The controversial business of researching BBC impartiality

If you can’t attack the Beeb, shoot the messenger. Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

Whoever takes over from Lord Patten as the new head of the BBC Trust has a tough job ahead – there’s the Scottish referendum and the general election, both potential minefields for a public broadcaster – with, all the while, thoughts of renegotiating the BBC’s royal charter and licence fee, which is likely to be political dynamite.

Quite how much of a minefield the politics surrounding the BBC are was clearly demonstrated when an impartiality review conducted by a team of Cardiff University researchers was criticised in a recent media report. One part of the review examined the corporation’s online and broadcast news coverage, focusing particularly on reporting of three highly charged issues: immigration, religion and the EU. A second part of the review compared the BBC’s breadth of opinion with that of other broadcasters.

Our research focusing on the BBC’s coverage of the three issues examined some of the most influential mass audience bulletins including News at Ten, Breakfast News, Newsnight, the Today programme, Newsbeat, 5 Live Breakfast and Your Call. This was an extensive study which examined a month’s coverage in both 2007 and 2012 producing a dataset of in excess of 250 hours of news. The results of the study indicated that Westminster sources tended to dominate coverage and their prevalence actually rose from 49.4% of all source appearances in 2007, to 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.

One consequence of this was that reporting of the key EU stories tended to be refracted through the prism of political infighting between Labour and the Conservatives, or within the Conservative Party itself. It also meant that the EU tended to be narrowly framed as a threat to British interests. We found that Eurosceptic views were regularly featured, while those arguing for the benefits of EU membership were less prominent. We also noted that there was an imbalance in the representation of Conservative and Labour voices, with Tory MPs getting significantly more airtime.

The Newswatch report

Initially the report and subsequent commentaries generated a minor media ripple, mostly positive. However a recent report compiled by Newswatch for the right of centre thinktank Civitas launched an attack on both our professional integrity and the robustness of our research methods. The Civitas report is so full of inaccuracies, as well as basic misunderstandings of the research process, that we feel compelled to respond.

A central problem with the Civitas report is a basic misunderstanding of what academic research involves. On the second page of their report the authors write:

The clean bill of health on the EU component of the report was delivered despite repeated warnings from many quarters, including the BBC’s own former director-general, Mark Thompson, as well as political editor Nick Robinson, that the corporation’s EU coverage was biased against so-called right-wing opinion. These followed earlier revelations from former senior BBC presenters and editors such as Peter Sissons, Rod Liddle and Robin Aitken, who said the same thing in different ways.

It is not the job of academics to give broadcasters “a clean bill of health”. We are not an accreditation body for the BBC and such statements do not appear in our report. And the research is critical of BBC coverage in a number of areas, which makes this characterisation particularly puzzling. The suggestion that as independent researchers we should consider the opinions of an arbitrarily selected group of BBC staff when conducting our research is highly irregular. Our findings are driven by the data rather than by anecdotal opinion.

The report also made a direct and very serious attack on our independence and integrity:

Newswatch has investigated the links between the Cardiff department and the BBC. There are two very strong connections which are particularly noteworthy. Richard Tait, a former BBC editor, who was subsequently appointed a BBC governor and trustee (2004-10) is now a Cardiff professor of journalism. Richard Sambrook, who was BBC Head of News until 2008 (and hence during one of the periods covered by the research) is the director of the Cardiff Centre of Journalism Media and Cultural Studies, and is a professor of journalism. The research project was commissioned by the trustees directly from Professor Sambrook.

The report was not “commissioned by the trustees directly from Professor Sambrook”, it was secured via a competitive tendering process in which a number of university departments and independent research consultancies bid for the research. This is standard practice for these kinds of projects. Professor Sambrook was head of BBC UK News until 2004 and then head of BBC Global (World Service) News until 2010. This means that he was not involved in the domestic news service during the periods of the research. And Professor Tait had nothing to do with the trust’s decision to review impartiality or to commission the research. He left the BBC Trust in 2010 and the trust’s decision was taken in 2012.

Newswatch argues that the above links “seriously bring into question” the independence of our research and “raise(s) questions about whether those from the Cardiff School of Journalism understand the need for rigour in the broadcast research process”. There are two obvious points to be made about these arguments. Firstly, if research can be dismissed on the basis that the authors have some links to a particular organisation or viewpoint then we would have to dismiss everything that the report’s authors write since, judging by their website, they write little else but polemical articles about BBC coverage of the EU.

Secondly, our school is recognised as a world-renowned centre for journalism research and training. Without recruiting former journalists, editors and executives from our leading broadcaster to staff our broadcast journalism and cutting-edge computational journalism programmes we could not possibly compete with other institutions offering degrees in journalism.

Methodological shortcomings?

The report also makes inaccurate statements about our methodology. It alleges that rather than generate a new sample, we recycled old research from 2007. The origin of this completely inaccurate claim is hard to fathom. As the report makes very clear, the sample used was completely original and unrelated to the selection of programmes analysed for the 2007 report. The report’s authors’ failure to understand what is a conventional content analysis approach led them to further spurious challenges. For instance the fact that we only included the 7am to 8:30am portion of weekday Today broadcasts was said to have introduced “constant errors” into our methodology:

Two-way discussions between presenters and correspondents, an essential component of Today, would have been seriously under-emphasised as at least six of these segments are broadcast during the first hour of Today on weekday mornings, whereas the rest of the programme is more likely to carry interviews with invited guests … And the religious affairs slot ‘Thought for the Day’ would have achieved more than twice its actual statistical prominence, because it is regularly positioned at the same time each morning, and would have been captured in all monitored programmes.

This part of the Today programme was purposefully sampled both because it reaches the widest audience and because we wanted to capture these elements. Our remit was to assess the range of voices in broadcasting, so selecting the part of the show where there would be a preponderance of interviews rather than two-ways was more germane to the research brief. One of our three areas of study was religion, so it was logical for us to capture the part of the programme with Thought for the Day. We narrowed the sample to weekdays because the audience is much larger on weekdays and the show exerts a greater agenda-setting influence on the rest of the print and broadcast media.

The report also criticised our sample size which according to the authors was much smaller than their 6,000 hour Newswatch sample. We were also alleged to have discarded 30% of our EU data, a claim that is simply inaccurate. As a small part of our research, we carried out a secondary analysis on a subset of our data. The report then makes another erroneous attack on our sampling methodology, saying that we excluded: “any items that it did not consider to be specifically about the UK’s relationship with the European Union, including reports on EU leaders, the euro crisis or other countries’ relations with the EU”.

However the decision to focus on the UK’s relationship with the EU was the brief that was agreed with the BBC.

The very serious allegation that we misrepresented our dataset is also made. It is claimed that we “cherry-picked” data from the report to erroneously argue that Conservative MPs received more airtime in BBC coverage:

But Professor Lewis was selective: he cherry-picked the most dramatic figures – the 3:1 and 4:1 statistics he quotes relate only to the most senior party figures in the survey sample and he excluded 95 MPs from his interpretation of the Cardiff 2012.

The implication here is that if the 95 MPs had been included a different picture would emerge of the balance between Conservative and Labour representatives. However the table on page 16 of our report, which includes the 95 MPs, clearly shows this is not the case:

BBC report: Political affiliation of sources, by year Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies

Ultimately the research community and wider public can make up their own mind about whose word to take on this matter, although we would urge people to read our full report which, given the sheer number of inaccuracies contained in their attack upon it, it is not at all clear that Newswatch has done.

A more comprehensive response to the Newswatch report is available here