Post-Democratic Broadcasting

Tom Mills · Bias at the BBC

There has scarcely been a time in the BBC’s 95-year history when it hasn’t faced accusations of political bias. But it has been decades since the criticisms emanated so strongly from the left. This is a consequence of the collapse of a centre ground which had long been the BBC’s political fulcrum. As the Labour Party shifted leftwards, attracting an unprecedented influx of new members, its MPs and party bureaucracy fought back. And since the BBC is deeply embedded in Westminster, and routinely defers to the consensus there in setting the parameters of political debate, its political reporting has been skewed against Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters.

When Theresa May called the general election, I expected the BBC to assume a more balanced position on Corbyn. First, because I expected more unity in the Labour Party; second, because general elections impose stricter regulatory requirements on broadcasters; and third, because the BBC – whatever you think of its political reporting – takes its democratic responsibilities seriously. But the early signs have not been promising.

Within hours of the prime minister’s surprise announcement, the Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis was musing on Twitter whether there was time for Labour to ‘try and stage [a] coup against Corbyn’. Then the Today presenter (and former political editor) Nick Robinson tweeted that an anti-establishment speech from the Labour leader was ‘long on passion and short on details’, and called this the ‘story of [Corbyn’s] life’. He later said the comment was not intended negatively.

It may be unfair to seize on impromptu social media postings. As the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, says in her Twitter profile, tweets ‘don’t tell a whole story’. But they do fall under the BBC’s editorial policy, and are read by ‘opinion formers’. And it is hard not to see such cavalier remarks as suggestive of a broader editorial culture.

Kuenssberg was recently caught out using a Tory political slogan (‘more spending, more tax, more borrowing’) in the headline of her report on the Labour manifesto. The now defunct BBC Trust found that she breached accuracy and impartiality guidelines in her early reporting on Corbyn. Yet that ruling was dismissed by the BBC’s Director of News, James Harding, a former editor of the Times and a friend of George Osborne. ‘We disagree with this finding,’ he said. The corporation displayed a similar nonchalance in its response to a study by the Media Reform Coalition which found that during the post-referendum ‘coup’, BBC News gave far more airtime to Corbyn’s critics than ITV did.

In the current election campaign, Cardiff University’s monitoring work has already found that the Tories are dominating airtime on BBC television news, a pattern not evident on either Channel 4 or Sky, and less marked on ITV.

The BBC is officially committed to ‘reflect[ing] all significant strands of opinion’, but it is profoundly deferential to the formal political system. When its journalists attack politicians, it is largely on the basis of their standing within that system. The problems with this insider approach to politics are illustrated by the treatment of the leaked Labour manifesto on the Today programme last week. The policies in it are popular with voters, according to opinion polls, but the BBC treated it as a story about political acumen, or lack of it. How could the public trust the Labour Party to run the railways, John Humphrys blustered, if it can’t run an election campaign?

There is an alibi: the BBC’s political reporters are fulfilling their professional duty to hold politicians of whatever party to account by publicly exposing their political weaknesses. The trouble with this is that it takes for granted the legitimacy of a political system that is not held in high esteem outside the BBC. It effectively reinforces an unpopular and in many ways undemocratic system, while fostering a perception of competence and credibility around its leading players – vaunted qualities which are often little more than reflections of hegemony at Westminster and eminence among the broader British elite.

Corbyn has led a mild-mannered insurgency against the political establishment. He is in many ways politically weak, and isn’t widely popular; but his policies are, and there is a public appetite for change. This brings us to the heart of the dilemma that the BBC and other broadcasters face in this election. To focus on policies, as would seem more proper in democratic terms, would favour Labour (and other progressive parties). But to follow the rituals and conventions of post-democratic politics – ‘horse race’ polling, stage-managed media events, sloganeering, smears – would obviously play into the hands of the government, which has offered the electorate nothing much except an opportunity to strengthen Theresa May’s hand. What in these circumstances should an impartial broadcaster do?


  • 18 May 2017 at 2:11pm
    tenyards says:
    The BBC's problem is that it is part terrified and part Tory.
    Part terrified because of what the Tories have already done to it to reduce its funding and independence.
    Part Tory because so many of its journalists, programme makers and managers are recruited from exactly the same narrow social strata as the Tory party and share the same world view.
    Of course they are biased against Corbyn, but anybody who thinks the anti Labour bias started with Corbyn is either very young or has not been paying attention.

    • 20 May 2017 at 8:13am
      GeorgeMKeynes says: @ tenyards
      The Glasgow Media Research Group has been recording anti-Labour bias since at least the mid 70s. I first became aware with their book Trade Unions and the Media 1977 and it has informed my perspective ever since.

  • 18 May 2017 at 2:19pm
    SuZ says:
    'the BBC’s Director of News, James Harding, a former editor of the Times and a friend of George Osborne'

    Explains much about which stories get aired on BBC news, and how they're framed.

  • 18 May 2017 at 2:56pm
    Peterson_the man with no name says:
    The standard glib response to accusations of BBC bias is to point out that "left-wingers and right-wingers both think the BBC is biased against them, so it must be getting things about right." But what this misses is that both sides' charges are in fact correct. As this article says, BBC reporting is shaped by the prevailing consensus among the political and social elite - which nowadays means that it is biased to the left on some issues (eg sexuality, gender politics), and to the right on others (eg economics, the monarchy). On most issues, though, the BBC is biased towards the centre and against both left and right (see e.g. its routine use of 'moderate' as a term of approval, especially in foreign reporting).

    Having said that, there are differences in how the BBC treats those who fall outside its permissible limits of political respectability. Right-wingers like Farage and Trump are regarded with a kind of horrified fascination, while leftists like Corbyn attract merely contempt.

    • 19 May 2017 at 9:12am
      LTK says: @ Peterson_the man with no name
      This hits the nail on the head. The commenters stating that the BBC is effectively right-wing haven't listened to, understood and analysed why those on the right have similar complaints on different matters. That the BBC treated opponents to women bishops with even greater scorn and confusion than it treats Corbyn is strong evidence that the BBC isn't straight-forwardly right-wing.

      The key driver of the BBC's perspective is its employees and location. That is, its staff are on average richer, younger, more middle class and more likely to live in London than the country as a whole. This is reflected in both its perceived rightwards bias on economics and in its perceived leftwards bias on gender and identity matters.

    • 20 May 2017 at 8:28am
      GeorgeMKeynes says: @ LTK
      This simplistic talk of right and left not only misses the point of the author's argument, which is that the BBC is pro-establishment, but the point of practically all political difference in the modern world. (I have just finished reading The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics by David Goodhart and the LRB article Brexitism by Alan Finlayson.) The only people who are not given a fair hearing in the media are those who threaten the establishment, from which we can take it that UKIP are not seen as a threat and Jeremy Corbyn is.

  • 18 May 2017 at 6:24pm
    Ouessante says:
    Nick Robinson was President of the Oxford University Conservative Association. Charitably, it shouldn't matter...but it does.

    • 31 May 2017 at 6:14am
      Martyn says: @ Ouessante
      After visiting the link in this post by Mark Doran, my Ipad was frozen by a pop-up add offering me a free iPhone.

  • 18 May 2017 at 7:01pm
    robdean says:
    As a graduate psychologist I recognise a great deal of archetypal cognitive bias at play: conviction that coverage is biased is not evidence that is is, and 'objectivity' is difficult to objectify.

    Most on the Left, Centre and Right see their views as representing 'the truth' or 'reasonable, rational judgement'. Thus, the further to the Left or Right one's views are, the more inevitable it is that you perceive bias: you see most commentary and coverage as being to one side of what you consider the median.

    Similarly, coverage which is in keeping with your views can tend not to be seen as 'balance' on your side, but as neutral, objective reporting, whereas reflection of other views is seen as skewed. A phenomenon called 'differential salience' now becomes relevant: coverage you agree with is not scored in your mind as +1 to your side, but just as neutral, unremarkable, background. Coverage you *disagree* with however is a memorable +1 to your collection of grievances.

    As a former BBC producer I'm also familiar with the challenge of 'balance', which in fact is a more difficult thing to grasp than many appreciate. Is balance equal airtime? Really? Where does that stop? Lib-Dems? Greens? Monster Raving Loony? Is balance equal weighting to both sides? What of global warming or the claim of £350M for the NHS by Leave? What of anti-vaccine campaigners or flat-Earthers? Maybe balance is 'due prominence' for each view, but how to decide what is due? Many Corbynites are far to the Left of current Labour policy but seem convinced that if their World view were differently framed by the media, the masses would break free of their false consciousness and flock to the streets, red banners waving. What presentation could satisfy them without outraging a still greater number on the Right?

    I feel that the BBC's greatest weakness is the shallowness of its coverage intellectually. It knows it will lose audience numbers if it gets deep, detailed and serious, perhaps even conceptually or academically challenging. I think it overlooks that as a publicly funded broadcaster, that is in fact its privilege and its obligation. Leading with sophisticated deeply researched fact checking provides defensible ground: if you don't like our facts, offer factual rebuttal or shut up. Which manifesto policies are robustly evidence based, and which are not? Which undertakings are costed and how robust do those costings appear to be?

    I suspect the BBC also faces a problem in that not every party has as efficient a media machine. An efficient media operation will work to manipulate the BBC. A poor one will make the BBC look 'biased' by offering weak or non-existent contributions to BBC coverage. Surely it would be biased of the BBC to 'improve' poor contributions or offer disproportionate help or advice. The BBC should be bolder in templating coverage on its own terms, offering equal set notice to parties of that coverage and making those terms clear to the audience. Thus, an empty chair might be a parties' contribution to a debate, but it will clearly be their failing not that of the BBC.

    • 18 May 2017 at 7:48pm
      Joshua K says: @ robdean
      A thorough-seeming assessment but for the failure to acknowledge the plethora of well-known Tories directing and presenting all BBC news and politics programmes and a complete absence of any left-wing figures.

    • 18 May 2017 at 9:48pm
      RobertSnozers says: @ robdean
      The fact that you refer to 'Corbynites' with a barely concealed sneer, using imagery like 'flocking to the streets, red banners waving' suggests that you don't understand a great deal about balance, or wish to. It's this sort of casual contempt for what is, like it or not, part of the political mainstream, that has characterised the BBC's election coverage. Claiming that balance is ever so difficult is basically an excuse not to try very hard. Even so, the fact that Ukip and those on the right of the Tory parliamentary party are shown far more respect than these banner-waving Corbynites shows that it's not so difficult as all that. In any case, what's so wrong with reporting neutrally on the facts, rather than the endless need to filter through the interpretation of commentators?

      Blaming the 'media machine' of the parties is also weak, and a sign of how enfeebled BBC journalism has become. It's the media's job to report on the news, not to process what it is spoonfed. Nor is it the job of political parties to make 'contributions to BBC coverage'. This isn't the Graham Norton show, it's news. If the whole corporation is this complacent and self-satisfied I'm seriously unsurprised at how we've ended up where we have.

    • 20 May 2017 at 8:33am
      GeorgeMKeynes says: @ RobertSnozers
      Robdean says he was formerly a BBC producer. I suspect he more recently worked in (works in?) BBC complaints. This is standard fobbing-off stuff.

  • 18 May 2017 at 8:36pm
    James M says:
    This doesn't need to be over complicated. The BBC is run by and for the British ruling class. This is especially evident in their appalling foreign coverage but shows up in their hostility to the mildly anti-establishment Corbyn (see also Indy ref).

    It's clearly full of spooks as well.

  • 19 May 2017 at 8:39am
    A.redoutable says:
    ten yards is quite right, the BBC has been in the hands of the tory establishment for about 5 years now, roughly since Harding was appointed to replace Boade as news director.

    This was well before the referendum campaign which the BBC covered disastrously - on account of its precept of "balance" (an ill founded and very dubious principle of impartiality in any debate - including it would appear a debate between two appalling positions; e.g. two different forms of Ku Kux Klan; or Hitler against Goebbels).

    Its problems thus way precede Corbyn - in fact it may be argued the ineffective Corbyn is partly the result of the BBC's partiality, rather than the other way round.

  • 19 May 2017 at 12:51pm
    Colin says:
    Tom Mills writes that the 'heart of the dilemma' is whether to focus on policies or administrative and managerial ability. But these certainly seem like two compatible areas of focus. To be a good prime minister requires success in both.

    Corbyn has so far been bad enough as a party leader, in terms of managing his own staff and the media, as to raise legitimate questions about whether he has the skill set to be prime minister. There is no particular bias inherent in reporting on this rather than the content of his policies.

    If you're like me and support the policies in the Labour manifesto, but have significant misgivings about Corbyn's professional aptitude, the BBC's supposedly biased coverage of Corbyn's inability or unwillingness effectively to enter the political fray is highly probative on one question: how willing should we be to hold our noses and vote Labour?

    It is also a little sad to see how easily the left in the UK has been willing to follow the American right in vilifying the 'mainstream media' when it shines a light on the obvious and urgent problems at the top level of the Labour party. How thin skinned it has been and how eager to heap scorn on a superb public institution already under sustained and damaging attack from the rightwing private interests.

    It would be nice to see those on the left stop snivelling about unfairness and instead make like a Tory and do what it takes to win an election.

    • 20 May 2017 at 8:40am
      GeorgeMKeynes says: @ Colin
      If you think anyone could have 'managed' better with the vast majority of his so-called Parliamentary colleagues out to get him and a party machine entirely built in the image of the multi-millionaire war-monger, Blair, then I think you are wrong. Jeremy has 'managed' to survive and to thrive. I don't blame you if you don't know about the huge crowds meeting him wherever he goes; it's not much reported.

    • 21 May 2017 at 11:49am
      Colin says: @ GeorgeMKeynes
      The 'vast majority of his so-called Parliamentary colleagues' are out to get Corbyn because he threatens their jobs. Corbyn has led Labour to electoral irrelevance. That's thriving?

      Huge crowds greet fringe figures in all walks of life. Inspiring fanatical devotion of a hard core of support is incredibly different from winning an election.

      The only way Corbyn has succeeded in taking the country to the left is by self-destructing so badly that May might as well trot out a few red tory policies to hoover up even more voters.

  • 19 May 2017 at 1:12pm
    deano says:
    Good piece. The findings of those independent reports and the Conservative party connections of so many of the key players say it all.

  • 30 May 2017 at 4:45pm
    denismollison says:
    And now we have last night's Channel 4 "debate", with Corbyn and May questioned by Jeremy Paxman, who has described himself as a one-nation Tory and was apparently sounded out as a possible Tory candidate for the last London mayoral election. How can a public broadcaster claim that that's unbiased?

    But then most of the press seems equally biased, describing it as a draw, when what I saw was one candidate who was prepared to discuss real policies and think on his feet, while May was so stuck to her stone-walling sloganising that it took 3 or 4 attempts before she would concede that "No deal is better than a bad deal" implies there is a possibility she would end up with no deal.

  • 30 May 2017 at 5:18pm
    hullister says:
    Agree that all comments prior to May 29 are seriously out of date. Last night's bullying so called "interview" showed a man who has visibly grown during the campaign.
    His understated manner, studiously avoiding ad hominem or feminam insults, might be described as slow politics. Like slow food, it's much more satisfying.

  • 30 May 2017 at 9:21pm
    Chrisdf says:
    Any attempt to be impartial will always draw fire from both sides. Tory governments are convinced that the BBC is a creature of the Left, while Labour governments find the hand of the Right in every moment of coverage. Fans want to read about their team winning rather than not winning.

    • 30 May 2017 at 10:17pm
      denismollison says: @ Chrisdf
      So give us an example of the BBC employing a labour supporting journalist for an important interview in this election.

  • 30 May 2017 at 10:16pm
    orwellianlanguage says:
    The BBC has for two long inhabited the Westminster bubble and thinks like a clone. Intellectually they are increasingly unfamiliar with the concept of bottom up politics. To them authority has become the preserve of an elite that they themselves arrogantly assume they're part of. How else do you explain Dimbleby's face looking like a slapped arse when he said on the night of Brexit.
    'That's it, we're out.'
    The neo liberal sensibility has entered society like a damp in a rotting wall and without integrity and intellectual clout it'll be hard for it to be excised.

  • 31 May 2017 at 2:25am
    Keith Johnson Wellington NZ says:
    Down here in New Zealand, watching BBC World, we have Katy Kay regularly striding across our screens on her stick-like legs advertising that the BBC has 'never taken sides'. Bollocks!

  • 31 May 2017 at 9:03am
    AndrewCorser says:
    Emma Barnett interviewing Jeremy Corbyn on BBC R4 Woman's Hour yesterday is another example (...was there an attempt to re-ignite the anti-semitism "scandal" with Ken Livingstone by choosing this particular interviewer - or is it just that she is a good representative of the elite..?) - for an interview on a magazine (not news) programme, her tone was incredibly aggressive and opinionated.

Read more