In Depth

Is the BBC biased?

Impartiality still a ‘complex challenge’ for broadcaster, Ofcom report claims

The BBC must work harder to become more transparent and appeal to poorer parts of the country if it is to deliver on its impartiality pledge, according to a new Ofcom report.

The media watchdog’s annual report on the broadcaster said that audiences “consistently rate the BBC less favourably” for impartiality, adding that complaints about BBC content have more than trebled since 2017-2018, jumping from 1,673 four years ago to 5,429 this year.

Describing the national broadcaster’s commitment to delivering impartial coverage as a “complex challenge”, Ofcom warned that the BBC has been hit by “historical failings” during the past 12 months.

“The BBC remains highly valued by the public and made a clear, positive contribution during the pandemic,” said Kevin Bakhurst, Ofcom’s group director for broadcasting and online content.

“But the last year has also seen its reputation hit by historical failings, with some viewers and listeners doubting its impartiality, and others feeling excluded,” he added. “The BBC must dare to be different, extending its appeal to viewers and listeners of all backgrounds, classes, cultures, ages or locations.”

What is impartiality?

According to BBC guidelines, the broadcaster has a responsibility to “do all we can to ensure controversial subjects are treated with due impartiality in our news and other output dealing with matters of public policy or political or industrial controversy”, adding: “But we go further than that, applying due impartiality to all subjects.”

In practice, this means a commitment to “reflecting a wide range of opinion across our output as a whole and over an appropriate timeframe so that no significant strand of thought is knowingly unreflected or under-represented”.

However, the corporation retains the right to exercise “editorial freedom to produce content about any subject, at any point on the spectrum of debate, as long as there are good editorial reasons for doing so”.

The Proms

The decision, later reversed, to exclude Rule, Britannia! from The Proms last year led more conservative members of the public to complain that the BBC was beholden to left-wing interests.

Robert Hardman, writing in the Daily Mail, claimed that Davie’s reversal of the decision would be “welcomed by most level-headed people around the country”, having endured “decades” of a “default London/liberal bias” within the BBC.

And Dan Wootton, then-executive editor of The Sun, said the issue of bias goes deeper. “The whole unnecessary Proms scandal shows that the BBC is staffed top to bottom by Guardian-reading, quinoa munching, Brexit-hating lefties who despise what you and me stand for,” he said.

“Here’s my warning though: Don’t believe this battle is even close to being won.” 

Following the controversy, the songs Rule, Britannia! and Land Of Hope And Glory were sung by a small choir at a subdued event orchestrated to comply with coronavirus rules.

Brexit bias in the spotlight

Few things have brought the BBC’s claims of impartiality under more scrutiny than its coverage of the 2016 Brexit referendum and its aftermath.

In the Radio Times, journalist Raymond Snoddy said that the BBC came under attack “from both the right and the left” over what critics called its “tit-for-tat news coverage”.

As an example of what he calls a “phoney balance”, former BBC journalist Professor Ivor Gaber cites an occasion when “1,280 business leaders signed a letter to The Times backing UK membership of the EU”, a story that was supposedly “balanced” by a brief quote arguing the opposite from a single entrepreneur, Sir James Dyson.

As far back as 2005, the BBC was accused of failing in its duty of impartiality and “promoting an institutional pro-European Union bias in a damning report that it commissioned”, The Times reported.

Journalist Sir Simon Jenkins referenced these claims in an article in The Guardian in the wake of the referendum, in which he defended BBC coverage of the vote itself as balanced. However, he said the broadcaster could not undo the impact of “years of brazen pro-EU bias”.

In fact, according to Jenkins, then BBC Director General Tony Hall “went round the London dinner circuit wailing that BBC balance had ‘lost us the election’” because “it had given too much credibility to leave”.

Does the BBC give a platform to extremists?

For those on the left of the political spectrum, lending credibility to figures and causes they deem extreme is a common gripe against the BBC.

In an article on The Conversation, Dr Chris Allen of the University of Leicester addressed criticism levelled at the broadcaster over its supposed role in the “normalisation” of alt-right and far-right discourse since the rise in populist sentiment exemplified by the Brexit vote and the election of President Donald Trump.

These incidents have included the “former Breitbart London editor Raheem Kassam appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to discuss the release of Tommy Robinson”, while Ezra Levant, Robinson’s former employer at the Canadian far-right website Rebel Media, appeared on BBC 5 Live’s Breakfast Show.

Criticism has also been levelled at the BBC for its decision to give airtime to hard-line Islamic cleric Anjem Choudary.

The broadcaster came under fire again in November 2018 after Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon pulled out of a BBC-hosted conference in Edinburgh after learning of its decision to invite Trump’s former advisor Steve Bannon to speak there.

Bannon has “championed far-right nationalist parties across Europe since exiting the White House in August 2017”, said The Independent.

Robert Peston, who served for nine years as BBC business and economics editor before moving to ITV, has been highly critical of this element of the BBC’s approach to debates, telling reporters in 2018: “Impartial journalism is not giving equal airtime to two people, one of whom says the world is flat and the other one says the world is round. That is not balanced, impartial journalism.”

So is the BBC biased?

study carried out by researchers at Cardiff University, who analysed BBC news coverage from 2007 and 2012, concluded that conservative opinions received more airtime than progressive ones.

However, those findings contradict a 2013 report by the Centre for Policy Studies think tank which claimed that the corporation is biased towards the left.

Bias is often heavily subjective and thus difficult to measure. What is certain is that more and more British viewers are losing their faith in the BBC as the high watermark of impartial public service broadcasting.

Ofcom noted in its 2018 report on news consumption that only 61% of those surveyed agreed that the BBC News was impartial, lower than the ratings given to ITV News (68%) and Sky News (64%).

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