Shortly after the election, on the day that John Whittingdale was appointed as the minister with responsibility for the BBC, a Telegraph leader quoted a Downing Street source as saying Whittingdale would “sort out” the BBC. We are beginning to see what that might mean.
The BBC has powerful enemies and chief among them are the press barons. For decades now the newspapers they control and their political ally the Tory Party have kept up a constant attack on the BBC, alleging that it is a giant left-wing conspiracy. As any advertiser, PR professional or, indeed, totalitarian government knows, if you repeat something enough times, people will come to believe it and ignore the evidence to the contrary.
The evidence shows that the BBC is biased towards the right.
The only substantial academic research into BBC bias in the last decade or so was that published by Cardiff University in 2013. Its conclusion was clear – “The BBC tends to reproduce a Conservative, pro-business version of the world, not a left-wing, anti-business agenda.”
Robert Peston, the BBC’s Economics editor said last year that BBC News is “completely obsessed” by the agenda set by newspapers and too often follows the lead of the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph – this means, of course, following a Tory agenda.
A significant amount of prime BBC airtime is given over to “what the papers say” and to the views of Fleet Street journalists. At the election, over 71% of national newspapers (measured by readership) supported Tories or UKIP. Only the Guardian and Mirror supported Labour.
In the election campaign itself, the BBC favoured the Tories in a number of ways including
· Excessive coverage of “threat” of a Labour-SNP deal. This was to the exasperated fury of Labour and the Lib Dems because this was precisely the issue that the Tories wanted the BBC to concentrate on.
· Insufficient analysis of Tory claims such as that Labour over-spending caused 2008 Crash or that last-minute Tory billion pound spending pledges were properly costed
· Failure to press and highlight the fact that Tories £12 billion promised welfare cuts were completely unspecified
The BBC’s pro-Tory bias is part of a wider bias, which might best be called Establishment bias. Examples of this would include
· How little coverage there is of issues of importance to the 13 million people living in poverty in UK
· Lack of coverage of the highly significant issues arising out of the Snowden revelations
· Scant coverage of tax-dodging by the super-rich and multinationals. (Consider the respect the BBC gives to Taxpayers Alliance compared to UKUncut or Occupy)
· Absurdly sycophantic coverage of the Royals
There are, I think, a number of possible explanations for the BBC’s right wing bias.
Whereas many BBC employees may consider themselves on the liberal left, many of those in senior positions in the BBC are Tories. However, it is probably wrong to put too much stress on this as a cause of bias; hopefully, these people do their professional best to put aside their own personal political views.
More significant, I believe, is the unconscious bias that exists at the BBC due to the fact that the relevant people are in the main drawn from the same narrow slice of society – middle-aged, middle-class, well-off and often privately educated and/or Oxbridge or Russell Group university. Whereas the top rate of tax or the threat of a Mansion Tax are of personal interest to this group, the pressing issues facing the millions in poverty are not.
More significant still, in my view, is the frankly depressing way in which the BBC follows the agenda set by Fleet Street. I have quoted Robert Peston on this above. It is, in fact, easy to observe this happening almost every day. Jim Messina, the Tory’s US election guru has commented on how much it is the papers who set the political agenda in the UK.
Too often the BBC seems to think that the front pages of the newspapers reflect public opinion whereas often, on the contrary, the papers are trying to shape public opinion.
Douglas Beattie, a former BBC journalist, has written – “Senior editors plough their way through bundles of the day’s papers before ever committing themselves to covering a story and often end up reflecting what has already been printed, not only in the Mail, but the Times, Sun and Telegraph too.”
There also seems to be an element of what looks like a kind of bullying taking place. The press excoriates the BBC if it dares to stray too far from what they consider an acceptable agenda.
Finally, there is the possibility that the BBC is biased towards the Tories in order to try and appease them and so stave off a threat from them. It is true that the Tories pose a real threat to BBC’s continuing existence in anything like its current form, whereas Labour do not.
The Guardian has reported – “Senior Tories piled pressure on the BBC, during the election campaign by commenting on its coverage and on its future as it approaches negotiations over its next charter.”
A number of Labour sources have alleged that the Tories threatened the BBC with dire consequences during the election campaign. Nick Robinson reported that David Cameron threatened to close the BBC down after the election. He said he was unsure whether it was a joke or a threat but says it was “yet another bit of pressure” on the BBC. He said that it was interpreted by BBC staff as a veiled threat. Cameron was essentially saying “don’t forget who’s boss here.”
Over the decades the BBC’s independence and integrity have been challenged many times and most notably by the sacking of Alasdair Milne, the Hutton Report, the bruising 2010 settlement and now the events since the election in May.
The Tories and the press will find may sticks to beat the BBC with. The BBC should not allow the allegation of left wing bias to be one of them. It is not true.
This is not to say that the BBC’s right wing bias is acceptable. It is absolutely not.