Social scientists like myself like to see claims and assertions enlightened by a solid body of evidence.
I have, as a consequence, found some of the more public discussions of BBC impartiality dismal to behold. Accusations of BBC bias are now part of a political game in which forms of self-interest are played out against a backdrop of anecdotal evidence and half-truths.
Leading the charge are conservative media owners and their press outlets. Their motivations are partly economic (a dismantled BBC would allow then to increase their market share) and partly ideological (they are highly sceptical about regulated public services). Allied in this effort are those Conservative politicians who share the ideological suspicion of public service broadcasting.
Their interests are also strategic, since political pressure – they hope – obliges the BBC to bend over backwards to avoid accusations of a leftist tilt.
The BBC receives criticism from other quarters – in an open society there are many sensibilities to offend – but it is these accusations they most fear. The press can (and do) make a crisis out of the smallest drama, while there is justifiable anxiety about the way a Conservative government might behave whenever the license fee is due for renewal. While this point is generally ignored, it is the BBC’s cyclical dependence upon whoever happens to be in government during the licence renewal period that is the greatest threat to its impartiality. For those who value the BBC’s independence, this a gaping flaw in the system – arguably a far more serious political infringement on journalistic freedom in the UK than anything proposed by Lord Justice Leveson.
Despite the highly partial origin of claims about the BBC’s propensity to lean leftward, any serious accusations of this kind deserves proper examination. I have often heard it said that if the BBC is being criticised from both political flanks, it is probably getting it about right. This is, with all due respect, a lazy supposition (so, for example, a centrist bias is still a breach of impartiality), and if this chapter is a plea for anything, it is that impartiality is sufficiently important to be subject to systematic, independent scrutiny. We also need to consider the possibility that attacks from the right are having the desired effect.
While the BBC can, at times, be robust in defending its independence, it can also be risk averse. There is a real possibility that this understandable caution has led the BBC to seek shelter in more conservative enclaves.
Recent evidence from the most recent BBC Trust commissioned impartiality review appears to support this view. The research, by my colleagues at Cardiff, compared BBC news when Labour were in power (in 2007) with coverage under a Conservative-led coalition (in 2012). The study found, by a series of measures, that ‘Conservative dominance in 2012’ of BBC news was ‘by a notably larger margin than Labour dominance in 2007’ (Wahl-Jorgenson et al 2013: 5).
Beyond the main parties, the study suggested that the BBC is more likely than either ITV or Channel 4 to use sources from the right, such US Republicans or Ukip, and less likely to use sources from the left, such as US Democrats and the Green Party. But it is the imbalance between Conservative and Labour – by margins of three to one for party leaders and four to one for ministers/shadow ministers – that was most striking, especially since the research indicated that this rightward shift was a strictly BBC phenomenon.
The study found no similar patterns on either ITV or Channel 4 (ibid: 83). These were not findings the BBC Trust was especially keen to draw attention to, and – oddly for a review about impartiality – they were played down in the subsequent report. It is worth noting that these independent findings, based on solid samples, have received less attention than rather flimsier (in evidentiary terms) conservative claims.
Impartiality goes beyond matters of party political representation: it encompasses the issues a news outlet chooses to cover and the way those issues are framed and reported. Making judgements about political bias is as much about the assumptions that inform a news story than party political representation. So, for example, conservative newspapers tend to give far more coverage to issues that interest the political right (such as immigration or abuses of welfare) than those that concern the left (such as poverty or inequality).
The first problem facing any analysis of BBC impartiality is that there is no neutral centre of gravity, no golden objective mean to adopt as a point of departure. Locating the centre is a matter of context, and involves a series of choices. The BBC’s approach to the coverage of politics, for example, generally uses Westminster as its touchstone, with its centre of gravity somewhere near the Speaker’s Chair. This point was made clearly by the King Report, based on the BBC Trust’s commissioned study of political coverage in a post-devolution era (Lewis et al 2009; Cushion et al 2009). The research found that despite the significant devolution of political power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, political coverage remained heavily focused on Westminster. At best, this meant ignoring the different policies pursued outside England, at worst it meant that England (whose governance remains at Westminster) became a stand-in for the UK as a whole.
The BBC, to its great credit, took action to remedy some of the weaknesses identified by the King Report. Follow up research suggested that this intervention improved coverage in a number of areas, with greater representation of policy regimes across the four nations (Cushion et al 2010).
Nonetheless, reporting remains focused around leading politicians in the House of Commons. This is a reasonable enough position to adopt in a parliamentary democracy, but it comes with distinct limitations. Most notably, it relies upon the main political parties to give voice to a range of well-informed perspectives.
As a consequence there are many parts of the political terrain – such as the EU, immigration or economic growth – where debate takes place within a very narrow frame of reference.
So, for example, debates about Europe are invariably framed by a main party debate which sees ‘Europe as a problem for the UK, particularly in terms of national sovereignty’ (Wahl-Jorgensen et al: 51). The recent BBC Trust commissioned review found ‘very little room for sources presenting a broader range of views, and for substantive information about what the EU actually does and how much it actually costs’ (ibid: 52). What we end up with is less a discussion about the merits of the EU than who can best represent UK interests. Important, no doubt, but limited in scope.
Similarly, there is now a growing body of evidence suggesting a model of permanent economic growth is of dwindling benefit to wealthy countries such as the UK. Research now shows that GDP growth is no longer linked to improvements in health or happiness (Bok 2010; Layard 2011), is environmentally unsustainable (Jackson 2010) and stretches commodity choice far beyond the time we have available to us as consumers (Offer 2006; Lewis 2013). In short, there is a serious debate about whether wealthy consumer economies still rely on growth to generate prosperity. But it is not one to be heard in the House of Commons – or, as a consequence, on the BBC, where GDP growth is invariably assumed to be an objective good (Lewis 2013). The BBC thereby reflects a series of assumptions that inform the political mainstream. It is both pro-democracy and pro-monarchy. It upholds liberal Western values and a series of economic assumption based on a global market economy (in which, for example, economic growth is seen as more important than the climate change it helps create).
The BBC, in this very Reithian sense, reflects the assumptions of some of our dominant institutions. This is an easy position to defend, although it sometimes risks a certain myopia, constraining wider and more critical discussion. The failure of the BBC’s economic experts to anticipate the credit crash, for example, was a function of its reluctance to go outside a narrow range of mainstream economic debate and incorporate those more critical economists who did see it coming (Berry 2013). Similarly, the BBC’s reliance on military top brass for discussions about military spending levels means that such discussions are decidedly lop-sided. Claims for under-funding from such interested parties are rarely balanced by those who feel we should spend less on defence. The UK is one of the world’s largest military spenders (a point rarely made) while discussions of the merits of such spending, research suggests, is becoming increasingly one-sided (Lewis and Hunt 2011).
The BBC Trust’s first impartiality review, which suggested moving from a ‘see saw’ (generally left vs right) to a ‘wagon wheel’ approach, did not really explore these ideological assumptions. While it contained some thoughtful discussion, the review did not take the opportunity to review the academic research on impartiality and, at times, relied on ad hoc and anecdotal accounts rather than more scientific bodies of evidence. Its conclusions were based on the sense that traditional left/right divisions were breaking down, making the old ‘see saw’ balancing act a less appropriate guiding metaphor. Its advocacy of the ‘wagon wheel’ was an attempt to move beyond such limitations:
The wheel is not exactly circular, it has a shifting centre, the ‘spokes’ are not necessarily evenly spaced, nor do they all reach the edge of the wheel, nor does one ‘spoke’ necessarily point in a directly opposite direction to another. So opinion is not confined to ‘left’ and ‘right’ but ranges through 360 degrees. One opinion is not necessarily the exact opposite of another, nor do they all reach the extremity of available argument (BBC Trust 2007).
The flaw in the metaphor is, perhaps, revealing. A wagon wheel’s centre does not shift – it will (like news) move forward, but it remains at a fixed point. The assumptions behind locating the centre remain an issue. What it does make possible, in a way the see-saw does not, is shedding light on perspectives that question those assumptions. Moving from a see-saw to a wagon wheel is, however, easier said than done. It requires a radical appraisal of the range and type of sources typically used to inform news, and a commitment to looking beyond the usual suspects for a well-informed diversity of perspectives. The latest BBC Trust impartiality review, designed to test how far the BBC had made this metaphorical move, found the see-saw still firmly in place (Wahl-Jorgenson et al 2013), with a small number of dominant institutions – notably parliament – continuing to dominate debate.
The BBC’s model of impartiality – the location of its centre, if you like – is inevitably limited by its tendency to favour some institutions over others. A 2007 study, for example, found that around half of those sources used on BBC news were from just four professions: the worlds of politics, business, law and order and the news media. By contrast, the main knowledge-based professions and civic voices (from the academy, medicine, science and technology, thinks tanks, government/public agencies and NGOs) made up, between them, only 10 per cent of all sources (Lewis and Cushion 2009).
This concentration was confirmed by the recent BBC Trust review of television news, which suggested that the dominance of these four groups as news sources has increased over the last five years – with a particular rise in the use of business and media sources (Wahl-Jorgensen et al 2013: 80, which found similar trends on the Radio 4 Today programme). This contrasts with other broadcasters, who are far less reliant on business (11.1 per cent of sources on BBC news, but only 3.8 per cent on ITV and 2.2 per cent on Channel 4) or media (8.2 per cent of sources on BBC news, 1.6 per cent on ITV and 5.9 per cent on Channel 4). Both ITV and Channel 4 make significantly more use of sources from the academy, medicine, science and technology, thinks tanks, government/public agencies and NGOs: these groups make up 16.4 per cent of sources on ITV and 22.7 per cent on Channel 4, but only 9.7 per cent on the BBC.
This not only narrows the range of expertise available on BBC news, it has implications for impartiality. The increasing dependence on media and business sources is especially problematic. Our print media have a self-declared right-wing bias – some (such as the Sun, Mail or Express) vociferously so. While the BBC undoubtedly tries to negotiate this bias (sometimes balancing, for example, the Guardian against the Telegraph), it is often guilty of using the press as a substitute for public opinion. This, in turn, provides a loudspeaker for those instances when polling majorities lean to the right – on issues such as immigration, on which sections of the press campaign – than when they lean to the left – on issues such as the privatisation of Royal Mail, on which they do not (see Jordan 2013).
The assumption that, for example, the views of Daily Mail readers are represented by the newspaper’s editorial line is not borne out by a detailed examination of public opinion data. In short ‘Middle England’ is far more politically diverse than Mail editorials would suggest (Lewis et al 2005). Majorities may be anti-immigration, but they are also opposed to further privatisation of public services and sympathetic to nationalisation of others (such as the railways). A reliance on the range of opinions expressed by the press will invariably push debate to the right of the broader public.
In a similar way, the growth of business news (Svennevig 2007) and the widespread use of business sources raises important questions about impartiality. A business perspective will tend to lean to the right: representatives of business (for reasons of economic self interest) will, for example, favour corporate tax cuts over public spending, and opt for less rather than more regulation on employment rights or environmental protection. In the past, these perspectives were balanced against voices from the trade union movement. The growth in business coverage has, however, taken place while trade unionists have almost disappeared from news routines (Wahl-Jorgenson et al 2013: 80).
A review of UK Business Reporting for the BBC Trust (BBC Trust 2007) sidestepped the broader question of whether a focus on business creates a slant toward a particular view of the world. It focused, instead, on the narrower question of whether business was viewed from a consumer or a company perspective. The report’s desire for a more consensual approach – avoiding such antagonisms – glossed over the different interests of producers and consumers (consumers want the best product at the cheapest possible price, while businesses want to spend as little on the product as they can and sell it for as much they can). More importantly a broader and more critical view of the role of business in society has no place in this framework. Although the BBC Trust review did not explore this point, they did acknowledge it, observing that:
Around 29 million people work for a living in the UK and spend a large proportion of their waking hours in the workplace. However, little of this important part of UK life is reflected in the BBC’s business coverage … the audiences are served in their identity as consumers. But they are not that well served in their role as workers (ibid: 9).
As workers, we have distinct interests – we want well-paid, secure jobs with profits shared amongst the workforce, rather than passed to owners, shareholders or consumers. For both businesses and consumers cheap labour is a good thing, for workers it is not.
Overall, the available evidence on the BBC centre of gravity does not suggest a leftist tilt. On the contrary, its dependence on certain dominant institutions – notably in the business world and the national print media – would appear to push it the other way. The evidence I have drawn on here is, of course, open to challenge and interpretation. But our response should be to pursue the question of impartiality with greater academic rigour. We almost certainly need more – and regular – independent research on media impartiality. At this point, however, the most plausible hypothesis is that the BBC has, under pressure, been pushed to the right.
Professor Justin Lewis is Dean of Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Cardiff University.
‘Is the BBC in Crisis?’ (Abramis, £19.95), edited by John Mair, Richard Tait and Richard Lance Keeble, will be published on 1 March.