Big issues in brief
Bias at the BBC?
The public broadcaster often comes under fire from both the left and the right for its lack of neutrality, but is its analysis of politics fairly balanced?
Left-wingers often accuse the BBC of right-wing bias. Right-wingers often accuse it of left-wing bias. This isn’t usually helpful, and in general, the BBC has done a pretty decent job of maintaining balance, despite the difficulty of ensuring such balance. I am therefore writing about this issue with a dose of hesitance.
Whilst it’s probably fair to say that the BBC gives generous coverage to progressive social ideas, such as issues surrounding equality of many different types, economically it remains very much a supporter of the status quo or very nearby ideologies, i.e. a mish-mash of classical liberalism and neoliberalism, with social democracy being about as far left as it considers giving airtime.
Owen Jones raises important points about the prominence of Andrew Neil, who typically presents at least seven hours’ worth of political analysis programmes per week on the BBC, including Daily Politics, Sunday Politics and This Week. This represents the overwhelming bulk of the BBC’s political analysis on TV, the other main programmes being:
- The hour-long Sunday programme The Andrew Marr Show (who as a student was Maoist, but is now centre-right, has written for a wide range of publications and does a fairly decent job of remaining neutral),
- The 30–45 minute daily current affairs analysis programme Newsnight, which Neil occasionally also presents (but which otherwise does a good job of remaining neutral, and is normally presented by: Kirsty Wark, who allegedly has ties to the Labour Party but no professional history of working for biased publications; Emily Maitlis, who formerly worked for The Spectator; and Evan Davies, an economist who supported the SDP as a student and now has no political ties).
- The BBC’s politcal editor Laura Kuenssberg regularly presents an anti-Corbyn attitude and was found by the BBC to have breached impartiality guidelines,
- Former Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman is a self-confessed “one nation Tory”,
- The Today programme on BBC Radio 4 is presented by Nick Robinson, who has a history of Conservative membership and has come under criticism for his political bias,
- James Harding, the former editor of The Times and a close friend of former chancellor George Osborn, was Director of BBC News until 1st January this year.
Centrism is about as far left as you can find amongst BBC political presenters. However, right-wing influence is strong in this sphere. Neil has been a member of Conservative Party organisations since being a student and his professional roles have included:
- Former research assistant for the Conservative Party,
- Former correspondent for The Economist, a socially but also economically liberal publication,
- Former editor of The Sunday Times, a conservative publication,
- Former editor-in-chief and current chairman of Press Holdings, which is owned by the Barclay Brothers and owns The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator, both right-wing publications,
- Former chairman of Sky TV, part of Murdoch’s News Corporation, which also owns The Times, a conservative publication, and The Sun, a right-wing tabloid.
When editor of The Times, Neil employed prominent Nazi apologist David Irving, who the previous year had been convicted of Holocaust denial, to translate excerpts from Goebbel’s diary for publication in the newspaper, despite a book deal for the full translation having fallen through due to Irving’s “selective” editing of it.
On air, Neil often manages to subdue his female guests, and he has been accused of misogyny by Tory guests, as well as more left-wing ones. During the general election campaign last year he got away with wearing a tie on air that was covered with the logo of the Adam Smith Institute, a neoliberal think tank and lobbying group. Joined on his BBC show everyday by a Labour MP and a Tory MP, his show is demonstrably biased in favour of neoliberal and centre-right viewpoints. It was edited until 2017 by Robbie Gibb, a former advisor to two Tory MPs and now Director of Communications at 10 Downing Street under Theresa May.
As well as the prominence given to Neil, the BBC News website this week had to update an article summarising the upcoming English local elections, after it was revealed that it had mentioned the British National Party, who have a single councillor, but had failed to mention the Green Party, who have an MP, a peer, three MEPs and 166 councillors and are fielding 2,200 candidates (more than half of the total positions available) in the upcoming election. This fits in with the lack of airtime given to the Green Party compared to UKIP, which I have previously covered:
Conservative MPs escape electoral fraud charges | Election policies | Conservative gains, Labour losses & UKIP…medium.com
If you’re one of the many people who dismisses claims that the BBC is not as neutral as it could be, after reading this it shouldn’t be difficult to admit that there’s a problem. There are three simple things that could been done to help to remove bias from the BBC’s coverage of political issues:
- All BBC political presenters and editors should at least have no current affiliations with political parties or other media companies, and preferably have little to no history of working for a biased news publisher.
- In cases where presenters do have such previous affiliations, there should be a much fairer distribution of viewpoints.
- There must be a much fairer balance of guests with varying viewpoints. One Tory plus one Blairite is not balance. One classical liberal plus one neoliberal advocate is not balance. Over-representation of libertarian advocates, such as Kate Andrews from neoliberal think tank Institute of Economic Affairs, or spokespersons from low-tax pressure group TaxPayers’ Alliance, without balance from far-left equivalents challenging the ideology of privatisation and deregulated free-market economics, is not the impartiality or neutrality that the BBC is supposed to offer. Representatives from the centre-left are only slightly represented and the far-left is almost totally omitted from BBC political programmes, whilst divisive far-right figures such as Nigel Farage and formerly even Nick Griffin receive airtime.