Saturday 20 February 2016

Monitoring the BBC News Channel

Warning: This post contains almost as few funny, clever jokes as Will Self's From Fact to Fiction tonight.

Here's a cautionary tale for anyone who fancies monitoring the BBC News Channel to see if it's providing balanced coverage of the EU referendum debate.

I read a comment somewhere today saying that, having just watched the 1pm News on the BBC News Channel for 30 minutes, there hadn't been a single representative of the Leave camp asked to comment. Someone from the Remain campaign had appeared though, and there had been extracts from the PM's speech and a Jeremy Corbyn interview. The comment said, "Frankly I couldn't believe it, not even from the BBC".

The thing is though that if someone on another site (say a pro-EU one) had tuned in at 1.30pm and watched the next 30 minutes of the BBC News Channel they would have seen a 10-minute interview with a Leave supporter, a 2-minute interview with a second Leave supporter and then a 4-minute interview with a third Leave supporter, and they mightn't have believed it either. 

As I wrote this morning, I tried something along these lines over a 4-hour period on Wednesday afternoon's BBC News Channel and found - if you count up the guests - plenty of pro-Remain interviewees but not one pro-Leave supporters (unless James Forsyth of the Spectator is pro-Leave, which I don't think he is.) 

But that was only a snapshot, and who's to say that it's in any way representative? What if straight after I turned off, a parade of passionate Leave supporters appeared on the News Channel. I'd never know about them yet any 'bias-proving' statistics I'd drawn from what I'd observed would be worthless. 

If 30 minutes isn't enough and 4 hours isn't enough, what would be? You'd need whole teams of people watching the BBC News Channel in shifts over at least a couple of weeks to do it properly - or at least properly enough for the wider world (including the BBC) to accept that it's been in any way worthwhile.


For the record, however, here's a complete list of all the interviews on the BBC News Channel from the end of David Cameron's Downing Street speech through to Dateline London at 5.30.

It includes full interviews and partial reprises of those interviews, but not the recurring clips of David Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn, Alex Salmond or Nigel Farage. 

12.29-12.35 Sir Malcolm Rifkind, REMAIN
12.42-12.48 Graham Stringer, LEAVE
13.22-13.26 Sir Stephen Wall, REMAIN
13.32-13.42 Chris Grayling, LEAVE
13.46-13.48 Robert Oxley, LEAVE
13.49-13.53 Douglas Carswell, LEAVE
13.53-12.56 Sir Malcolm Rifkind, REMAIN (partial reprise)
14.08-14.11 Chris Grayling, LEAVE (partial reprise)
14.15-14.19 David Coburn, LEAVE
14.21-14.25 John Mills, LEAVE
14.38-14.40 Andrew Percy, LEAVE
14.45-14.48 James McGrory, REMAIN
14.48-14.51 Sir Malcolm Rifkind, REMAIN (partial reprise)
15.07-15.10 Chris Grayling, LEAVE (partial reprise)
15.18-15.21 Steve Baker, LEAVE
15.35-15.38 Graham Stringer, LEAVE (partial reprise)
15.41-15.44 Sir Malcolm Rifkind, REMAIN (partial reprise)
16.09-16.12 Chris Grayling, LEAVE (partial reprise)
16.14-16.17 Caroline Lucas, REMAIN
16.24-16.27 Steve Baker, LEAVE (full reprise)
17.20-17.24 Mary Creagh, REMAIN 

For what it's worth, that equates to 5 pro-REMAIN individuals and 8 pro-LEAVE individuals.

Or it equates to 8 segments for pro-REMAIN supporters and 13 segments for pro-LEAVE supporters (including repeats and partial repeats).

Or it equates roughly 29 minutes of air time for REMAIN and 50 minutes of air time for LEAVE.

Now that, obviously, looks biased in favour of the Leave campaign. But - to repeat - all it shows is that Leave supporters got more air time than Remain supporters in the 5 or so hours of this afternoon's BBC News Channel. That really is all it shows.

This evening's News Channel could have a 20-minute interview with, say, Alan Johnson or Ken Clarke and the balance could tilt back again towards 'impartiality'. Or, with lots more pro-Remain interviews tonight, it could go on to bias the day's coverage against Leave instead. 

You could, of course, keep watching till, say midnight, and find the same 'bias' as this afternoon but what if tomorrow, when you don't watch, the bias is outrageously in the other direction? And what if someone from the other camp was monitoring that and took to the pages of The Guardian to say so?

Unless you are able to monitor it in such a way that you are not left open to charges of cherry picking (i.e. choosing a half an hour, four hours, a day that 'proves' the point you're trying to demonstrate) then the BBC/your critics will be able to debunk you quite easily - especially if (a) they've watched what you've watched but seen more of it than you or (b) if they cherry picking a few hours of the News Channel (say around a particular campaign event) that 'proves' their point in contradiction to yours. 

As for the BBC, it's well-resourced and secretive and it will always play the 'it has to be judged over time' card - across a suitable period, on a particular programme, etc. They won't accept you breaking their 'rules' over this, ever. 

That's why it has to be 'closed' programmes like Today or Newsnight or PM (or whatever) that are monitored, if you're going to monitor such things. Months of evidence on individual programmes (no episodes missed) could prove bias to the satisfaction of any reasonable person, and be much harder for the BBC to dismiss. 

I could go on but I wouldn't want you to lose the will to live.


  1. On top of that, how were the Remain voices treated? Challenged, or gifted with setup questions? Sometimes that's the only way to beat the BBC's numbers game.

    PS: I just read that today's Dateline London panel was shockingly loaded in favor of Out.

    1. You're right about that. That was the one thing I think I salvaged from wasting Wednesday night transcribing all those questions on the News Channel. Quite a few of Simon McCoy's questions tended towards setup questions.

      That was a very odd Dateline London. There were two in favour of Out (Janet Daley and Alexander Nekrassov), one who would like us to stay (Thomas Kielinger), and the last one (John Fisher Burns) didn't really commit himself, though he reckoned David Cameron deserved more credit than everyone else was giving him, so was probably pro-Remain.

    2. I agree that's v. important. Also the use of language by the presenters, reporters and interviewers e.g. judicious use of "Europe" instead of "EU", "reforms" instead of "proposals", "risks" instead of "consequences",

      A typical BBC report often has something like the following:

      "Tonight we look at the reforms agreed by David Cameron in Brussels, we examine the risks associated with a decision to extract ourselves from Europe."

      There's lots of other structural bias by teh way. One really obvious one is that although much or even most of law originates in the EU, the EU Parliament gets hardly any coverage. So, we are left with the impression that Westminster is everything and Brussels has little impact on our lives, when nothing could be further from the truth. Of course, the "inners" are now having to admit this in order to argue that a Norwegian Option doesn't mean you can avoid all that regulation emanating from Brussels.

    3. Good points, Anonymous, particularly about (non)coverage of the EU Parliament. It does help with the impression that those complaining about how much EU law controls everything are just making it up.

  2. Thank you for all this hard work and for confirming for me that all this pro-Out bias I have been experiencing on the BBC news coverage of the EU debate has not been a complete figment of my imagination. It is nice to see numbers to confirm what I've been thinking for several weeks now. I'm so fed up at hearing the majority of speakers and politicians only give one point of view. And when the Remain argument is given it is weak, wishy-washy and sorely lacking in killer facts and figures. Awful when they are always outnumbered. I just want to hear the best arguments and not pointless rhetoric from both sides equally. I want each argument to be balanced with a counter argument. I don't believe in all this 'it balances out in time' stuff. It is too late two weeks later to refute an argument properly and with balance. It must be done in a timely way.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.