at the BBC

The free-market think thank the Institute for Economic Affairs has produced a new report calling for the BBC to be privatised

Part of the report looks at the subject matter of this very blog: BBC bias. Ryan Bourne analyses the date (pp 67-97) and Stephen Davies considers why the BBC might be biased (pp 100-112). 

Both are subtle and nuanced takes, emphasising how difficult bias can be to nail down and how it isn't as simple as just 'left-wing bias' or 'right-wing' bias. They argue that the BBC's bias doesn't result from a conspiracy. They say it's institutional, arising from things like the composition of the BBC’s staff, its internal culture and certain structural features of the BBC. They say it's also partly produced by the world-view of the kind of person who chooses to work at the BBC, "combined with the consensual views of the political class, which has come to have an ever-closer connection to all the mass media". The BBC's "commitment to and focus on a received or conventional wisdom that is not the settled view of the population as a whole (to the very small extent that such a thing ever exists) means that certain views are marginalised and either misrepresented or even ignored" - a tendency intensified by the modern media's obsession with seeing political and intellectual divisions "in binary terms".

On the issue of 'complaints from both sides', Ryan Bourne has this to say:
Unsurprisingly, the BBC itself is extremely defensive about all of these ‘accusations’. It seizes on reports that dismiss accusations of ‘left-of-centre’ bias and uses the fact that it gets criticised from left and right to robustly defend itself against charges of political or ideological favouritism. Yet, few suggest that the BBC is overtly and deliberately biased at all times, particularly towards or against a political party. It is more that an institutional worldview sometimes appears to shape coverage, whether through decisions on what to cover, what to include in a story or what to admit. Just because figures on the left and right sometimes moan about the effects of this world-view does not implicitly make the BBC ‘neutral’.
The data in the report (courtesy of David Keighley & Co. at News-watch) is interesting in its own right. 

From reading other pieces about the report (such as Toby Young at the Spectator and Iain Martin at CapX) it's clear that the figures on Radio 4's Thought For The Day have caught people's attention. They certainly caught mine. Of course, they show that John Bell, Giles Fraser and the rest of the TFTD gang are, on the whole, as left-wing as we already knew them to be, but it's the sheer scale of the anti-capitalist bias across the spot's output that's so striking. Negative commentaries about business outnumbered positive portrayals by a factor of more than eight to one.

The bigger study of Today's EU coverage is even more damning though. In contrast to British public opinion which has long had either a substantial minority or a small majority wanting us to get out of the EU, Today has persistently under-represented such voices:
Fresh News-watch analysis commissioned for this chapter has sought to combine all News-watch survey sample data on Radio 4’s Today programme between March 2004 and June 2015. In the monitored sample, the Today programme included 4,275 guest speakers on EU themes. Just 132 of these (3.2 per cent) were identifiably in favour of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. Furthermore, 72 per cent of withdrawalist speakers were representatives of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), and over a third (37 per cent) of all withdrawalist contributions were from Nigel Farage alone. Left-leaning withdrawalist voices have accounted for just 0.07 per cent of all EU speakers over this period (three appearances from Labour Party supporters and one representative from the Socialist Labour Party). 
One thing that can be said in favour of the BBC during this present EU referendum period is that they have redressed this staggering imbalance somewhat, most strikingly by featuring Labour Party withdrawalists (Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart especially) much more often. I myself have been looking out to see if that's happened - and it has.

Going off at a tangent, maybe, but in the section on 'health warnings', there's a chart showing how certain think tanks are described by the BBC. It got me thinking about that most 'influential' of 'independent' think tanks, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). It is often given such labels by the BBC (along with 'respected'). As the IEA report says, such adjectives constitute "a powerful, positive signal that the viewpoint should be taken seriously and is untainted by political biases." When someone from the IFS passes judgement on, say, the Budget or what a Brexit might mean economically or on mass immigration's benefits and costs, it is automatically given considerable weight and status. Does it deserve to be so exalted by the BBC? Is it always right? Is its track record so impeccable? Why does no one ever seem to ask that, or check that?

As I say though, that's just an aside arising from the report. 


  1. Good point on the IFS. I have long railed against this bigging-up of the IFS. When you look at their luminaries they are all part of the EU-Globalist gravy train. Heads of IFS go off to places like the Euro institutions, UK Stats, OECD, and IMF where they then quote the "respected, influential and independent" IFS!

    Anyone can do better than the Chancellor's forecasts - if you were to take all the Chancellors' predictions for growth each year over the last 15 years and halve them, you would be pretty accurate. It's not difficult.

    As far as I know the IFS did not predict the credit crunch of 2008.

  2. They say it's institutional, arising from things like the composition of the BBC’s staff, its internal culture and certain structural features of the BBC. They say it's also partly produced by the world-view of the kind of person who chooses to work at the BBC, "combined with the consensual views of the political class, which has come to have an ever-closer connection to all the mass media".

    Which is exactly what we've been saying for years. Nice to see this articulated by a respected group like that. Plus a take-down of Complaints From Both Sides! As for the TFTD cavalcade of Leftoid clergy, I expect the numbers would come out showing them extremely anti-capitalist, as listening to all of them spout anti-capitalist drivel for years is basically why so many people think they're Left-wing.

    I'm going to be in a good mood all day. I will definitely make time this week to read the full report.

  3. Personally I've no wish to see the BBC privatised - in other words offered up for purchase by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Putin's mates, the Chinese state or American billionaires.

    I would like to see the BBC reformed.

    There is no reason why, in the modern computer age, we couldn't actually allocate our licence fee to particular areas of programme production that interest us. So we might have a pin number which would allow us access to a website where programme producers put up programme ideas. We could start off with perhaps 10% of the licence fee being allocated in this way, and gradually increase it year by year until at least 50% is covered that way.

    I think we should gradually move away from the licence fee.

    I think we should also vote (again using our pin number) on a BBC Directors board. That way we can bypass the great and the good and people like say Rod Liddle, Peter Hitchens or Katy Hopkins will be in with a chance of being appointed. Once we have a more representative board, they will be doing the hiring and firing. Perhaps also require that people from outside the BBC are brought into the interview process for senior appointments. You also need to set limits on the number of highly paid senior managers - the BBC's bureaucracy is absurdly over the top with multiple duplication of roles.

    Eventually we need to move away from the licence fee. One way of doing this would in phases:

    Phase 1 - Give people an opt out on some BBC services. So perhaps they could forgo everything apart from BBC 1, BBC Radio and the BBC News Channel if they wished and save themselves 30% on the licence fee.

    Phase 2 - Further break down the BBC package and give people an opt out on those parts as well so they can opt out on say 70% of the licence fee.

    Phase 3 - Abolish the licence fee. From then on the BBC package will be offered to every household but every household can reject its services (in part or whole). I think the inertia factor will mean that 90% of people will stick with BBC but the era of compulsion will be over.

    I think the BBC Charter needs to be adapted as well to make it clear it is not there to promote multiculturalism but to promote common values. It should be explicitly required to support free speech for all shades of political opinion.

    1. Why make your proposed new business model so complicated?

      Just abolish the licence fee, it's an anachronism in the Digital Age, make it subscription like the rest of the media. The World Service provides around half the BBC's revenue anyway so let that continue as is.

      The pension fund will be secured so employees and those in the HoL will be happy.

      Just let people pay for what they want to watch in their leisure time. It's not a vital service.

  4. Read this with increasing confusion about how stats are being interpreted here. Once I got to the assertion that interviewing Kate Hoey & Gisella Stuart provided 'balance' from the left to set against the multiple broadcasts of Farage then it became obvious someone's got a bent telescope.