Wednesday 6 February 2013

I'm going to have to stop you there. We're running out of time.

Continuing with the subject of bias and the BBC's Question Time, a post called Is there Bias on BBC Question Time? caused quite a flurry of interest late last year. It was written by Labour activist Phil Burton-Cartledge on his A Very Public Sociologist blog and was subsequently taken up and given a wide readership by the New Statesman

It began: 
Is the BBC in thrall to the liberal establishment? Do right-wingers take to the telly in disproportionate numbers? Does it really deserve its Tory epithet, "Buggers Broadcasting Communism"? Or is the BBC getting it about right in striking an impartial balance? Whichever way you look at it, these are not a set of questions likely to be settled by a single blog post.
But one place you might want to look for evidence of  BBC bias is its flagship politics programme, Question Time. More specifically, if there is a leaning to the left or the right, this could be clarified by the political affiliations and loyalties of its guests.
Now, the weighting of the panel on Question Time towards either the right or the left has been a concern of the BBC's critics for a long time. When I was a Biased BBC addict I would always read the comments leading up to its weekly Question Time liveblog (now defunct) where the composition of the panel would usually be brought up and the overwhelming biasing of the panel in favour of the left and against the right would be pointed out/alleged by someone or other. Now, I must admit that as time went on I got more and more sceptical about some of the ratios which commenters were coming up with - usually 5:1 or 4:1 in favour of the left. Just as an example, I remember one comment on an edition featuring Conservative MP Francis Maude and one-time prospective Conservative London mayoral candidate Nick Ferrari, both appearing on the same panel. The comment ran, "Where was the balance on tonights QT. 5 against 1. How does the BBC get away with it. We have a total left wing media." This sort of comment would keep on coming. On occasions some Conservative politician or journalist would be re-defined as a CINO (Conservative In Name Only) for not being sufficiently right-wing and moved straight into the 'leftie' camp, and David Dimbleby himself would frequently be automatically counted into the same ratio as a leftie. Unsurprisingly, overwhelming bias towards the left was regularly 'proved' by this doubtless very sincerely-meant species of gerrymandering week in and week out. No wonder the BBC hasn't taken this sort of thing seriously.

What I didn't realise, not frequenting Twitter, is that left-wingers are also regularly tweeting complaints about Question Time panels being weighted against the left and towards the right (and/or the establishment). It's a little parallel universe I didn't know existed. Just as on the right-wing blogs, where David Dimbleby was seen as being obviously pro-Labour (and a leftie), so these left-wing tweeters would regularly castigate "Mr. Impartiality" (as the Radio Times once called him) for being a not-so-closet Tory (and a rightie) and being blatantly biased against their side of the argument. Amazing! 

Now, complaints from both sides usually allow the BBC to reach for one of its favourite sayings, "On balance, we think we must be getting it about right." However, despite the Twitterati, it remains pretty much unarguable that it's right-wingers who are disproportionately angered by what they see as Question Time's pro-Left bias and that the left-wing complainants are far few in number. (Surely?) Plus there are far more left-wingers out there ready to defend the BBC against charges of bias than there are right-wingers. (Surely?)

Cue Phil. 

He studied every edition since 4 December 2008 using the information provided by....Wikipedia. Yes, it was easy-to-access, publicly-available info! It gave him some four years worth of data and a list of 362 individuals occupying 704 panel slots. What he then did (in the course of an evening, from his descriptions elsewhere - so it barely took any time to work out) was to ascribe a party or right-wing/left-wing tag to them, wherever possible. Simple but clever. (I wish I'd thought of it!)

His first set of findings concerns the party politicians: 

47 Conservative politicians occupying 137 slots 
51 Labour with 148 slots 
31 LibDems with 109 slots
18 Others taking 57 slots 

Phil's "socialist spin" on this (as his blog puts it) runs as follows:
A slight advantage for Labour perhaps, but hardly indicative of a systematic political bias - and even less so if you strip out the Question Time dedicated to the Labour leadership election in 2010.
OK, so he's proved an advantage for Labour but, he says it's a "slight" one that's "hardly indicative of a systematic bias". I agree with that. I'd say though that he is "spinning" with regards to that point about the Labour leadership election special, as that occasion saw five Labour Party politicians being given the opportunity to promote their leadership qualities and to bash the Tories at the same time - without the inconvenience of a single Tory to respond. That shouldn't be discounted, Phil. It should earn Labour double points instead! Well, that's my anti-socialist spin on it!! - and it's doubtless just as feeble as Phil's socialist spin. The figures are exactly right as they are, showing that slight Labour advantage that's hardly indicative of a systematic bias. 

Phil then moves on:
Matters are skewed when you introduce other categories of guests. 
His initial breakdown is:
trade unionists (7 occupying 9 slots)
business people (23 and 32 slots)
journalists (61 occupying 127 slots (21 women and 42 slots)
celebrities (31 and 46 slots)
campaigners and wonks (4 taking 11 slots)
'other' (authors, scientists, clergy, retired military, etc. - 23 taking 29 slots)

His left-right breakdown of the journalists is:
Balance-wise the right outweigh the left here, but that could be a freak of the figures, right? No. Of the 61 journalists, 40 could be described as explicitly political writers. 27 are of the right, and 13 are liberal/left. Rightwing journalists took 64 slots, and the liberal/left 31. For whatever reason, not only are hacks overrepresented on the Question Time panel, but Tory-leaning journalists outnumber their liberal and Labour-leaning contributors by over two to one.
I've re-done his survey and, yes, he's right. The right-wing journalists do outnumber the left-wing ones by an almost exact 2:1 ratio. Shall I spin this? Hmm. Question Time has to draw its journalists from across the spectrum of the UK press as well as the political spectrum. There are more right-wing components of the UK press than there are left-wing ones, so - taking the newspapers - you have a 2:1 ratio of right-leaning papers (Times, Telegraph, Mail, Express, Sun and Star) to left-leaning papers (Guardian, Independent and Mirror). Chuck in the small daily circulations of the two left-leaning broadsheets, & you have your reason why Question Time has the balance of journalists it has. QED. Well, probably not. Probably not.

Ah, but Phil's celebs push us back towards the left again:
The balance is not addressed by the other category of guests. Of the 31 celebs, 18 have definite views that align one way or the other. Six are on the right, and 12 of the liberal/left. The former had 13 slots, and the latter 16.
Next we get a little more "socialist spin": 
There are other questions that need to be asked. The predominance of business people over trade union voices came as no surprise at all. But come on, leading trade unionists combined have been on less than Nigel Farage! In case anyone needs reminding, trade unions are the largest voluntary organisations in civil society with a combined membership of some six million. Farage is the leader of a party whose supporters can fit into my living room. And if that wasn't bad enough, his odious minion Paul Nuttall has been on twice too. So why are UKIP way overrepresented on the panel and a mass movement of millions virtually ignored?
The first element of the "spin" is to imply a sigh at "the predominance of business people over trades union voices". As business leaders can be seen to speak for the 22 million people in the UK employed in the private sector, they should be on a lot more than trades union leaders who speak for only 6 million people.  (So Question Times ratio of business leaders to trade unionists would be "about right"!) Also, note how Phil drops his left-right/Labour-Conservative analysis here. As most of the "trades union voices" are key players in the internal affairs of the Labour Party, they can (with rare exceptions) be classed as pro-Labour and (with no exceptions) left-wing. No such direct link can be made from many of the business leaders to the Conservative Party (Simon Wolfson is an obvious exception) and some could be pro-Labour (Max Mosley, a Labour donor - two appearances - for example) Given that all three main parties consider themselves to be pro-business and business leaders tend to keep out of party politics, this is a grey area in Phil's survey. He might presume they are all right-wing, being (by definition) pro-business, but they aren't necessarily so. 

The second element of spin relates to his attacks on UKIP. Presumably Phil's point is that UKIP has no UK parliamentary seats (though they did get 3.1% in the 2010 general election) so UKIP's "over-representation" on the programme (13 appearances) is plain for all to see (he thinks). Well, if you look at it that way perhaps. However, UKIP is, of course, way up in the opinion polls at the moment, has a large contingent at the European parliament and might just, polls say, come first in the next European elections in 2014. So, over-represented? Actually, if you work out the percentages, UKIP only gets 2.9% of the party political spots (13 out of 451) compared to 32.3% for Labour, 30.4% for the Conservatives and (a surprisingly high) 24.2% for the Liberal Democrats. Hardly over-representation I think. Plus given that Question Time is primarily a party political programme, the fact that the number of party politicians from smaller parties (UKIP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens, Respect, etc) seems disproportionate the number of (largely Labour Party-affiliated) trade union leaders isn't particularly surprising. 

So what's the verdict on Phil's study? It pretty much proves that there isn't a problem with bias as regards left-right imbalance on Question Time, guest selection-wise. One area of left-leaning imbalance is pretty much evened out by another area of right-leaning imbalance. However much you (or I) might want to shuffle guests into one camp or the other to suit our tastes and to get the ratio we want, the panels on Question Time are balanced (over time). If you still choose not to believe that then you are ignoring the facts and blundering on with a self-placed blindfold over your eyes. That's what the stats show and the stats are right, even if some of the interpretations put on them (by both Phil and myself) remain open to question - and to vigorous disagreement. Such is politics, and rightly so. Statistics can only take us so far.

I would add that it would have been far better if Phil had posted the full results on his blog - along with his right'/'left' labels. (I used to post the full results of my surveys on my old blog. They were very full and took up acres of blog space, but given how much blog space there is that's hardly an issue). That way others can check the soundness of the stats for themselves. It looks a bit suspicious if you don't. 


After all that number-crunching, let's see how others reacted to Phil's findings. 

Let's start with Phil himself. He admits on his blog why he really did his survey - and it wasn't to prove pro-right bias at Question Time. Here's an exchange:
Loz said...
Anyway, great piece and should be spread far and wide every Thursday the minute a right-winger opens their cake hole to bleat about the Marxists controlling the BBC.
Phil said...
Re: your final comment, I wrote it specifically for those annoying Question Time moments ;) 
Biased BBC (the very sort of people he intended to annoy) responded. The post, Not Many People Know That, didn't dispute his findings, its author simply stating "I always assume QT is in the main ‘balanced’". Many of his readers at Biased BBC most definitely don't share that assumption it has to be said. The whole thread largely consists of a stream of ad hominem arguments, which I feel an urge to summarise for you (for your edification):

What a waste of time!
Get a life mate!
It's in the New Statesman!
Sociologists are a waste of space!
He's a leftie!
There's no right-wing bias on the BBC. Ever. Full stop.
It's always 4:2 or 5:1.
He's a liar!
He's just can't have been being objective!
He can't be right!
He counted all those CINOs as right-wingers!
The Left are fools and traitors.
He spelt a word wrong on Twitter!
Marxists are bad people.
I looked at the last five editions. They prove him wrong. 
"I'm not going to waste any more of my time proving what we all know anyway."


The left-wing commenters at the New Statesman (despite the odd stray anti-BBC, pro-right comment) did much what you'd expect them to do as well. They seemed to divide between those are keen to defend the BBC as a beacon of impartial broadcasting and those who see if as a right-wing, establishment outfit with Andrew Marr as a reactionary and David Dimbleby as anti-left. Someone added a gratuitous dig at Israel, naturally. 


Two other concerns (at least) remain about Question Time's impartiality - the question of whether David Dimbleby is a biased chairman and the question of whether the questions chosen by the Question Time team demonstrate bias. 

David Dimbleby, as you can see above, gets accused by a minority on the left of being an anti-left, establishment type but for as long as I've read Biased BBC it's been the accusation that he's anti-right that has reached my ears more - particularly as I have in the past been in the thick of providing statistics that back up that contention.

My old Beeb Bias Craig blog looked at Question Time in the months leading up to the May 2010 general election. As was my way, I watched every edition of the programme (to avoid cherry picking) and spent a good four hours each week analysing each edition. I worked out precise figures for how much time each guest got to speak, who was questioned most by David Dimbleby and - above all - who was (proportionally) interrupted the most (my old interruption coefficients). You can read all my results here. Though the rather angry (and insulting) tone of some of my posts back then makes me squirm now, I stand by those figures. They are spot on. 

I'll quote a post I wrote for Biased BBC some time later:
Following last week’s full-frontal assault on Coalition minister Vince Cable, this week’s Question Time saw another Coalition minister, Grant Shapps, fall victim to a rampaging bullock, being questioned and interrupted by David Dimbleby far more than any of the other guests (even David Starkey). The figures for this will appear in the comments field below.
Well, you might say, both Mr Shapps and Dr Cable are government spokesmen, so David Dimbleby is right to challenge them more than guests from the opposition parties – except that DD didn’t challenge government ministers more than opposition party guests when Labour were in power. Quite the reverse.
Here’s a list of the guests who were interrupted most frequently by DD in relation to the length they were allowed to speak (yes, interruption coefficients!) in the months leading up to the general election. (There are a few joint first prizes):
29/4 Liam Fox (C) /Vince Cable (LD)
22/4 William Hague (C)
15/4 Nigel Farage (UKIP)
8/4 Theresa May (C)
1/4 Ken Clarke (C)
25/3 Liam Byrne (L)/Baroness Warsi (C)
18/3 Caroline Lucas (Green)/Andrew Lansley (C)
11/3 Jo Swinson (LD)
4/3 Boris Johnson (C)
25/2 Nigel Farage (UKIP)
18/2 Lynne Featherstone (LD)
11/2 Jim Allister (TUV)
4/2 Theresa May (C)
28/1 Jenny Tonge (LD)/Nigel Lawson (C)
21/1 Caroline Spelman (C)
Full details of the statistics behind this list can be found here.
By political party, that results in these totals for the award for Most Interrupted Panelist:
Conservatives – 10
Liberal Democrats – 4
UKIP – 2
TUV – 1
Greens – 1
…and for the government of the day…
Labour – 1
I wish David Dimbleby a long and happy retirement!
(Charming last comment, that!)

So, as you can see, I was convinced that I had the stats to show anti-right bias by David Dimbleby ("Mr. Impartiality".) I admitted to myself even then though that David Dimbleby doesn't look like a leftie, despite sometimes seeming to behave like one. I toyed with the idea at the time - after it was suggested by esteemed fellow blogger Nota Sheep - that he might be over-compensating for some innate Conservative tendencies.

Talking of the excellent Nota Sheep, he is fond of posting this video, which seems to show DD launching an attack on Iain Duncan Smith at the prompting of Harriet Harman. This one will fascinate you if you've never seen it before. What is going on here (besides some tricksy use of video by the video maker)?:

The response from an anonymous commenter at the time on Nota's blog puts the case for the defence:
What was it that we're supposed to be annoyed about? She said something to him, and he then interrupted IDS, but you can't say that one led to the other. All David Dimbleby does on that show is interrupt and challenge the speakers - that's what he's there for. He does it to everyone - well, to all the politicians anyway, he usually gives journos and business types an easier ride.
By the way, Dimbleby is not employed by the BBC, he's always been a freelancer. 
So, what do I think now? Well, as for that video, I rather agree with the anonymous commenter these days. I no longer believe it to be quite the clinching proof of a Labour-BBC conspiracy I once half-believed it was. It looks bad, when viewed in a certain light; however, polemical heavily-edited videos with short, taken-out-of-context extracts from an hour-long programme have somewhat lost their sway over me. He may have been a bit too much in Harriet Harman's corner in that extract (quoting her "Rubbish" at IDS), but would he not have interrupted Iain Duncan Smith anyhow for going off-topic? David Dimbleby often comes down on guests like a ton of bricks for going off-topic. I suspect he interrupted repeatedly and forcefully because that's what he does. 

However, what about my own figures showing that David Dimbleby interrupted anyone-but-Labour more than than he did the then-Labour government representative on the programme? I well remember how angry I used to get whilst studying some editions of the programme at the time whenever DD used to go for his right-wing guests (not all of them Conservative or UKIP spokesmen, some right-wing journos) much more than he did Labour spokesmen; however, reviewing my figures, he also went after Green and Lib Dem politicians too - plus those headline figures don't show that he did give some of his Labour guests at the time a fairly tough time (just not as often and not across the board). If you review, as I've just done, some of my more detailed takes on particular episodes - such as this or this or this or this or this or this or this or this (and there's more!) -  you might be able to sense my anger and my then very firm belief in the anti-right bias of David Dimbleby and might see why I might have felt it. 

I know it will probably seem to any of you who aren't enmeshed in this debate that the idea of David Dimbleby as a biased leftie (or as an overcompensating Tory) will seem ridiculous. His coverage of such national events such as Remembrance Day, Trooping the Colour, the State Opening of Parliament and so on are models of presentation and have endeared him to many BBC viewers over several decades. He's also presented such charming programmes as A Picture of Britain. I've not monitored the man's performance on Question Time in recent years so I can't say if this was an atypical period or not, but I watched the programme closely for some months at that time and I know what I saw. I saw biased chairmanship from David Dimbleby. What do you make of that? What do I make of that?

As for the other concern - the one about the questions chosen and whether they are selected in a biased way - that's something I've not looked at before. Maybe I will now. Another post beckons.


  1. I am sure I'm not the only one with the theory that the BBC is biased in favour of the government (of whatever flavour) and the establishment in general? The bias isn't party-political, and in fact is a deliberate feature of the design of the BBC (like for example the house of lords) to embed a small-c conservatism in our public institutions as a guard against anything too radical upsetting the apple cart. If there was a government-opposition balance you would never see a lib-dem and a tory on the same panel opposite one labour, but that is commonplace at present.

  2. A belated response I know, but thanks for this critique from a right standpoint. It has proven to be genuinely useful. Needless to say, this isn't going to be my last word on Question Time :)

    1. Thanks Phil. I'm glad to hear you're going to give it another go. Your last take certainly put a few cats among the pigeons.


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