As a nation we are facing decades struggling with the challenge of mitigating the impact of the climate emergency and transitioning to a sustainable economy. Currently vested interests are pulling the strings of government and the media to prevent public debate on the scale of the changes needed. A parliament that is neither representative of nor accountable to the people, is driving an increasing number of those who feel disenfranchised into taking direct action. Right now, we really need a news organisation that is independent of government and vested interests to help inform, encourage and report on that debate.
From the late 80s until a few years ago my drive to the office would be accompanied by R4 Today returning home with R4 PM, then often ending the day by watching Newsnight. Whilst the drive to and from the office is now less frequent, the car radio is no longer tuned to Radio 4, the TV is rarely switched to BBC let alone Newsnight. I have reached the point of being just so angry and frustrated at the failure of governance within the BBC to address the bias that is so apparent.
With prominent supporters of the Conservative Party in senior roles, BBC News has lost credibility as a reliable and independent news organisation, becoming little more than a state broadcaster. The BBC has become the latest target of the neo-liberal agenda, with executives seemingly appointed to run the organisation into the ground, cheered on by the right-wing press who are renewing their calls for the license fee to be scrapped. Any remaining credibility drained away with the attempt to stop Gary Lineker from sharing his opinions about government policy towards refugees on social media, and the decision not to air the final episode of David Attenborough latest series for fear of upsetting a few right-wing MPs.
In the MacTaggart lecture Emily Maitlis shone a penetrating light on the power being wielded to further the government’s agenda within the BBC. Her themes ranged from Andrea Leadsom wanting the BBC to be more patriotic, to members of the BBC board blocking the appointment of journalists that had been critical of the government.
Maitlis, however chose not to mention how the reporting on Jeremy Corbyn at the BBC was allowed to drift into distortion and fabrication. Some journalists such as Peter Oborne, once of the Daily Telegraph, are starting to acknowledge the extent and impact of the media bias against Corbyn. For me the two prime examples of this bias were:
Shoot to kill
BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg produced a report on the News at Six based on an interview with Corbyn three days after the Paris attacks in November 2015. The report was introduced as follows…
“I started by asking if he were the resident here at Number 10 whether or not he would be happy for British officers to pull the trigger in the event of a Paris-style attack”.
He was shown to reply:
“I am not happy with a shoot to kill policy in general. I think that is quite dangerous and I think can often be counter-productive.”
The viewer was led to believe that if a terrorist incident like that occurred, as prime minister, Corbyn would instruct the police not to kill the perpetrators in order to stop them from killing others. That reply was then echoed across the press and broadcast media for all to see and hear. But the reply he actually gave to that point was later shown to be…
“Of course you’d bring people onto the streets to prevent and ensure there is safety within our society”.
The answer broadcast was in fact one given to a different question. The BBC Trust accepted that it was wrong to present an answer to one question as though it were an answer to another. Surprisingly Kuenssberg faced no sanction for this misrepresentation. Once visiting a church in North Devon I heard a vicar give a talk on “thou shalt not bear false witness” he put it like this: “once you have squeezed all the toothpaste out of its tube, it is really difficult to put it all back in”. So it was no surprise in 2017 following the London Bridge attack, that prime minister Theresa May echoed the distortion in Kuenssberg’s interview as truth.
The Forde Report
Often it seems that BBC News takes its lead from what is being reported in the press. Martin Forde’s report on the content of a leaked documents and emails related to the EHRC report into the Labour Party, was hardly covered by the press. The field was left open for the BBC to report on its findings, but they chose not to do so. Later when Al Jazeera broadcasted an interview with Forde, it was revealed that he had declined to agree to the following request from a producer at the BBC:
“I would be grateful if you would consider amending your report in respect of your references to Panorama so that it more fairly reflects what the programme actually said, specifically excluding… any suggestion that Panorama was amongst those media outlets that you say ‘entirely misled’ the public over antisemitism complaints from mid-March to April 2018.”
In the past BBC News had not shied away from reporting on its own failings, but on this occasion, along with the rest of the print and broadcast media, It had apparently decided not to discuss the report.
It is often claimed that bias is subjective and can’t be measured objectively. When challenged, the BBC reports that the number of complaints about left-wing bias and right-wing bias are roughly matched. Various methodologies have though been developed that provide a more objective analysis. A team at Cardiff University was commissioned in 2013 by the BBC Trust, to measure bias in BBC News.
The team analysed weekday news reports broadcast by the BBC in two periods.
- October 15 and November 15 in 2007 – two years into a Labour Government
- October 15 and November 15 in 2012 – two years into a Conservative-led Government
To keep the study manageable they selected just three subject areas for analysis (immigration, the EU and religion). They looked at both television news (BBC News at Ten, BBC Breakfast, and Newsnight), and radio news (R4 Today, R1 Newsbeat, 5 Live Breakfast, 5 Live Your Call). The team examined thousands of news reports, coding each of them for analysis.
The results showed the dominance of party-political sources, which by their nature are biased and not totally reliable.
- 2007 – 49.4% of all source appearances
- 2012 – 54.8%
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. Analysis showed the extent to which Labour the Conservatives dominated the opening sections of news reports, between them in 2007 it was 86%, and in 2012 it was 80%.
Government politicians always receive more coverage than opposition politicians, but, as the table below shows, when the Conservatives are in power the BBC allows the government to dominate their news coverage to a much greater extent than when Labour are in power.
Overall it is clear that no matter who is in government more Conservative voices (192) broadcast than Labour ones (167).
In 2013 a considerable amount of human effort was needed to undertake this analysis, but today technology has progressed so much that it is now feasible to substantially automate the collection, coding and analysis of BBC News output allowing bias to be constantly measured and reported.
The cost of developing an open-source solution that would be free for anyone to scrutinise, would seem a reasonable price to pay to help protect our democracy from the biased reporting that we currently experience, and go long way towards restoring trust in what we see and hear from the BBC News.
For a time Twitter labelled the BBC as “government funded media”, but this was changed later to “publicly funded media”. There is little doubt that the BBC is not as independent as it should be, given that the key leadership posts are government appointees, and that the license fee is set by government.
One possible solution would be to replace a board filled with appointees, with some who are elected by those who pay the license fee. This seems to work for The National Trust, who every year send out voting papers to give members a real say in who they trust to run the organisation. Last year for example members rejected an attempt by the anti-woke brigade who were seeking to be elected so that they could hide the extent to which many of the National Trust properties in their care were linked to slavery.
The tables below illustrate how the members of the existing BBC board are currently appointed, along with an alternative that would go a long way to give the BBC the credibility of the independent broadcaster the country really needs.
There are of course many more license fee payers than members of the National Trust, the issue of scale could be addressed by phasing elections over say three years, and as with with the National trust allowing people to vote on-line or by post with a system of ranked voting.
Manifestos for the next election
If progressive parties are genuinely concerned about the state of the BBC, here are two suggestions for them to consider for their manifestos for the next election.
- Initiate a study as to how BBC News output can be automatically monitored for bias, and act on its recommendations for its implementation.
- Include a proposal to replace the positions on the BBC Board that are appointed by the government with positions that are elected by the BBC license fee payers and some that are also elected by BBC staff.
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