LETTER:BBC and bias: public perceptions counter Conservative fears

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The Independent Online
From Dr Peter Ayton

Sir: As Conservative ministers are once again claiming that the BBC is biased against them ("BBC braced for new allegations of bias from Conservatives", 27 March), it is interesting to consider the results of audience research which shows that the public disagrees with them.

Every year the annual survey on public perceptions of broadcasting bias published by the IBA (now taken over by the Independent Television Commission) reports that most people do not see any political bias but, of those that do, substantially more people believe that the BBC is biased in favour of the Conservatives than believe it is in favour of the Labour or the Liberal Democrats. A study shortly to be published shows that more than three times as many people perceive a pro-Tory bias (22 per cent) as a pro-Labour bias (6 per cent) on BBC1.

The numbers seeing pro-Tory bias grew during the Thatcher years, but the same predominantly pro-Tory pattern has consistently been found ever since these annual surveys were started, when Labour was in office, in 1975; thus one suggestion, that the public feels that the BBC is biased in favour of the government of the day, does not explain the findings.

Government criticisms may improve the BBC's reputation for impartiality. One study, surveying opinion shortly before and after Norman Tebbit's prominent 1986 accusations of BBC bias, showed that government criticisms seemed to have the effect of reducing the numbers of people who think the BBC is biased to the right, while the numbers believing it biased to the left remained constant.

Of course, subjective perceptions of bias do not prove that the programmes are biased - which is why any serious claims of political bias must be justified by rigorous methodology. None the less, even perceived bias is a serious problem for any news organisation claiming to be authoritative and impartial. That this is an avoidable problem for broadcasting organisations is demonstrated by the fact that the same surveys show far fewer people perceive political bias on ITV; the most recent reports that 7 per cent see a pro-Labour bias, while just 5 per cent see a pro-Tory bias.

Throughout its history, the BBC has been accused by the right of bias to the left - imagine the prominence the Conservatives would give to public opinion research if only it was consistent with their thesis. It is about time it was more clearly recognised that, as far as public perceptions are concerned, any problem with BBC bias is of the opposite slant.

Yours sincerely,

PETER AYTON

Department of Psychology

School of Social Sciences

City University

London, EC1

27 March

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