Saturday 25 October 2014

Finding bias on 'Today'

What else is there to say about BBC bias and this morning's edition of Today

Why did the story of Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont's resignation lead the Today news bulletins? Was it simply a case of the BBC showing all those angry anti-BBC Scots Nats that it takes Scottish politics seriously? Seriously enough indeed to make it its main UK-wide story? Or did it come about through some kind of political bias? And - if so - which kind of bias (pro-Labour or anti-Labour)?

Given the slating it got during the Scottish independence referendum debate for being 'too English-focused', the BBC really had no choice, did it, but to lead on this significant development in Scottish politics? Making it the second or third story (or worse) would probably have provoked a storm (or at least very strong winds) outside Pacific Quay.

As for bias, well, it depends on your starting point. 

Obviously, at first glance, it's clearly a 'bad news story' for Ed Miliband and his Westminster Labour Party colleagues as they were the targets of some very sharp criticism from a clearly bitter Mrs Lamont ("parting shots" indeed). It makes them look awful. The story's also 'big', therefore, because it has UK-wide implications and seems to say something important about Ed Miliband's leadership. Anti-Labour bias? 'Westminter Bubble bias' in disguise?

However, the news reports on Today certainly weren't unhelpful to Mrs Lamont and her Scottish Labour supporters. Far from it. It gave their grievances a great boost, and James Naughtie's staff room-style chat with former (Labour) first minister Henry McLeish (just before 8 o'clock) was just as helpful to their cause. Mr McLeish entirely shared Johann Lamont's negative feelings about the Labour Party at Westminster and James Naughtie didn't attempt to talk him out of them. [Mr McLeish also agreed entirely with Jim's pre-interview summary of the situation in Scotland]. 

If there was any bias there then it was a bias towards Scottish Labour.


The main 'Westminster Bubble' angle though arose out of the programme's continuing coverage of the fall-out from the European Commission's demand for an extra £1.7 billion from UK taxpayers. This, when discussed on Friday's programme, tending to focus on the story from the 'What does this mean for David Cameron?' angle, and that angle still clung around today's two discussions of the story. 

[What do you make of that, Scots Nats? Only one segment about the Scottish Labour leader resigning, but two segments (with four people) about what that £1.7 billion demand means for David Cameron? Dusting your placards off again?]

Now, those discussion did broaden out somewhat. Were they biased though? 

Well, looking at the guess selection, the first interviewinvolved the granddaddy of Conservative Eurosceptics, Bill Cash MP, and one of the BBC's favourite go-to Europhiles, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff of Germany's Free Democratic Party (he's charming and speaks great English). The second interview involved Labour's strongly pro-EU Baron Roger Liddle and Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Conservative Foreign Secretary, who seems to be himself as a 'moderate Eurosceptic' but is considered by most Eurosceptics to be an out-and-out Europhile. 

So, there was a spread of opinion from the pro-EU centre-left (Roger Liddle) to the pro-EU centre (Count Lambsdorff) to the pro-EU/'moderately sceptical' centre-right (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) to partly anti-EU centre-right (Bill Cash). 

What was lacking there was a voice representing a significant proportion of UK opinion - that portion which favours withdrawal from the EU. (Bill Cash, to the puzzlement of many, wants us to remain in the EU).

So, yes, there was a pro-EU bias in the guest selection. There really should have been a 'withdrawalist' involved (perhaps in place of Bill Cash), shouldn't there?


A couple of days ago Today reporting on the report of the future of the NHS by Simon Stevens and opened the issue up to listeners' questions.

As James Delingpole very fairly wrote on Thursday, the Today team failed to spot a concerted effort by a group of left-wing activists to hijack the programme's question-and-answer session and force the issue of 'privatisation of the NHS' to the top of the agenda. 

That's no conspiracy theory on Dellers' part. The group 38 Degrees really did try to do that by using a particular hashtag on Twitter  - and they succeeded too. No one at Today seemed to think it odd that so many listeners were worried about the 'privatisation of the NHS' above all else. [A sign of left-wing bias on their part?]

This morning's Today returned to the issue at around 7.20, asking if the claims of NHS privatisation are true and whether the private sector is really at the margins of the NHS, or not. The discussion took place between Nigel Edwards of the Nuffield Trust and Paul Evans of the NHS Support Federation campaign group. 

This turned into one of those discussions between someone reassuring us that the private sector has a very small role (so it's nothing to worry about) and someone else who thinks private involvement in the NHS is 'a very bad thing, full stop'. 

What was lacking was someone saying that, yes, the private sector does have a small role at the moment and that the problem with that isn't that it shouldn't have any role whatsoever but that it should in fact have a much bigger one - i.e. that the private sector is a good thing, that that it should be used a lot more to help improve the NHS, and that the ideological obsessions of anti-private sector campaigners are irrational and harmful. Such a point of view is usually lacking on BBC programmes like this [though that's not helped by the fact that most politicians, including the Conservatives and UKIP, are very shy about broaching the subject].

So shall we chalk that up as a case of anti-private sector bias from the BBC?


Talking about anti-private sector bias from the BBC, the news bulletin featured a woodland charity denouncing a private quarrying company for planning to dig up some ancient woodland. The quote from the charity spokesman denounced the profit motif - i.e. couched the case against the company in classic left-wing terms.

Towards the close of today's programme we heard from that charity at greater length, namely from Austin Brady, Director of Conservation for the Woodland Trust. He's worried about an area of ancient woodland near Tamworth, Staffordshire, cited in the Domesday Book, threatened with destruction for the estimated 9 million tonnes of sand and gravel underneath it.

Now, I do turn green over ancient woodlands. I'd like to see them conserved and I don't like the sound of this one bit. We've too little ancient woodland as it is. But I was still hoping - and expecting - to hear the company's point of view. It didn't come.

Making Scottish Labour's case, establishing a pro-EU bias in its guest selection and, twice, bashing the private sector - that's what Today appeared to be up to this morning, did it not?

Did it not?

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