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Hard Evidence: how biased is the BBC?

Welcome to Hard Evidence, a series of articles that looks at what the data say about some of the trickiest public policy questions we face. Academic experts will delve into the available research evidence…

The BBC skews, but not the way you think … Jonathan Brady/PA

Welcome to Hard Evidence, a series of articles that looks at what the data say about some of the trickiest public policy questions we face. Academic experts will delve into the available research evidence to provide an informed analysis of current affairs you won’t get from politicians or vested interests. First up, Mike Berry uses his research to tackle a question as old as broadcasting itself: is the BBC really impartial?

If you are a reader of the right end of the British press you will be familiar with stories claiming that the Corporation has a liberal, left-wing bias.

Only last week the Daily Telegraph reported a new study had found that the BBC “exhibits a left-of-centre bias in both the amount of coverage it gives to different opinions and the way in which these voices are represented”. Other critics have accused the BBC of having a pro-EU and anti-business slant. But how true are these accusations and what does the evidence suggest about the range of views the corporation features in its news output?

Along with a group of colleagues at Cardiff University, I recently completed a major content analysis of BBC coverage. This research was funded by the BBC Trust as part of an ongoing series of studies examining the impartiality of its reporting in areas such as regional news, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Arab Spring, business and science.

Our research had two strands. One examined the range of topics and sources featured in BBC broadcast news and how that compared to what was provided by other broadcasters. A second strand looked in detail at the BBC’s online and broadcast reporting of immigration, the EU and religion. We analysed news coverage from both 2007 and 2012 in order to identify any possible changes over time.

Tories get more airtime than Labour

One of the most striking findings was the dominance of party political sources. In coverage of immigration, the EU and religion, these accounted for 49.4% of all source appearances in 2007 and 54.8% in 2012. In reporting of the EU the dominance was even more pronounced with party political sources accounting for 65% of source appearances in 2007 and 79.2% in 2012.

Political sources were also much more likely than other sources to be featured in the opening sections of news reports which had the consequence of reports being framed from party political perspectives which other sources then had to respond to.

Among political sources, Labour and Conservatives dominate coverage accounting for 86% of source appearances in 2007 and 79.7% in 2012. Our data also show that Conservatives get more airtime than Labour. Bearing in mind that incumbents always receive more coverage than opposition politicians, the ratio was much more pronounced when the Conservatives were in power in 2012.

It helps to be PM to get on the beeb, particularly if you’re a Tory. Jeff Overs/BBC/PA

In strand one (reporting of immigration, the EU and religion), Gordon Brown outnumbered David Cameron in appearances by a ratio of less than two to one (47 vs 26) in 2007. In 2012 David Cameron outnumbered Ed Milliband by a factor of nearly four to one (53 vs 15). Labour cabinet members and ministers outnumbered Conservative shadow cabinet and ministers by approximately two to one (90 vs 46) in 2007; in 2012, Conservative cabinet members and ministers outnumbered their Labour counterparts by more than four to one (67 to 15).

In strand two (reporting of all topics) Conservative politicians were featured more than 50% more often than Labour ones (24 vs 15) across the two time periods on the BBC News at Six. So the evidence is clear that BBC does not lean to the left it actually provides more space for Conservative voices.

A win for Euroscepticism

So what about the accusation that the BBC is pro-EU? Again the evidence points in the opposite direction.

In each sample period, a single story was dominant in broadcast coverage. In 2007 it was the Lisbon Treaty, which accounted for 70% of coverage and in 2012 it was negotiations over ratifying the EU budget which accounted for 72% of coverage. In both cases the debate was dominated by the representatives of the two main parties and the EU was framed narrowly as a threat to British interests.

In 2007 debate revolved around three points argued by Conservative Eurosceptics: that Britain hadn’t secured her “redlines” on maintaining British sovereignty; that the treaty was a repackaged version of the EU constitution; and that a referendum was necessary to ratify it. Labour contested these arguments. In 2012 the budget debate pitted the Conservative leadership (for the budget settlement) against the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party and Labour who opposed it.

There are two points to be made about this coverage. First, it saw Europe almost exclusively through the prism of political infighting between Labour and the Conservatives so a rounded debate about the multiplicity of ways the relationship between the EU and UK affects Britain was almost completely absent. Second, although UKIP received very little airtime, Euroscepticism was very well represented through Conservative politicians.

Voices arguing for the benefits of EU membership were very sparse. This was a consequence of Labour politicians being unwilling to make the positive case for Europe because of its perceived unpopularity amongst voters. This meant that business lobbyists provided much of what little pro-EU opinion was available.

Business as usual

What about the accusation that the BBC is anti-business? Once again the evidence shows that the opposite is the case.

In both 2007 and 2012, across all programming, business representatives received substantially more airtime on BBC network news (7.5% and 11.1% of source appearances) than they did on either ITV (5.9% and 3.8%) or Channel 4 News (2.4% and 2.2%). When we compare the representation of business with that of organised labour, the findings are even more striking.

On BBC News at Six, business representatives outnumbered trade union spokespersons by more than five to one (11 vs 2) in 2007 and by 19 to one in 2012. On the issues of immigration and the EU in 2012, out of 806 source appearances, not one was allocated to a representative of organised labour. Considering the impact of the issues on the UK workforce, and the fact that trade unions represent the largest mass democratic organisations in civil society, such invisibility raises troubling questions for a public service broadcaster committed to impartial and balanced coverage.

City voices

The robustness of these findings is reinforced in research on how the BBC’s Today programme reported the banking crisis in 2008. The table below shows the sources featured during the intense six weeks of coverage following the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

Today programme banking crisis interviewees 15/9/2008 to 20/10/2008.

The range of debate was even narrower if we examine who the programme featured as interviewees in the two week period around the UK bank bailouts. This can be seen in the next table.

Today programme banking crisis interviewees 6/10/2008 to 20/10/2008.

Here opinion was almost completely dominated by stockbrokers, investment bankers, hedge fund managers and other City voices. Civil society voices or commentators who questioned the benefits of having such a large finance sector were almost completely absent from coverage.

The fact that the City financiers who had caused the crisis were given almost monopoly status to frame debate again demonstrates the prominence of pro-business perspectives.

So the evidence from the research is clear. The BBC tends to reproduce a Conservative, Eurosceptic, pro-business version of the world, not a left-wing, anti-business agenda.

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26 Comments sorted by

  1. lew hunt

    retired

    Being pro Europe, pro Labour/Unions, pro BBC I've come over all smugly satisfied with your results. I do however feel that your view that Labour's feared upsetting the populace re Europe is an opinion though quite possibly true.
    It does however point up the problem when opinion pieces and editorials from the overwhelmingly right wing press are not robustly contended by the BBC which has a duty to not only maintain balance but report that views presented by the right are not dogma and not necessarily true.

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    1. lew hunt

      retired

      In reply to lew hunt

      Sorry an extra 'not' crept into that last sentence before 'dogma'-is there any way to edit posts please.

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    2. Khalil A. Cassimally

      Community Coordinator at The Conversation

      In reply to lew hunt

      Sadly you can't edit but I'm sure your subsequent note makes your point clear. You can delete the comment and repost however.

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    3. Ray Veysey

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to lew hunt

      Lew, save yourself time and trouble, instead of the long preamble, simply say "I am a communist" because that's what it amounts to. All of the 3 things you admit proudly to being would remove or substantially reduce your right to choose to be those things, and insist you are by law.
      Do you feel no respect and love for your own country ? Yes , then why pro Europe ? they will destroy your country and turn it into a region of a greater Europe. Then you will have no democracy, now that may be ok for you if you are a communist, but most of us don't believe in that.
      Labour and the Unions will take you the same way, because the unelected, or elected by sham as all the Trades Union leaders are want this Communist state of Europe.
      And the BBC is no more than a home for the left wing wannabees embarrassed by their huge pay packets who also want the Communist state of Europe,

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    4. lew hunt

      retired

      In reply to Ray Veysey

      Thanks Ray, I will give your interesting arguments the careful consideration they deserve.

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    5. mattoid

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Ray Veysey

      So Chris Patten is a left-wing wannabee?

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    6. David Britten

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Ray Veysey

      I read your comment with interest, but am bound to say that your view is based on the false premise that we have a democracy. What we have now is a corporate dominance of the political system, in which none of the 3 main parties dare to represent the electorate. The remaining parties do not have sufficient exposure in mainstream media to intrude on this cosy arrangement, and are obliged to depend on the Internet and social web sites such as Facebook. Up until 1979, political control was the sole province of an entrenched 'Establishment' and the City of London, and this meant that, from the end of WW2, no Labour government was able to serve a second term. Then arrived Tony B.Liar and his love affair with Murdoch and big business. So we are now governed by multinational corporations such as News Corp and, by proxy, the Whitehouse. In my eyes, the EU, for all its faults, is far more democratic than the UK's largely fictitious democratic system.

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  2. Deirdre Alderton

    Retired Health Worker

    I can't say that I am surprised by these findings. They have merely confirmed my impression.

    I would say that here in Australia ABC news reporting is even morre biased towards the Coalition. It would be very interesting to repeat this exercise looking at the ABC and SBS and their skew on Labor vs Liberal/Coalition. Not to mention that the Greens barely ever get a mention, other then to be slandered as a loony far left party of tree huggers. I wonder how the next (Abbott) adminstration would react if the truth came out, would they still be so anti ABC or is it just instinctive now?

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    1. David North

      Retired

      In reply to Deirdre Alderton

      I came late to this site, but think some kind of fact-based critique of the BBC is is long overdue. As a regular listener over many years, I'm pretty sure of a few things:

      1) Auntie has got a lot more conservative (small and large C) in recent years. This may have been a defensive response to Tory criticism, which was vociferous a while back. But I think it also reflects a change in attitudes. The English (not the Scots) have got a lot less tolerant in recent years, maybe in reaction to the swinging…

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  3. Steve Phillips

    Nurse Practitioner

    If Id submitted research to my Uni lecturers with these criteria Id have been failed.
    When investigating subjective bias the content and how it is presented must be thoroughly examined and analysed.
    If I were to write 10 articles about the Labor party and only 5 about the Libs, but prefaced every article about Labor with; 'Labor incompetents at it again', my bias would be obviously not towards Labor would it. Therefore the ratio of articles and investigative pieces broadcast is irrelevant.

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  4. Lionel George Taylor

    logged in via Twitter

    I am STILL not convinced by mere numbers. Unscientific , maybe. It is the quality rather than the quantity of comments that matter. May be subjective but recently I seem to have noticed the Beeb will have one of their announcers introduce a new Government proposal and instead of a Government spokesman being given the first opportunity to introduce and explain the Governments reasoning and intentions ,a non Government person will be allowed to criticise and comment. Likewise I note that on such proposals as the "Bedroom Tax" 1) The Beeb WILL insist in calling it the Bedroom Tax (which it is not) and 2) to illustrate its effect they seem to pick the most extreme, sympathy inducing , case they can find. They do not take a cross-section of people affected.

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  5. Ray Veysey

    logged in via Twitter

    "This research was funded by the BBC "
    Not a good start. this would be the BBC who has spent a fortune of other peoples money preventing a previous report on it's behaviour in the ME from being released.
    "This research was funded by the BBC "
    You then produce a report diametrically opposed to the Telegraphs, so no surprise there then.
    "This research was funded by the BBC "
    Wrong, this research was funded by the public paying under duress from criminal action

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  6. Dizzying Crest

    logged in via Facebook

    even the way the newspapers are gone through on the bbc are normally featured politicaly in order from right to left and no morning star or huffington post

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  7. Jenks

    logged in via Twitter

    It's a standard right-wing tactic to accuse the media of left-wing bias, thereby manipulating them into shifting to the right to offset the criticism, which in turn shifts the public perception even further right, because they then view the BBC's centre right-position as a centre-left one.

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  8. charles hughes

    Architect

    i am not a statistician or politically motivated but i find the article a bit like the Hutton Inquiry. Research is published and conclusions reached but I don't always feel that the conclusions are justified by the research. Could not the disparity between political parties presence on news coverage be due to other issues? Mr Miliband and his team might not be on the news at present as they are in disarray and seem to have a dearth of policy? or they are holding back on their policies until it is…

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  9. Ed Iglehart

    logged in via Facebook

    Of all the areas listed, "... examining the impartiality of its reporting in areas such as regional news, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Arab Spring, business and science."

    Why is Israel-Palestine the only one without a link?

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  10. Keith Crosby

    n/a

    ~~~~~In strand two (reporting of all topics) Conservative politicians were featured more than 50% more often than Labour ones (24 vs 15) across the two time periods on the BBC News at Six. So the evidence is clear that BBC does not lean to the left it actually provides more space for Conservative voices.~~~~~

    Liarbour voices aren't left, they're tory! George Galloway might qualify as vaguely left but Miliband Fink-Nottle and his millionaire cronies? Behave!

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  11. Michael Shand
    Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Software Tester

    Good article but yeah this is just obvious projection, we hear it all the time, even reporting honestly on climate change - that its real and happening will get you howls of left wing bias and anti business sentiment

    Because these are not fact claims, they are argument techniques

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  12. G Mc KENDRICK

    logged in via LinkedIn

    BBC funded report finds that BBC are great ,stunning work.

    However the QUANTITY of reports is not the issue its the content ,and in that the Telegraph was correct .

    The BBC is a club for public school boys and left wing lovies who fell guilty they had it so easy and have engaged with the Fabians to bring their left wing communist utopia to we ,unwashed masses..

    Every time they can get someone on from the Guardian or Observer they are on

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    1. David Britten

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to G Mc KENDRICK

      The only reason that the BBC seems left biased is because the right is so monumentally awful and corrupt, it is almost impossible to question these vile creatures forensically without giving an appearance of bias.

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  13. mattoid

    logged in via Twitter

    Just a little message to the frothing right wingers here; the article very clearly states that the study collated instances of who was invited to give their opinion on air, not what the BBC said about anyone. Do you understand yet?

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  14. David Britten

    logged in via Facebook

    Ever since I was old enough to understand that there was a world beyond the confines of my school playground, the BBC has been my oracle - until recently. I am in the fortunate position to be able to assess the political bias of the BBC over a period of 54 years, and can say with confidence that it can no longer be relied upon for an unbiased reportage of events concerning the British and American political arena. I have, until recently, been an avid fan of BBC Radio 4, and it is with the sadness of a bereavement that I find myself unable to listen without a growing feeling that I have lost a good friend.

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  15. Sandi Dunn

    logged in via Facebook

    A producer friend working in the BBC says a lot of self editing goes on which frustrates her. Ironically, it is because the BBC is not independent BECAUSE of the licence fee being controlled by politicians. Just do a survey of the Radio 4 supposed 'flagship' news Programme, The Today Programme - which, although it has 3 hours, often cuts debate when it's getting interesting. I would love to see what you made of their output....

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    1. David Britten

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Sandi Dunn

      The Today and PM programmes have been an addiction of mine for many years, but I'm currently undergoing cold turkey. I am in a good position to be able to say that, in recent years, there is always a noticeable shift toward whatever party happens to be in power at the time. This must be the effect of threats regarding the licence fee, but there is also a connection with the political leanings of those at the head of the corporation. These are almost exclusively establishment figures with a strong connection to the Tories, and their influence is more than ever apparent.

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