When the BBC is praised for its balanced coverage of Europe you have to smell a rat. When academics from the university unit that exonerates the BBC of bias begin blogging that the BBC, far from being left wing leans to the right and is skewed against Europhiles and the left, you realise that the rat is a very smelly one indeed.
Now, thanks to the investigative research of the News-watch team – the bane of the BBC – the Corporation’s shenanigans to prove its so-called impartiality, have been exposed.
And who better than News-watch to unravel all this. The BBC’s inadequate and biased presentation of all matters EU has been the focus of News-watch scrutiny for some 15 years now. They have been painstakingly fair, consistent and rigorous in their methodology for logging and monitoring comprehensive swathes of BBC output for bias. And they have found it – in bucketfulls.
I must at this point declare my own interest. With David Keighley, News-watch’s CEO, I set up its forerunner, Minotaur Media Tracking, back in 1999. Our purpose then (as now) was to track and objectively analyse the BBC’s news output on Brussels for bias. We used techniques I had learnt at the Centre for Television Research (Leeds University) where I’d been part of a team monitoring the onset and impact of parliamentary broadcasting.
Since those early days News-watch has transcribed and logged literally thousands of hours of BBC news output, subjecting them to formal and dispassionate quantitative analysis. Each year the BBC has been presented with yet another of their critical reports. The latest of these shows that the BBC bias by omission continues unchecked.
Thirteen weeks of the Today programme, consecutive weeks of transmission in the summer of 2013, shows just what Today thinks of the case for withdrawal from the EU. Today gave ‘come outers’ just 513 words (fewer than in this blog) of airtime across the whole period to make or explain their case.
Contrary to Alan Massie’s viewpoint ‘adding up the numbers’ like this proves rather a lot, not least the BBC’s predictable default position, an orthodox left/liberal one (not just on the EU but on a wide range of issues).
But finally, clearly stung by News-watch’s annual critique despite their persistent denial of the validity of News-watch methodology, the BBC in 2012 decided to run such an exercise for themselves. (Like the feminists the BBC like to have their cake and eat it). They commissioned the Cardiff School of Journalism to undertake a similar study to the News-watch ones.
And just guess what the Cardiff report found? No, not more evidence of bias. This ‘independently commissioned’ report (never mind that several of the senior members of staff at Cardiff were former senior executives at the BBC– Richard Sambrook, Richard Tait to name but two) exonerated the BBC of all charges of bias and gave them a clean bill of health
It found no evidence of airtime or presentational bias (scheduling patterns) at all; no worries about the BBC’s repetitive uncritical transmission of questionable facts (notably 3 million UK jobs dependent on EU membership). How convenient. There was no evidence of bias by omission – the failure to inform – at all.
This was startling. For it was evident from the start of our (Minotaur Media Tracking) monitoring programme that what Jeremy Paxman then described as an outbreak of narcolepsy (the low turn-out at the EU elections in 1999) only reflected the BBC’s own narcolepsy. Logging had revealed that the proportion of ‘news bulletin’ airtime devoted to these elections by the BBC was 2.6 per cent
More recently, John Humphrys, arguably the BBC’s highest profile and most respected presenter, has acknowledged this – that BBC coverage of the EU has been guilty of ‘bias by omission’ – that they have failed to air the case of those who want to leave the EU.
So how did Cardiff arrive at their optimistic conclusion? It is deeply ironic for those of us who have come up against the BBC that it was on the basis of what you can only euphemistically describe as methodological and sampling shortcomings. You could call it bias. Their claims are simply not supported by their data, and their use of the material to make such claims is at best statistical distortion. Just one example is that their review of the Today programme, omitted 20 of the 21 pro-EU speakers who appeared on the programme during Cardiff’s 2012 survey. How very convenient.
Now Civitas, the respected think-tank, has published a paper from News-watch that shows that the Prebble report into the BBC’s EU coverage ‘is not worth the paper it is written on’ and was not independent.
The Times, reporting it, says that the Civitas paper demonstrates that ‘the clean bill of health for the BBC raises serious questions” about the impartiality and competence of the BBC Trust, the oversight body that commissioned the study’.
The BBC Trust has said in response that they “stand by the [Prebble] report and the conclusions that the Trust drew from it”. I leave you dear reader to make up your mind. I think it is another nail in the coffin of the BBC complacency.