Saturday 6 October 2018

Cat Among the Pigeons

A Guido Fawkes post yesterday has raised a few hackles at the BBC:


Brexiteers always like to complain about Brexit bias on the BBC, so Guido has crunched the numbers on the BBC’s three flagship panel shows, Question TimePolitics Live and Any Questions to see if they have a point. They certainly do…
Since the start of the political season in September, 72% of the official panel guests across the three shows have been Remainers, while a mere 28% have been Leavers. A whopping 87% of the panels had a Remainer majority – only 13% of shows had a panel equally balanced between Leavers and Remainers. Not once have Leavers outnumbered Remainers.
Eight shows since the start of September have seen Brexiteers outnumbered 4 to 1 by Remainers, while two shows in the last two weeks managed to feature four Remainers and no Brexiteers at all. No-one is disputing that the Remainer elite are the majority in the Westminster politico-media bubble, the Beeb should try however to reflect the majority of the country…

As you might expect the BBC's head of live political programmes has had something to say in response.

Here's a flavour of what's been going on:
Media Guido: BBC Flagship Shows Still Have Remain Panel Bias.
Rob Burley: Am I right to assume that you are counting as Leave or Remain based on where a guest stood over two years ago on 23/06/16? You do know that political programmes have to by law reflect party support not the position of guests on a vote in 2016?
Media Guido: We do know Rob. We also know that you don't have any role in #BBCqt or #BBCaq. All we would like to see from you is that when say #PoliticsLive discusses Brexit related issues that there is a balanced panel. Is that too hard for BBC current affairs to manage? Just once?
Rob Burley: You ask just once. So let’s take today for example: 2 pro-Brexit and 2 Remain. #facts
Media Guido: It wasn't Rob, as a matter of #facts John Bird supports a second referendum, the Baroness and Shakira were Remainers as was Chris Philp (until recently). Brendan was your only Leaver. 4-1 or 3-2 to Remain allowing for Chris Philp's recent change of mind.
Rob Burley: This just shows the nonsense of your position. Bird was talking about businesses in railway arches and didn’t utter a word about Brexit. And whenever Philp became a Brexit supporter he is one now. So it was 2-2 as I said. Still awaiting your methodology.
Gw: Well here is one to answer. You had Greening, Morgan and Wollaston round the table at the Tory conf over 3 consecutive days, all support a 2nd ref yet only about 7 of 316 Tory MPs do. Bias much.
Rob Burley: If you tallied up all of the others on those days those 3 would be minority. But we aren't working towards the impractical numerical balancing of a range of nuanced positions on Brexit. We credit our viewers with more intelligence, not us playing daft numbers game. 

Rob Burley
Media Guido: BBC Flagship Shows Still Have Remain Panel Bias.
Rob Burley: Claptrap. No methodology provided but almost certainly counts guests as “Leave” or “Remain” based on where they stood on 23/6/16. Result: all Lab front bench and most of Con one - including the PM - will count as “Remain” despite both parties pledged to carry through Brexit. Daft.
BBC Waste: The problem is @RobBurl this flawed methodology Ken Clarke who will actively speak as a Remainer against the government on BBC political output will be classed as as Brexit supporting column in BBC stats as that is his party's position. You can't deny that is bonkers.
Rob Burley: Fair point BUT if we were counting - and I think that’s both impossible and undesirable - I’d count Clarke as Remain. My point is that this “research” counts May, Javid, Hunt etc as Remain despite the fact that, unlike Clarke, they have changed their minds since the referendum. To be clear I’m not suggesting a methodology that attempts to capture the truth of people’s myriad and evolving positions on Brexit - e.g Gove backs Chequers, Johnson doesn’t, May does, Greening doesn’t - I’m just pointing out the glaring inadequacy of the GF methodology.
BBC Waste: I am in violent agreement. The BBC should make this argument:
1. We follow the rules.
2. The rules are inadequate.
Instead BBC makes strategic error of saying, our output is balanced, without that essential context.
Ooh, and here's a lovely 'complaints from both sides' comment (what post would be complete without one of those!):
Steven Kettle: This is simple for me. I see the right complain of BBC bias towards the left and the left complain of BBC bias towards the right. Result = BBC is doing an excellent job of being balanced, I apply the same logic to brexit and arrive at the same conclusion. Keep up the good work.
Rob Burley: Thanks Steven.
I hope Rob was just thanking Steven for the best wishes there and not for his main point - which remains, as ever, a fallacy.

Well, all in all, I take Rob Burley's point that the balancing of Remain/Leave guests by labelling them simply from their public positions in June 2016, if that's what Guido Fawkes did, is too crude a measure and that consideration needs giving to their public positions now, such as on whether they want to stop Brexit or go through with Brexit. You do get into obvious difficulties with, say, Labour Sir Keir Starmer and Barry Gardiner, both Remainers in 2016 but both saying that they will respect the referendum result - the added complication being that Mr Gardiner really sounds as if he means it and Sir Keir sounds as if he doesn't really mean it. And, yes, only people who talked about Brexit should have been included in the stats. So Guido's methodology does needed spelling out - especially when you see how he reacted to the Chris Philp question. 

But as the BBC follows its legal obligations to balance party political guests by counting (yes, by "playing a daft numbers game") and is obsessive about 'playing a number's game' when it comes to promoting diversity in its workforce and across its output, then surely it isn't right to dismiss 'counting' per se? 

However imperfect, counting remains one of the best ways to check if balance is being achieved, whether that be on Question Time, Any Questions on the one Rob has responsibility for, Politics Live. Unless you count (to some consistent degree) how can you really be sure you're 'getting it about right'?

And I don't think Rob properly answered Gw's point either.


  1. "Steven Kettle: This is simple for me. I see the right complain of BBC bias towards the left and the left complain of BBC bias towards the right. Result = BBC is doing an excellent job of being balanced, I apply the same logic to brexit and arrive at the same conclusion. Keep up the good work."

    Scroll back in time: "I see that Josef Stalin is criticised from the left by Trotsky and from the right by Bukharin. Comrade, I think he's got it about right."

  2. What do you think about Burley's claim:

    "You do know that political programmes have to by law reflect party support not the position of guests on a vote in 2016?"

    Hmmm...I've never seen this law. Where is it to be found?

    If it does exist, how is it defined? By opinion polling? By
    proportion of elected MPs? Proportion of the popular vote? Proportion of all elected politicians (councillors, MEPs, MSPs etc)?

    I'd like Burley to explain. Certainly when UKIP were hovering around 13% in the polls they weren't ensuring that one in 7 guests on political programmes were from UKIP. Equally, when back in 1997 Labour had more than twice the number of MPs as the Conservatives, that didn't mean that Labour MPs got invited on more than twice as much as Conservative MPs.

    So what does Burley mean by "reflecting party support"?

    In any case, there is still plenty of room for distortion.
    How many hours of free publicity has Anna Soubry - an insignificant backbencher whose position is supported by probably no more than 10 of her fell Conservative MPs - received from the pro-Remain BBC over the last couple of years? I think if one could be bothered to label Conservative MPs as left/centre/right and also pro-Brexit/pro-Remain plus pro-second referendum and anti-referendum and then looked at the involvement of Conservative MPs on BBC programmes, you would find a disproporionate number of MPs who are on the left wing of teh Conservative Party, who are pro-Remain and who support a second referendum. Furthermore if you then applied Craig's Interruptometer to their interviews you would find they got far fewer interruptions than their colleagues (as we saw recently with Maitlis's disgracefully partisan interviewing of Jacob Rees-Mogg and then Clare Perry).

    Corbynistas can also justly claim that the same applies on their side. Soggy left Labour MPs (Umuna, Creasy, Cooper, Phillips etc ) get proportionally far more appearances than hard left and they also receive the kid glove treatment.

    There is also the matter of subject choice. Those hard left MPs often only get the invite to discuss Corbyn's misdemeanours or deselection or some such, rather than the everyday issues of housing, education, taxation and so on.

    Likewise, Conservative MPs from the right who favour say more robust prison and crime policies don't get invited on to discuss those issues, but might get an invite to discuss "the rise of the Far Right".

    1. I was wondering the same thing: what law is that? Am guessing it may be one of those broadcasting laws that are administered within the OFCOM remit. Other than that, the Charter?

    2. Yes, that's what I was thinking. I don't think the Charter references party support. There's probably some guidance from Ofcom - they've got nothing better to do than provide guidance that can be interpreted 28 different ways. But I suspect this is probably BBC interpretation of the Charter and Ofcom requirements. I think some sort of balance rule applies to all news broadcasters because I think RT were targeted by Ofcom on that front.

  3. Hurl the Burl snaps and bites but he's the far wrong when it comes to 'both sides complain, therefore we must be right'. Er, no, Burl. That's a failure of logic. As he himself often points out in his Sunday twitter spats, he knows that often such complaints have no relation to reality and prove nothing. It's not hard to figure out that balance must be assessed by reference to some sort of stable criteria and measurement.

    I noticed from a tweet quoted on Guido, he'd come up with a new term: non-Brexiteer. Is he being scrupulously correct or does he have some squeamishness or some reason for not using Remainer or anti-Brexiteer?


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