Friday 23 August 2013

The BBC: Conservative, Eurosceptic and pro-business. Apparently.

Oh, I do like statistically-based reports about BBC bias.

There's a new report out from Cardiff University that's making a few waves, claiming as it does that the BBC is indeed biased - albeit not in the way right-wingers think. 

The study comes bearing the intriguing statement that
"The funding for some of the research discussed in this article was provided directly by the BBC Trust." 
Just as intriguing is the fact that one of its listed authors is none other than Richard Sambrook, former director of BBC News, the BBC World Service and BBC Global News. (Wonder which bits he wrote?)

The report claims to have shown that the BBC is pro-Tory, pro-Eurosceptic and pro-business - a set of conclusions which flies in the face of...well, if not reality then at least my (and many other peoples') sense of reality.

I come with my own biases, of course - but then so does the report author tasked with promoting the report to the world - Dr Mike Berry

He's associated with the Glasgow Media Group - a  40-year old left-wing campaign which, according to Wikipedia, "claimed that television news was biased in favour of powerful forces and actors in society and against less powerful groups such as the organised working class". He's co-authored several books with hardcore anti-Israel activist Greg Philo, head of the Glasgow Media Group, alleging pro-Israel bias on the part of the BBC.

Someone who co-writes book after book attacking Israel and the "pro-Israel" BBC seems to come from a not dissimilar mindset to that of the leftist Media Lens website (which naturally approves of Dr Berry's work).

Does that campaigning left-wing standpoint necessarily mean that Mike Berry can't be objective in his academic research? Obviously not, if he chooses to set that aside and see where the evidence takes him in a disinterested fashion. However, that disinterested starting point doesn't seem to be the Glasgow Media Group's guiding principle and I choose to remain sceptical.

Besides Mike Berry and Richard Sambrook, the report's other authors are Karin Wahl-Jorgensen (who has previously written for far-left Red Pepper), Kerry Moore (who has written about the British media's ill-treatment of Muslims), Lucy Bennett, Jonathan Cable, Inaki Garcia-Blanco, Jenny Kidd, Lina Dencik (who describes herself as an 'activist') and Arne Hintz (who describes himself as an 'activist') other words, as fine a collection of disinterested academics as you could possibly hope to find - as I'm sure you'll agree! 

As regards matters of party political coverage, the Cardiff report examined a mere five days-worth of coverage and considered only the BBC News at Six (for national TV) and only a part (7.00-8.30 each day) of five episodes of the Today programme (for national radio), plus a handful each of local and national bulletins (ie. one each day from, say, the Midlands and Scotland). That seems to me to be a very small sample, the exhaustive concentration on which could lead to some very skewed results. 

My own intensive period of research from June 2009-April 2010 covered some of the topics in the Cardiff report and examined every interview with a party politician (some 2,200 of them) on all of the main BBC current affairs programmes over this period (including Today, Newsnight, The World at One, PM, Today, The Daily Politics, The Andrew Marr Show, Broadcasting House, The World This Weekend, Westminster Hour, among others!) - all the results of which can be seen at my old blog.

It showed that the incumbent Labour Party got the lion's share of the airtime (not unreasonably - being the government of the day). But how much of the lion's share? From June 09 to January 10 (inclusive) Labour got 53.81% of the total airtime, while the Conservatives got 26.52% - i.e. almost precisely double the airtime. 

As well as interview airtime, I also tried to measure the character (the quality) of those interviews by the simple act of counting the number of times a politician was interrupted by his or her BBC interviewer - on the not unreasonable grounds that (all things being equal, generally-speaking, blah blah) the more times a politician gets interrupted the harder the interview is likely to have been. 

The results were clear. Going from the most-interrupted to the least-interrupted, the final results came out as (with the number of interviews and my 'interruption coefficient' included):

UKIP (30) - 1.01
Conservatives (619) - 0.85
English Democrats (1) - 0.80
SNP (70) - 0.76
Sinn Fein (9) - 0.71
BNP (4) - 0.65
Plaid Cymru (11) - 0.65
DUP (10) - 0.62
Labour (1054) - 0.59
Liberal Democrats (333) - 0.44
Greens (16) - 0.26
TUV (2) 0.25
SDLP (3) - 0.20
UUP (2) - 0.15
Alliance (6) - 0.03
Respect (1) - 0 

Yes, despite being in opposition, a Conservative politician was significantly more likely to be interrupted than a Labour politician - albeit not as likely to be interrupted as someone from UKIP! (UKIP really did get a rough ride back then). 

A massive sample such as this is surely preferable to a small sample, such as that used by the Cardiff team. Small samples are more prone to lead to statistical errors. They leave the researcher open to questions such as: Which five days did you choose? Why did you choose them? How did you choose them? What happened on those five days, news-wise, and did that bias your results?

Still, a report is a report and should be read with an open mind (within reason). Take a read of it for yourselves and see what you make of it. From what I've read so far, my scepticism is growing ever deeper.

Update: This report isn't as new as the surge on Twitter suggests. Alan at Biased BBC was onto this story early last month - as I should have remembered, as I read it at the time!


  1. Well done Craig, a few of the comments over at BBBC on an earlier Open thread also highlight the very odd choice of author etc.

    My own comment was about the blatant non-sequitur:

    "So the evidence is clear that BBC does not lean to the left it actually provides more space for Conservative voices."

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Yes, and it was very kind of 'Stephen' at B-BBC to remind us of this report!


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