Of the many compelling arguments the respected Institute of Economic Affairs makes today for privatising the BBC commercially the one that struck me most was the BBC’s bias.
Most TCW readers are more than aware that the BBC is no longer fit for purpose; that its market power – especially in terms of news provision – coupled with its compulsory funding method and its closeness to the political process is hugely problematic.
Many hope that commercial competition will soon render it irrelevant. But that’s not likely as long as it holds onto its licence fee monopoly. That’s why this new evidence from the IEA is so important – proving as it does that BBC no longer deserves its privileged position.
The IEA argues that all media outlets are likely to have biases. However, the BBC’s is more problematic for reason of its trusted reputation, the inability of its customers to withdraw payment and the fact it provides 75 per cent of all televised news and thus has a ‘monopoly’ over public opinion.
The IEA’s new case studies are a shocking demonstration of how the BBC fails the public’s trust.
To take just some examples:
Its analysis of Radio 4’s Today programme – from March 2004 to July 2015 – revealed gross bias by omission. One guess as to whose voices were omitted: those favouring Britain’s exit from the EU of course. Over the period the IEA found of the 4,275 guest speakers on EU themes only 3 per cent of these were explicitly in favour of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.
Seven in ten of these speakers were from Ukip, and over a third were Nigel Farage alone. We can but wonder where John Redwood, Richard North, Owen Paterson, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, John Mills, Jacob Rees Mogg, Dominic Raab, Sir Archie (now Lord) Hamilton, Frank Field and Kate Hoey were – to name but a very few leading Eurosceptics. In hiding? Were they refusing to take Today’s calls?
When it came to the official 2015 General Election campaign, Today fielded 25 business speakers to discuss the EU referendum. What did the IEA uncover? That over three-quarters of these speakers saw the referendum as a worry or a threat to business, despite the contemporaneous polling finding that two thirds of businesses back the holding of a referendum.
The IEA also found evidence of bias by selection. I will give you three guesses here as to where. The Andrew Marr programme? Newsnight? The World at One?
No doubt they would have found it had the IEA looked in these quarters.
But they didn’t. In a great leap of imagination (and I am not being ironic), the IEA decided to examine 976 separate consecutive editions of Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.
Of the 167 items that included discussions and opinion on capitalism, markets and business they found only 8 per cent gave any sort of positive perspective. Negative commentary outweighed positive commentary by a factor of more than eight to one.
This research was undertaken by News-watch for the IEA. All editions of Thought for the Day available within the BBC online archive were surveyed and those with economics and business content were analysed for their anti-capitalist or anti-market bias, by selection for the slot.
As well as further evidence of value judgments and misinformation – no surprise there – the IEA also found that think-tanks associated with conservative and free-market analysis were much more likely to receive ‘health warnings’ than think-tanks associated with more left-leaning positions.
There is more – our worst fears at TCW of the BBC’s biased ‘gender agenda’ were confirmed, demonstrating once more that the BBC in no way deserves its reputation for fair coverage.
The particular example the IEA’s scrutinised was the BBC’s News website coverage of the government’s new measures to try to combat the gender pay gap through imposing new requirements on large companies. It contained neither expert economic opinion on the use of crude average gender pay gap figures nor dissenting opinion on the effectiveness of the policies.
This is despite, says the IEA and they should know, economists being extraordinarily sceptical about the whole ‘gender pay gap’ concept as a legitimate policy concern.
Other newspapers covering this story, from the Financial Times to the Daily Mail, solicited opinion from a much wider range of sources.
On Equal Pay Day on 9 November, the Fawcett Society published a report asserted that men earn 14.2 per cent more per hour than women. It was, of course, reported on BBC online. There was no mention that the figure reported was a social statistic, which compared the mean pay of working full-time men with women.
They did not observe that it crucially did not control for age, occupation type, length of service, closeness to home of the job or interruptions in career – ensuring that it was largely a meaningless comparator.
All the BBC’s readership were given was the headline that ‘Women in full-time jobs “work for nothing” until 2016’ (a bizarre headline based on so-called 14.2 per cent gender pay gap). The only comment from another source was, of course, a supporting one from the Trade Union Congress (TUC).
As I write, I wonder how the BBC will report the IEA’s critique of its output. Will it prove another case of bias by omission?