Sunday 27 September 2015

A new parlour game for bias spotters

There have been criticisms on various social media platforms (old and new) today from both pro-UKIP and pro-Corbyn partisans alleging that Andrew Marr was biased against their man today. 

So, in the interests of seeing whether they are right of not, let's see how each interview was framed. Here's how Andrew Marr introduced today's set-piece political interviews:
NIGEL FARAGE. UKIP Now UKIP at their annual conference rarely fail to make headlines. They’re not always, it has to be said, the headlines they want to make. Now there’s a split between two rival anti-EU campaigns and a bitter row between UKIP’s only MP Douglas Carswell and its prime financial backer Arron Banks. I caught up with Nigel Farage, the bounceback man of British politics, yesterday afternoon. Could he explain what on earth is going on? --
JEREMY CORBYN, LABOUR  Now Jeremy Corbyn isn’t the first Labour radical to storm to the leadership of the party on the back of popular discontent. Keir Hardie, Labour’s founder, and George Lansbury, were at least as far to the left and are still revered in the Labour Party. The trouble is, however, neither of them became prime minister. And that’s Mr Corbyn’s challenge: to take the energy that got him elected leader and use it to win over not hundreds of thousands but millions of people, many of whom have never been on a demonstration in their life. Welcome Mr Corbyn. Thirty years ago almost to the day, just down the coast, Neil Kinnock kicked out the Trotskyists and the Communists from the Labour Party. Are they welcome back in again? --
Now, I wouldn't describe either of those introductions as being particularly helpful to Mr Marr's guests today.

To demonstrate bias though they'd have to be set alongside a fair sample of other interviews. 

If, say, a pattern emerges where certain parties (or factions within parties) persistently receive worse introductions than others, or where 'anti-establishment' interviewees (like Messrs Farage and Corbyn) are repeatedly on the receiving end of unhelpful introductions unlike 'establishment' interviewees, then we might indeed find evidence of bias. 

Quite how an 'Unhelpfulness Index' could be made to work I can't quite say, but I think we can all probably sense when an interviewer's introduction helps (or doesn't help) the interviewee, if we're not wearing partisan blinkers. 

Indeed, a purely subjective rating systems could be used: eg. +++ for 'very helpful', ++ for 'helpful', + for 'quite helpful', = for 'neither helpful nor unhelpful, - for 'quite unhelpful', -- for 'unhelpful' and --- for 'very unhelpful'. 

Using such a ratings system, I'd give both the Nigel and Jeremy interviews a -- (unhelpful) rating. 

As a test of how this thing might go (with any interviewer), here are the introductions to all of this month's other set-piece interviews on The Andrew Marr Show, complete with my own subjective ratings. 

See if you rate them similarly, or whether you think the whole thing's a completely pointless exercise:  
TIM FARRON, LIBERAL DEMOCRAT 20/9Anyway, the Liberal Democrats, in sunshine, are in Bournemouth this week for their annual conference. No jokes about fitting into a phone-box because despite having only 8 MPs the party says it’s signed up 20,000 new grassroots members since the General Election wipe-out. What’s more, the new Lib Dem Leader Tim Farron claims he’s acting as an agony aunt – agony uncle surely – to distressed Labour politicians following Jeremy Corbyn’s victory. Can this really be true? Mr Farron joins us now from the conference centre. Good morning to you, agony uncle. =
Now then, the scenes of chaos along Europe’s southern and eastern borders go on, but EU leaders have been confused and contradictory in their response – opening borders one day, slamming them shut the next. This week they’re going to try to agree a common line, but with Germany demanding that each country takes its fair share of migrants and Hungary putting up more razor wire to keep them out, it’s hard to see what the deal will be. Britain has opted out of that, of course, but should we be doing more to help solve this crisis? I’m joined now by the International Development Secretary Justine Greening. Good morning. =
HILARY BENN, LABOUR 20/9It’s been a roller coaster week, as we’ve been hearing, for the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn said he’d do things differently and he’s certainly proved that when it comes to clothes, media appearances, royal protocol, managing the party, he has a unique style. But is this too disorganised, even chaotic? I’m joined now by one of the most senior members of his team: the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn. Good morning to you, Hilary Benn. -
TOM WATSON, LABOUR 13/9 And here’s a thought: at the time of the next election, Jeremy Corbyn will be exactly the same age that Keith Richards is now. Speaking of which, I had hoped to talk to Jeremy Corbyn this morning. He had other things to do. And, as it happens, the Israeli Prime Minister Mr Netanyahu also bailed out, so at least there is something that the two of them agree on. But we’re delighted to have Mr Corbyn’s new deputy, Tom Watson, who is going to be playing a crucial role from now on. Good morning. Now you don’t know Jeremy Corbyn very well, but you’ve seen a lot of him in the last I guess 24 hours or so. What kind of opposition are you going to be? How different is British politics going to feel as a result of all of this? =
MICHAEL GOVE, CONSERVATIVE 13/9Now then, David Cameron has reportedly warned cabinet colleagues not to patronise Jeremy Corbyn. Far from it. They seem to be talking him up - a threat to the UK’s national and economic security one minister said yesterday. So does the government regard this as a serious change in the political landscape? I’m joined now by the Justice Secretary Michael Gove. Welcome and thanks for coming on. First of all, the second most courteous man in British politics has just won the Labour leadership. You’re probably the most courteous. Any message for Jeremy Corbyn to start with? =
DAVID BLUNKETT, LABOUR 13/9And so to David Blunkett, a man of the left who moved to become a crucial figure in New Labour modernisation. He’s let off both barrels, as we were hearing, against the Corbyn revolution in The Mail on Sunday this morning, warning that disillusion will follow the euphoria as night follows day. The former Home Secretary joins me now from Sheffield. Good morning Mr Blunkett. +
HARRIET HARMAN, LABOUR 6/9Now on Saturday we’ll find out who has won Labour’s leadership election. It has been, by all accounts, a fascinating contest, and for the Acting Leader, Harriet Harman, it will bring down the curtain on 28 years in the frontline of Labour politics as a cabinet and shadow cabinet minister. It’s a long time. She’s been overseeing the process, much criticised by some of the party, of choosing Ed Miliband’s successor and she joins me now. Welcome to you. Twenty-eight years. We’ll talk about that in a moment, but first of all how certain are you that all these people who have been joining the Labour Party, paying their £3 for the wrong reasons – Tories, llamas, people’s dogs, hard left Marxists who have very little in common with the Labour Party – how certain are you that all of these voters have been weeded out before the final vote? -
VINCE CABLE, LIBERAL DEMOCRAT 6/9Well, for five years Vince Cable was at the very heart of government as Business secretary, in the coalition. His time as a cabinet minister and an MP came to an abrupt end with a near wipe out in the general election in May. But he’s been busy since then, putting down his thoughts on the economy, Britain’s global future, and the often blustery years inside the coalition. His new book is called “After the Storm” and Sir Vince joins me now. Congratulations on the handle Sir Vince. ++
GEORGE OSBORNE, CONSERVATIVE 6/9And thus to the story of the autumn, one of the biggest and fastest shifts in the public mood I can ever remember. Did a single photograph of a drowned Syrian boy persuade the government and the public we should be accepting vastly more Syrian refugees? Well we’re waiting for the details of exactly how many will be allowed in and how they’ll be picked. To help us with these questions, the Chancellor George Osborne is with me now. Good morning, Chancellor. First of all, before those pictures started to circulate, there was a real sense and the Prime Minister said that bringing in more and more and more refugees is not the answer and then something changed, so do you concede that that picture changed everything? =
Now, of course, that's far too small a sample to prove much - though it does seem to suggest (if you agree with my ratings) that Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn (the two least establishment interviewees) fared worse than anyone else. 

OK, so let's go back to before the show's summer break and check out July:
BARONESS WARSI, CONSERVATIVE 26/7David Cameron says that tackling extremism will be one of the defining themes of his final term as prime minister. In a speech last week, he signalled that the struggle against Islamist terror is similar to defeating Hitler and he called on Muslim communities to work together towards promoting moderate values. The former foreign office minister and Conservative peer Sayeeda Warsi has in the past criticised the prime minister for demonising Muslims when he said some of them quietly condoned extremism and she joins me now from Wakefield. Good morning to you, Baroness Warsi. =
JEREMY CORBYN, LABOUR 26/7And the Labour Party seems to have gone to war with itself over the choice of its next leader. The surprise success in the race of the left winger Jeremy Corbyn is causing major jitters in the other camps and this morning’s papers suggest all sorts of non-Labour people are flocking to back him. The Communist Party says that it’s about “transforming Labour from a bourgeois workers’ party that serves capitalism into a workers’ party that serves the working class to the cause of socialism.” Mr Corbyn’s with me. Good morning. Would you agree with that quote? Is that what the campaign is really about? --
ALEX SALMOND, SNP 26/7One of the many dramas of the general election was the SNPs' overwhelming victory in Scotland. That big contingent of nationalist MPs is now flexing its muscles at Westminster, frustrating the government over issues including fox-hunting and English Votes for English Laws. Among them is the SNP's former leader, Alex Salmond. When we met in Aberdeen, I asked him: does he accept the case for English MPs to make decisions about matters affecting only England, in principle? +
TIM FARRON, LIBERAL DEMOCRAT 19/7Now I was very struck by something you said this week about the Labour party and yourselves. You said there were parts of the country where the Liberal Democrats could win but Labour couldn’t, and presumably vice versa. And it seemed that you were tip toeing towards the idea of some more general agreement with the Labour department depending on I suppose who leads it.  +
JOHN WHITTINGDALE, CONSERVATIVE 19/7Now when the new Culture Secretary John Whittingdale was appointed in May, there were a few worried faces here at the BBC. Now wonder, you may think, with stories that the former Select Committee Chairman was hostile to the regressive licence fee and he’d been appointed by the Prime Minister to sort out the bloated corporation. Since then he’s been at pains to point out that no decisions have been taken yet. The green paper on the subject, which came out on Thursday, simply seeks to start a debate about the future of the BBC. So let’s talk to the Secretary of State who joins me now from Maldon in Essex. Welcome and good morning to you. =
SAVID JAVID, CONSERVATIVE 12/7Now then, tackling Britain’s welfare bill was at the heart of the Chancellor’s budget last week. “Welfare spending is not sustainable”, he warned, announcing a four year freeze on most benefits paid to people of working age and deep cuts in tax credits. But then, with a flourish, he announced a new national living wage. The immediate press reaction was ecstatic, but second thoughts were rather less so. The Business Secretary Sajid Javid is with me now. Good morning. Could we talk a bit about the numbers to start with? Is 4 billion roughly speaking the amount of money the new minimum wage will bring in by 2020 in your understanding? -
TRISTRAM HUNT, LABOUR 12/7Now the Labour Party leadership contest has taken an unexpected turn with the left wing candidate Jeremy Corbyn clearly doing pretty well, and that is causing consternation in some of the other camps. The Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt says this morning – and I quote – “The speed and rapidity with which we”(that’s the Labour Party) “are beginning to be regarded as irrelevant is really terrifying.” Well he’s with me now. Welcome. Terrifying, strong words. +
STEWART HOSIE, SNP 12/7Can I start by asking about something that your leader has said today, about the ‘English votes for English laws’ proposal in the House of Commons, about which she seems very upset? A lot of English listeners will think, ‘well, that’s just absolute natural justice: you have your own parliament; English MPs should be able to vote on English-only matters’. What is the essence of your trouble with this? --
GEORGE OSBORNE, CONSERVATIVE 5/7George Osborne has had a fair bit of budget experience. He’s delivered six budgets already, but he hasn’t had the chance to deliver stunning moments to match Geoffrey Howe’s budgets in the early Thatcher years or Nigel Lawson’s sensational budget of 1988. And that is for an obvious reason: he has been a Conservative chancellor in a coalition government. Well, no longer. This week, finally, it’s Osborne unfettered and unplugged and he joins me now. A very big moment for you. How different is it going to feel? +
CHRIS LESLIE, LABOUR 5/7Now central to Labour’s problems at the election were the economic arguments where the public just didn’t like their past record and simply didn’t believe their warnings of economic disaster under the Tories. Ed Balls is no longer available for various reasons to discuss all of that, but I’m delighted to say the new Shadow Chancellor Chris Leslie is. Welcome Mr Leslie. First of all, I mean you took a huge hit at the election campaign, and one of the big questions I suppose for Budget week is are we going to see a different tone, a different kind of Labour Party as a result? Are you in the mood to you know rethink the old days when you were opposed to every single cut and you were kind of highly critical of austerity? Are there going to be things in short the chancellor will announce that you will agree with, do you think? --
Actually, this parlour game of mine is proving surprisingly tricky to play. I'm not overly confident in some of the above ratings. (It's not always easy to prove bias). 

But if my ratings are correct, what do they show? 

Well, they show that mainstream politicians receive a mix of helpful, unhelpful and neutral introductions. 

As for the 'outsiders', well, the SNP picture (based on just two interviews) is mixed and the only other 'outsider' - the famous Jeremy Corbyn - again scored (by my reckoning) another 'unhelpful' rating. (I don't think Andrew Marr could be accused of pro-Corbyn bias, on this and other 'evidence').

Anyhow, that's more than enough of that for one post. I shall now go and lay down in a darkened room.

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