Image by Cei Willis
Once every six months or so, a veteran BBC presenter has a bit of a funny turn, dials his publicist and vomits 800 words down the phone about how everything was better before the women came along, lamenting the fact that the offices now are full of smug liberal elites who don’t even like Thatcher. Once, these accusations of bias came from David Bellamy. Occasionally they have come from John Humphrys. But usually it’s been Peter Sissons, a sort of patio weed of broadcasting who manages to reach the public no matter how many layers of concrete he’s buried beneath.
The main accusation is usually bias. The BBC strives to be in the middle of things, and the middle is the most miserable place to be in the intensely polarised world of modern politics because everybody thinks you’re wrong. The left think you’re too right wing and the right think you’re too left wing. Then, of course, there are the issues where taking the middle route is just plain wrong – like with their handling of climate change, which shouldn't be based on a question of opinion, but clear science.
Of course, all journalism is biased, because all human beings are biased. As Richard Dawkins struggled to understand recently, there is no such thing as a simple statement of fact. News editing by definition involves choosing, organising and highlighting information, and all of those choices are subjective. Why, at the time of writing, are the BBC leading on Syria? The most shared and read articles on the site are currently "Assault charges for Rolf Harris" and "E-mail error ends up on road sign," so clearly it’s not simply a question of reader priorities; an editor at the BBC made a value judgment that Syria was more important, and that’s a form of bias. Until our robot overlords take charge, it’s inevitable.
So in which direction is the BBC biased? Two studies published in the last couple of weeks tried to answer that question. The right-wing Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) released an analysis "proving" that the BBC was left wing, while academics from Cardiff University – funded by the BBC Trust – discovered that the BBC was, in fact, right wing. Both agree that there’s a bias then, just in opposite directions.
Of the two studies, the CPS attempt is the most ridiculous; with an approach so contrived and contorted it could be the plot of a Prometheus sequel. “This paper uses objective, quantitative methods,” the author optimistically begins. It turns out that this means "objectively" deciding whether a bunch of think tanks are right wing or left wing, then counting how often they’re mentioned in the Guardian (a left-wing 'paper) and the Telegraph (a right-wing 'paper) compared to the BBC. If the BBC matches the Guardian more closely than the Telegraph, then it has a left-wing bias, and so on.
This plan is founded on more rubbish than the Pacific Trash Vortex. The more obvious questions: since when were the Telegraph and the Guardian the definition of right and left wing? Why is coverage of think tanks the most important thing to measure? And what kind of fucked up ranking system puts Nigel Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation – a bonkers climate-change denying outfit – one place to the left of the Labour-supporting Fabian Society?
Naturally, the Centre for Policy Studies study was loved by Janet Daley at the Telegraph, a right-wing columnist who just so happens to be a research fellow for – you guessed it – the Centre for Policy Studies. Just as naturally, it was hated by the left-wing Liberal Conspiracy blog, which ran a sharp piece pointing out its flaws.
Liberal Conspiracy were more appreciative of the Cardiff study, which found that Tory voices appeared on the BBC a lot more often than Labour ones. (One of the things that the right and the left seemed to have in common was a thirst for having been "wronged".) This study was held up by the leftist hordes of Twitter as evidence of the BBC’s right-wing bias, but it didn’t actually tackle this question at all. Instead, it focused on which voices were heard in BBC programming and how the range of topics covered compared with other main broadcasters.
What they found went a lot deeper than the question of left versus right. It wasn’t just that Tory voices tended to get more airspace than Labour ones, as you’d expect for the ruling party, but that politicians as a class were taking over coverage: “There is a striking dominance of party political voices in the output and topics analysed.” Stories about immigration, for example, “were framed by politicians, whose statements were often presented as ‘facts’".
We can see this bias most obviously on shows like Question Time, whose producers fetishise the opinions of politicians and media figures over any other section of society, even when others may have considerably more expertise on the topics being debated. At the BBC, it occasionally seems that George Galloway’s voice is prized more than all scientists, while important debates on climate change are left to the newspaper columnist Melanie Phillips and the comedian Marcus Brigstocke. (Who, granted, performed admirably. But still…)
The political classes have squabbled for years about the BBC’s bias, but ironically missed the most obvious bias of all – a bias toward political parties and the wider Westminster bubble. At the last general election, only 65 percent of the eligible population voted for a party. The most successful party at the polls, the Conservatives, secured only around 23 percent of voters, compared to 35 percent of people who didn’t vote.
The BBC, in common with much of the rest of the Westminster-focused media, are obsessed with the party political battle between the Conservative-led coalition government and Labour-led opposition, and yet easily the largest group of people reject both. Where are their voices? Why should we allow important national debates to be framed by politicians? Few in the media – partisan or otherwise – seem to care.
Follow Martin on Twitter: @mjrobbins
Martin Robbins is a writer and talker who blogs about weird and wonderful things for the Guardian and New Statesman. Here Be Dragons is a column that explores denial, conflict and mystery at the wild fringes of science and human understanding. Find him on Twitter @mjrobbins, or email tips and feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.