Tuesday, 3 June 2014

BBC - Biased Broadcasting Corporation?

Political bias in the media is nothing new, and I'm not even the first person this week to suggest that the BBC are as susceptible to it as any tabloid or broadsheet newspaper. An online petition currently boasting over 40,000 signatures condemning the BBC's failure to adequately cover the Green Party's successes in the recent elections, coupled with some 1200 complaints regarding the matter made directly to the BBC have certainly put the issue into the public domain.

I have to confess that, perhaps naively, I feel really let down by the BBC over this. In my youth, I looked to the BBC for fair, factual, concise and impartial reporting of current events. Everyone knows that the Daily Mail is the go-to paper for sensationalist right-wing gibberish articles. Likewise, the Guardian has a reputation for being lefty and having a distinct whiff of muesli and yoghurt about it. But the BBC.... they were supposed to be the ones firmly on the fence, carefully presenting the facts without any intentional swing to one political side or the other. Even the staff's identity cards proclaim that first and foremost, they are to strive to be independent, impartial and honest!

Historically, criticism of the BBC has been that of a liberal-left nature - in fact, as recently as July 2013, senior Trust members stated that they felt issues relating to immigration and the EU had been represented with a definite liberal bias, and prior to that a 2007 report on Safeguarding Impartiality again focused on steering away from any left-wing tendencies towards a more central position. 

Well. In the wake of the 2014 UK local and European elections, I can definitely say I fail to observe any trace of liberal lefty influence. 

A crude example of this; a quick visit to the BBC News home page to type "UKIP" into the search box returned 897 news article results from the last 6 months (3rd December 2013 to 3rd June 2014).  Repeating the same search for the Green Party yielded just 247 results.

Impartial? What?

Taking the media-wide coverage of UKIP's "success" at the recent elections at face value, one could superficially justify this by saying that UKIP have done So Very Well and really have caused a political earthquake... Only, they haven't. 

UKIP still have no MPs (granted, this may yet change at the next general election). Nevertheless, they still don't have overall control of a single council in England, Wales or Scotland. Having 163 councillors up and down the country is much less impressive once you break that down into there being only 1 or 2 in the vast majority of towns and cities. They have not even established ground as the official opposition in any area, whereas the Green Party are now the opposition in Solihull, Liverpool, Islington, Lewisham and Norwich. Couple this with the Green Party's presence of 162 councillors across 56 councils, and it becomes immediately apparent that the much more established role of the Green Party at least equals the newly gained territory of UKIP. What earthquake?

But WHERE is the BBC coverage of this? 

Looking at the specific guidelines drafted for the 2014 elections by the BBC Editorial Guidelines board, there should have been:

 "impartial and independent reporting of the 
campaign, giving fair coverage, rigorous scrutiny and due weight to the 
policies and campaigns of all parties and candidates."

Please excuse me while I laugh until I cry. 

Stepping away from the BBC News website for a moment, I was dismayed to see Nigel Farage on the Andrew Marr show this Sunday, enjoying a very pleasant chat with the host. A little bit of banter, some gentle teasing about whether or not Farage will challenge Nick Clegg for his Sheffield constituency in the general election next year - not a trace of the usual roasting given to prominent politicians on this programme. With Andrew Marr's help, Farage came across in a very good light indeed. "What a pleasant bloke. I'd like to go for a pint with him." choruses the mindset of the electorate. The conspicuous lack of a manifesto for the European elections should have been a red flag to all and should have been subject to "rigorous scrutiny". Instead, we may as well have been watching a popular quiz show for all the camaraderie displayed within.

Even Question Time has fallen into this trap, having welcomed Nigel Farage no less than 16 times since 2009, while Natalie Bennett and former-Green Party leader (and current MP) Caroline Lucas total half that number of appearances between them. Once again, UKIP have no MPs but the Green Party do. 

No, accusations of pro-UKIP, anti-Green media bias are not exclusive to the BBC. But the other media outlets are not publicly funded by a licence fee, and the BBC's own charter and specific guidelines explicitly pledge to deliver bias-free reporting. Consequently, I hold them more accountable for the obvious - and it is obvious - right-wing slant to the recent election coverage. 

Should they have ignored Farage and UKIP altogether? No, because that wouldn't be "fair coverage" or "due weight" either. But to have completely sidelined the Green Party by lumping in results with the "Other" category, by giving ten minute interviews with defeated Liberal Democrat members immediately after the Green Party pushed them into fourth place in the European elections, by publishing daily articles on the antics of UKIP candidates, members and supporters and thus keeping UKIP more on the population's radar than any other party - that has wholly and entirely deviated from their own guidelines. 

I strongly suspect that a "rigorous scrutiny" of the BBC's election coverage guidelines compared to the actual output from the past two months would demonstrate a gross deviance and generate many more than the current 1200 complaints on the matter. In an age where two-thirds of the eligible electorate didn't even bother to show up and vote, the role of news media in communicating the policies and values of each and every party cannot be underestimated. As a publicly funded body, the BBC owes its readers and viewers a truthful representation of who will offer them what, and not some circus act propaganda for who will, inevitably, turn out to be a very dangerous party with some very dangerous ideas. 


  1. It's interesting to see how data can be used to justify different arguments. I think the 'due weight' part of the editorial guidelines is key here, and you make the point that the Greens have more MPs (1) and are official opposition in more councils than UKIP. I've argued (http://www.oak-wood.co.uk/2014/05/the-mythical-green-news-blackout/) that this isn't actually enough to make them newsworthy. UKIP were ahead of not only the Greens, but the LibDems in almost every opinion poll since February. They massively increased their share of the vote in the EU elections whilst the Greens stayed static. The Greens successes are localised. UKIP have pushed forward across the country, even in Scotland. I don't like UKIP, and in many ways I don't want to keep hearing about them. And I completely agree that they have had more coverage than the Greens. But actually I think this is a proportionate response to their significance at the moment. The BBC report news, and UKIP are big news whether you like that fact or not.

    1. I see your point, Chris, but I would argue that a major part of UKIP's progress has been a result of the media coverage they have received. Prior to these elections, they had no real presence on a local or European level, and yet multiple news outlets egged them on by talking about the "earthquake" they were expected to cause. I wonder what the impact on Green Party votes might have been had they received a similar amount of coverage in the run-up to the elections.

      With turnout as low as 35% and many people (anecdotally) reporting as getting their information on party policies from the easily available media rather than reading manifestos for themselves, it's easy to see what huge influence there is to be had over the way people vote.

      Polls have indicated that on policies alone, the Green Party are the most popular with UKIP coming in fifth place, only just ahead of the BNP. And yet they have gained so much ground and dominated media coverage of politics in recent months.

      Give the Green Party decent coverage, and their support will surge. Show up UKIP for the empty, sensationalist far-right that they are, and people will see straight through them.

    2. The Green Party blackout is not a recent problem. In 1997 BBC memo said "treat greens as a fringe party" and that has happened ever since. UKIP has been talked up by BBC for over a year, polls climbing in line with coverage. BTW, here in Mid Suffolk, 4 Greens lead the opposition group of 8 on the District Council.

  2. Some idea of the contempt the BBC has for listeners and viewers who complain can be gained from their response to the outcry. Some people have complained about over-exposure of UKIP, others about the Green Party blackout. The standard response does not even mention the Green Party! Here it is:

    Thank you for taking the time to contact us regarding BBC News’
    coverage of the recent European Parliament and local elections. We
    have received a wide range of feedback about our coverage of these
    elections. Bearing in mind the pressure on licence fee resources, the
    following response strives to address the majority of concerns raised
    but we apologise in advance if not all of the specific points you have
    mentioned have been answered in the manner you prefer.The BBC has very
    clear guidelines to ensure that political parties receive an
    appropriate level of coverage during an election campaign and our
    editors are required to follow them carefully. The amount of airtime
    the BBC gives to a party in the run up to an election is based on
    evidence of past and current levels of support. This can include the
    number of candidates a party is fielding, how it performed in the last
    equivalent election and other evidence of current electoral backing.
    Ahead of the campaign we publish details of our approach on our
    website.On that basis, and in line with other major broadcasters, the
    BBC gave UKIP a similar level of coverage to the Liberal Democrats,
    Labour and the Conservatives in the European elections. With that
    coverage however came a high degree of scrutiny. The views and
    policies of UKIP and its members were examined and challenged in depth
    by several senior BBC interviewers including John Humphrys on 'Today',
    Jeremy Paxman on 'Newsnight' and Andrew Neil on the 'Sunday Politics.'
    We take our obligation to provide fair and impartial coverage very
    seriously and we are confident that our reporting of the local and
    European elections was balanced, proportionate and in line with our
    editorial and election guidelines.Thanks again for getting in touch.

    Kind Regards

    BBC Complaints

    NB This is sent from an outgoing account only which is not monitored.
    You cannot reply to this email address but if necessary please contact
    us via our webform quoting any case number we provided.

    1. Like hitting your head against a brick wall, isn't it!

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