Saturday 18 July 2015

A new study of BBC pro-EU bias during the general election

From Newswatch to News-watch...

...and the preliminary findings of a characteristically compelling and comprehensive study of the BBC's general election coverage by David Keighley of that fine blog - and the no-less-fine Conservative Woman

David's survey focuses on the BBC's coverage of EU-related issues during the 2015 election, looking at (a) how much time was devoted to the subject, (b) how each of the four main political parties fared at the BBC's hands over this issue and (c) whether the Today programme's business news coverage gave a fair and balanced overview of EU matters. 

He examined every edition of Today, The World at One, BBC One's News at Ten and Newsnight between 30th March (the start of the election) and 10th May (three days after the election). - so there was no cherry-picking and no Cardiff Uni-style mass of distorting quirks. Just the kind of survey I approve of!

Here then are David Keighley's findings (so far):

1. Pro-EU bias in Today's dedicated business coverage

For me, the closing section - the one looking at whether the Today programme's business news coverage provided a fair and balanced overview of EU matters - strikes me as the most damning. 

There were 18 occasions when the subject of an in/out EU referendum was discussed during the programme's dedicated business spots. The guests broke down as follows:
14 saw the in/out referendum as a threat or a worry
2 said it was a matter for the government but indicated that they supported continued EU membership
2 took a 'neutral' position
0 guests supported withdrawal
The ‘drip, drip, drip effect' of this kind of thing over a very extended period of time can easily be imagined. 

The other striking thing looking at the outlines of of each of those 18 interviews is how often Simon Jack asks asks his guest something along the lines of, "Wouldn't an EU referendum disrupt your business plans?" That line of questioning keeps cropping up, insistently, and it's only by recording each and every interview that such a pattern of behaviour becomes clear and can offer concrete evidence of something which smells very strongly (to me) of bias. Drip, drip, drip.

2. Bias by omission in the amount of time devoted to EU-related matters, esp. the in/out referendum

The good thing about such surveys is that they make it possible to quantity certain things that, otherwise, could only be guessed at. 

Were you to guess how much time a significant subject like Britain's relationship with the EU was given by the BBC (out of the 130 hours of available programme time covered by David's survey) what would you guess? The answer turns out to be 3.1% (4 hours), suggesting (to David) that the BBC is failing in its commitments, made after the Wilson report, to treat coverage of EU-related matters as important.

3. An overall failure on the BBC's part to explain to the audience what each political party's policies meant

First, some striking snapshots: Did you know that Ed Miliband wasn't asked about his EU-related election policies on any of these four programmes at any time during the election? Or that no direct questions about EU withdrawal or policy were put to Nigel Farage by either Mishal Husain (on Today) or Evan Davis (on Newsnight)?  Or that on the day of the launch of the UKIP manifesto, more focus was on telling audiences that Mr Farage had called the 2010 manifesto ‘drivel’ than conveying what was in the 2015 version. (Yes, I remember that).

Secondly, a summary of David's findings for each party:

For the Conservatives, questioning focused on whether uncertainty about the EU would have adverse effects on trade and whether the referendum was a move to placate anti-EU backbenchers. No attempt was made to ask them why they wanted a referendum or what such a referendum with mean for voters and the UK.

For Labour, the questioning - despite some adverse questions - was "superficial and limited" and unchallenged platforms were given for Labour figures to attack their opponents.

For the Liberal Democrats, pretty much the same applies as with Labour (except less adverse questioning).

For UKIP, though party speakers did get to make points about the EU, most of the BBC's questioning focused on the party's competence or attitudes towards immigration and race. 

There are outlines of all the interviews and features covered and they are well worth reading in full to feel the cumulative force of the BBC's election coverage.


The preliminary report itself is only 27 pages long, so not a long read. A more detailed study will doubtless emerge in due course, digging deeper into each of the features outlined here.


  1. More evidence. Excellent.

  2. I vividly remember that, in the Boy Davis's interview with Nigel, he did not ask about UKIP's main policy which is leaving the EU. Maybe he just forgot in his excitement ?

  3. Weren't the University of Cardiff available to do their usual 'analysis'? I'm sure they'd have come up with a different conclusion.

  4. Important not to go overboard on this.

    Business is overwhelmingly pro-EU. The BBC can't ignore that reality in its business programming I think.

    I don't think the public ever saw the EU referendum as a really top topic in the general election. For a lot of people it is an adjunct to the issue of mass immigration - which did show up in all the polls as a really big issue.

    Where I would really criticise teh BBC and other news orgs is failure to dig deep into the referendum promise. What does it really mean? What would be the question on the ballot paper? Would a second referendum be ruled out - or would it be necessary? Would Cameron resign if his recommendation was not approved by the public?

  5. Agreed. Isn't 4 hours of coverage about what it ought to be? Say some 30% of the available programme time went on questions about the polls, possible coalition deals, how the campaign was going, the party's image, the leader's personality + so on and some 70% was left over for questions about policies, wouldn't 3.1% be about right? There are many topics to ask questions about, like the economy, the deficit, health, education, housing, immigration, tax avoidance, defence, foreign policy, terrorism, devolution, the environment, law and order + many more. Not convinced 4 hours on the EU shows bias by omission.


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