Friday 2 February 2018

Are 'Question Time' and 'Any Questions' biased against Leave supporters?

Last month came that Civitas paper The Brussels Broadcasting Corporation? which laid bare, in considerable detail, twenty years' worth of material proving that pro-withdrawal voices were consistently marginalised by the BBC despite large percentages of the British public (just-as-consistently) wanting us to leave the EU. It's main focus was Today.

Then, on the very last day of last month, came an Institute of Economic Affairs study into the same subject which focused instead on Question Time and Any Questions and which also found systematic bias against Leave supporters. 

Looking at 281 Question Time panellists and 297 Any Questions panellists over an 18 month period from June 2016 to December 2017, it found that: 
Balancing on the basis of whether panellists voted for Remain or Leave, both programmes favour Remain by about 68% to 32%.  
Even if you were to re-categorise Remainers who are now supporting Brexit from the government benches into the Leave column, the balance is still 60% to 40% in favour of Remain.
The statistic in the second paragraph is a useful one. That was something The Sun failed to consider when it tried a similar (but far more inept) thing with The Andrew Marr Show and The Sunday Politics last year. It's only right and proper that the IEA includes those 'Releavers' as the first statistic by itself wouldn't be enough now. 

The IEA goes on: 
The imbalance on the two programmes is substantial, consistent and at odds with public opinion. The analysis reveals a two to one bias in favour of those who voted for Remain. 
Brexit is probably the most defining issue of the UK policy debate at present and as such should be vital in balance. For the vast majority of both programmes, Brexit has been the most dominant issue discussed on both programmes. Both shows appear to accept the predominance of Brexit as an issue, but by the selection of panellists seem to attach a low priority to balancing the panel on the topic.
Neither Question Time nor Any Questions are ‘single issue’ programmes and panellists are expected to address a range of subjects each week. 
Aside from politicians, the rest of the panels consist of political commentators, journalists, and other public figures who represent a range of viewpoints. 
The BBC is no longer reporting on the binary choice which faced the electorate in the referendum 18 months ago. 
Question Time and Any Questions – with due impartiality – are giving audiences the opportunity to hold to account politicians from government and opposition parties for the way they are carrying out Brexit.
This restates the Nick Robinson line that "the war is over" and that the BBC doesn't have to balance both sides of the Brexit debate any more. It's all about that fuzzy phrase 'due impartiality' now. 

I can see the logic of the BBC's defence. Given that our political class is overwhelmingly 'not keen' on Brexit and that these programmes have to balance panellists across a whole range of issues, an imbalance in favour of various shades of Remainers is probably inevitable when programmes aren't 'single issue' programmes and we aren't in a pre-referendum period (and Question Time, at least, was pretty much exemplary in balancing its panels in the months leading up to the referendum, with 39 Remain, 35 Leave and 3 undecided panellists, and 6 panels biased towards Remain, 6 panels biased towards Leave and 3 balanced panels - which shows it can be done!). That said, it looks as if the IEA saw the BBC coming here by saying that Brexit was the dominant issue on both programmes for "the vast majority" of the time. 

This kind of study is different though to that carried out by Civitas. The Civitas study focused only on the BBC's coverage of EU membership/Brexit-related issue so the BBC couldn't counter it by saying that Today isn't a 'single issue' programme. The Civitas study made it into an entirely 'single issue' matter. The BBC's defence doesn't work at all with that kind of study. 

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