Comment: The problems of measuring political bias at the BBC

Contrary to popular belief, there really aren't two sides to every story.

By Dr Matthew Ashton

The accusation from the Labour party, reported in the Guardian, that the BBC is currently biased against them is problematic for a number of reasons. Normally when a political party accuses a news organisation or journalist of lacking impartiality, what they're really saying is 'you're not reporting us in the way we'd like'. In this case Labour seems to be arguing that the BBC is giving more coverage to coalition politicians and policies than to their own side. Now this may well be true – I've yet to see their data – but I'd maintain that measuring bias is much more complex than simply a question of quantitative content analysis.

Anyone with a stopwatch and a pen and paper can record how much airtime a political party is given, but that rarely gives the full story. For instance, what was the context of the show they appeared on and how were they treated? What did the watching or listening viewers make of it? How the wider public interprets news stories can differ massively from the political elite. Often more coverage doesn't necessarily equal better coverage. That's even before you get into the minefield of whether the bias was intentional or not.

A good example of this is Boris Johnson. Boris Johnson appeared several times on the satirical news quiz 'Have I Got News for You', where he was widely ridiculed by the regular panellists. Ironically during one of these appearances he jokingly accused the BBC of bias against him and the Conservatives by allowing him to host the show in the first place. However, as a result of this exposure he gained a huge following and became one of the most recognisable and popular political figures in the country. I'd even go as far to say that Johnson probably wouldn't be Mayor of London today without his time on 'Have I Got News for You'. Now I don't think anyone who made the show would have guessed it would have quite that impact. How do you factor that into your bias calculations?

Accusations of BBC bias are as old as the corporation itself. Since its founding the BBC has been attacked for its coverage of almost every issue under the sun. In the early days of the organisation a lot of these stemmed from the fact that no-one was 100% sure of what the role of the BBC actually was. As a result of this there were certainly occasions when it was biased towards one side or another. Conversely though there have been several attempts by governments over the years to counter perceived bias by appointing their own supporters.

From an anecdotal perspective most of my right-wing friends are absolutely convinced that the BBC is run by closet Communists, while my left-wing friends think that it's the last bastion of the Conservative establishment and dedicated to propping up Cameron. The truth is the BBC has always been a political blind spot for both parties. Some might argue that politicians don't really believe in this bias, but simply use it as leverage to promote their own ideological positions. However if these charges of bias are an affectation, they're remarkably deep rooted. If you read the diaries and biographies of Conservatives from the 1980s, you can find dozens of quotes and examples where they express their profound belief that the BBC was filled with left-wingers working away to undermine Margaret Thatcher. Equally several Labour politicians from the Harold Wilson and Blair eras have repeatedly stated their belief that the BBC is the voice of the establishment stifling anything even vaguely radical. Interestingly research conducted since the late 1970s tends to show that the average viewer thought that the BBC was biased towards the Conservatives in the 80s and 90s, but this began to taper off when Blair came to power.

When you speak to journalists you get a similarly mixed picture. Andrew Marr, the former political editor of the BBC, is on record arguing that the BBC has a liberal bias, but this is more in terms of social and cultural issues than political ones. On the other hand John Pilger has commented that the news offered by the BBC is tilted towards maintaining the conservative status-quo. Several rival media companies have also accused the BBC of bias over the years but the cynical might point out that they have commercial reasons for doing so and would directly benefit from anything that weakened the BBC in the eyes of the public and government.

In reality most accusations of bias are usually subjective depending on where you’re standing at any given time. It's also based on the partly flawed notion that pure objectivity is either desirable, or even possible. In general I've always found that while objectivity should be your goal, that doesn't always mean that there are two sides to every story and even when there are they're very rarely equal and opposite. If the BBC is biased, it's probably too London-centric, something it's currently trying to address, at least in part, by its Salford move (for anyone really interested in further investigating media bias I'd recommend looking at the work of the Glasgow Media Group).

The truth is the BBC often tries too hard to please everybody and as a result it sometimes ends up alienating people. The fact that both political parties in this country are so utterly convinced that it's biased again them is probably the best evidence you could hope for that the BBC is doing its job.

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.

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