In Depth

Is the BBC really biased?

Broadcasting boss says age plays a role in perception of left- and right-wing favour

People over the age of 50 believe the BBC is dominated by liberals, while students think it is part of a right-wing establishment, the corporation’s chairman has said. 

Speaking during an online event, Sir David Clementi said accusations of BBC bias are “very age-related” because “once you get over 50 there are a significant number of people who are convinced that we all live in Islington”.

“If you speak to a younger generation they occasionally think we are part of the establishment and we lean to the right,” he continued.

He told the event, held by campaign group the Voice of the Listener & Viewer, that after giving a speech in Salford earlier this year, “young students came up to me to berate me on the BBC’s performance in the December election, which they said had been so heavily biased towards the Conservatives they couldn’t believe it”.

Amid an on-going controversy over allegations of bias within the broadcaster, Clementi, who is leaving his post in February, admitted that “getting letters from two people both arguing in different directions that we’ve failed doesn’t prove that we are right”.

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 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, had 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, 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 wrote.

“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 writes 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 reports.

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 for 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”, says 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 October: “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.

On balance, the evidence supports the BBC’s claim of impartiality, albeit with occasional missteps. In its 2018 report on the BBC, broadcasting regulator Ofcom examined 69 complaints of alleged bias and concluded that none were in breach of the due impartiality requirements of the Broadcasting Code.

However, 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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