Three-D Issue 25: Beeb-bashing by the Right: is it justified?

16Ivor Gaber
University of Sussex

My entry for the prize for the most unsurprising allegation of the year was the uncannily similar complaints that emanated from a number of Conservative MPs who claimed that the BBC’s reporting of the 2015 general election had been overtly pro-Labour (fat lot of good it did them, one might opine).

In this article – which is not about BBC bias as such, but about perceptions of bias – I am focusing on the corporation’s political coverage (mainly) on television, the medium that the research indicates is still the most used and most trusted source when it comes to political news.

Let me state at the outset that I believe that political journalists need not, indeed should not, be political eunuchs. If you are interested in politics, and one would have thought that that was a basic requirement of working in the area, one is going to have political views. Hence, the fact that some BBC journalists have, or had, left or right wing leanings should not be a cause of surprise, nor of concern. In fact, I would argue that if your own political opinions are ‘on the record’ then it is that much easier for colleagues and, more importantly, the audience to judge whether you are allowing those opinions to influence your output.

Indeed, I worry about those political journalists I know who proudly state they have no political views. I worry because everyone has political views and, if you are not conscious of your own, then how are you going to take them into account when you are reflecting on the fairness, or otherwise, of your own reporting?

The most shining example of someone who has a ‘political past’ but has developed into one of the most highly-regarded political journalists of our time is the BBC’s (now former) political editor Nick Robinson and now Today programme presenter. As is well known (I think), many aeons ago Nick Robinson was chairman of the Young Conservatives, a fact that much exercised Alastair Campbell when he was Labour’s director of communications.

But, based on my evaluations of Robinson as a former colleague and now as an academic researcher and a viewer, I would argue that his political analysis and commentary has been, indeed are, scrupulously fair and highly perceptive. So is Robinson an exception, that is a former (or could be current for all I know) Conservative working for the BBC in a leading political role, but doing a decent job of work; or is he more of a norm than people (and the right wing press in particular) might think?

Well to begin with there’s the BBC political journalist who gets the more political air-time than any other – Andrew Neil: he presents or co-presents five hours of television programmes a week including This Week, the Daily Politics and Sunday Politics. Neil is a penetrating interviewer exposing weaknesses in the arguments advanced by politicians of the left, right and centre. Obviously a man of the left, if one were to believe the BBC’s critics, except that Neil is a former Murdoch editor, was a researcher for the Conservative Party and is chairman of the Conservative-supporting Spectator magazine and stoutly argued his free market views at the Hayek lecture at the right-wing Institute of Economic Affairs in November 2005.

Tories in top positions at the BBC

But the real power, the critics would argue, is behind the scenes, where the left dominates. Or does it? However, there we find Nick Robinson’s former senior producer, Thea Rogers, who left in 2012 to become special advisor to the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne. Then there’s Robbie Gibb, the excellent editor of all BBC TV’s political programmes; he was a vice-chairman of the extreme right-wing Federation of Conservative Students and went on to become chief of staff to the senior Conservative MP Francis Maude before joining the BBC. And we should not overlook that David Cameron replaced his previous press secretary, Andy Coulson, with the then-editor of BBC News, Craig Oliver, and around the same time London’s Tory Mayor, Boris Johnson, recruited BBC political correspondent Guto Harri, to head his media team (and when Harri moved on to the Murdoch Empire he was replaced by Will Walden, a BBC news editor at Westminster).

But in the context of Tory-aligned personnel in influential positions within the BBC, perhaps most importantly of all, one thinks of the recently retired the chair of the BBC Trust was Lord Patten, a former Conservative cabinet minister. Hands up those who can remember the last time a former Labour minister chaired the BBC – the correct answer, is never. Patten was, by my reckoning, the tenth BBC chair to sit in either the Commons or Lords on the Tory benches; the equivalent Labour total is one – Phillip Inman – who was chairman of the governors in 1947, for less than a year and he was succeeded by Ernest Simon, 1st Baron Simon of Wythenshawe.

As for the BBC’s Labour links – the last chairman with any Labour connections was Gavyn Davies who was, as will be recalled, sacked by a Labour government. A former Labour minister, James Purnell is currently working as a senior BBC executive, specifically on charter renewal and presenter Andrew Marr had a well-publicised flirtation with Trotskyist grouplets in his youth. The only other current or recent Labour connections I am aware of are political correspondent, Lance Price, who left the corporation to become Labour’s director of communications, Joy Johnson, one of his predecessors at the Labour Party, who had been the BBC’s political news editor at Westminster and was told, after she had ceased to work for the party, that she could not expect to return to the BBC (and she didn’t) and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg who, when he became a Labour peer, was immediately banned from appearing on any programmes that might have any political content.

So why, despite the demonstrable connections between the BBC and Conservatives and the paucity of connections on the other side, and the plethora of academic research that demonstrates that if there is a bias in the BBC’s reporting of politics it is against the left rather than the right, do Conservative newspapers, politicians, and presumably voters, think the opposite?

BBC seen as almost one of the last vestiges of nationalised industries

First, on a very basic level of political instincts, those on the right are not sympathetic to public bodies per se. There is an innate belief that in virtually all areas of life the private sector does things better. Hence, the BBC is seen as almost one of the last vestiges of the nationalised industries created by the post- war Labour government, even though the corporation came into being two decades earlier under a Conservative government.

There is another explanation to be found in the DNA of those on the right, and that is that Conservatives tend to believe that the left produces ‘propaganda’ whilst they deal with the facts. I recall some years back, as a local newspaper reporter, that I was sent to cover allegations from the local Conservative MP that the Labour candidate in his constituency was being allowed into schools to ‘spread Labour propaganda’. I phoned the school concerned and was told that slots were given to spokespeople from all three main parties (there were only three in those days) to come into school to talk to pupils during civics lessons. I called back the Conservative MP who confirmed that he did go into the school. ‘But then I only talked about the way the country was run in constitutional terms, my Labour opponent goes in to spread propaganda.’

Third, there is the nature of journalism itself. It attracts curious, slightly obstreperous, people who like to ask awkward questions, usually of the establishment. This very activity can be seen as an essentially left-wing activity, and way of thinking but the very same description applies to journalists of the right as well as the left.

The final reason is, in my view that the right tend to make more noise about these matters. This is because those on the left of the political spectrum feel highly conflicted about the BBC, so their case goes by default. This is partly because they tend to have a broadly positive view of the BBC – they regard the very concept of public service broadcasting as a societal good – and as a result are extremely reluctant to join the right in their campaign of Beeb-bashing.

To what extent does the BBC misrepresent large swathes of our society?

Although there are some on the left who feel less constrained. The sustained and well-argued critique of the BBC’s news output that the Glasgow Media Group has been offering over many years starts from the premise that power relations in a capitalist society are innately unbalanced in favour of the economic and political elites and such views tend to be reflected by the BBC because, as they see it, it is very much the creature of these elites. Hence, their criticism of the BBC is based on an ideological perspective that sees the BBC as part of the mainstream media – a media that under- or mis-represents large swathes of our society and narrows political debate to essentially that reflected by the political divisions in parliament. This narrowness of perspective is a criticism that the BBC itself has recognised as an ongoing problem.

All the above suggests that we are dealing with genuinely-held beliefs about media bias, one way or another. However, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that what drives the Conservative-supporting newspapers to attack and seek to undermine the BBC has as much to do with profits as it does with politics. All newspapers see the BBC as a formidable competitor, not just for audiences but for income as well. Conservative-supporting newspapers are outraged by what they see as ‘public money’ – in fact, income from the licence fee – being used to fund a direct competitor. Indeed, the BBC News Online site, according to the most recent research from the Reuters Foundation, dwarfs the sites of the Mail Online (and the Guardian for that matter) in terms of both readership and trust. An additional motivation for the Murdoch-controlled papers seeking to undermine the BBC is that its BSkyB network competes with the BBC head-for- head, for audiences and hence it would almost be foolish of them not to attack the BBC.

These ongoing political attacks on the BBC as a bastion of left-wing thinking would be an irritation, a severe irritation, at any time. But with a Conservative majority government in office, an upcoming renewal of the BBC’s charter and licence fee settlement pending and a secretary of state not seen as one of the BBC’s most passionate supporters, these attacks could have very serious consequences, not just for the BBC but for the country as a whole.

Conclusion: The role of the regulators

There is not a great deal the BBC can do about this without sound self-serving and defensive and nor, in this author’s view, would it help if there were ‘balancing’ attacks from the left accusing the BBC of a right wing bias. However, there are regulators and maybe they could assist. Both Ofcom and the BBC Trust, whilst subject to criticisms of their own, have not (as yet) been characterised as in the hands of left-wing troublemakers.

Might they ponder mounting a joint investigation into the torrent of allegations about the BBC’s supposed left-wing bias? Such an inquiry, if it found such charges to be untrue, would lay the issue to rest, at least until the charter and licence fee settlement had been finalised.

On the other hand, if the inquiry found such charges to be substantiated…

This article was first published as a chapter in Mair, J., Tait, R., and Keeble, R. L. (2015) The BBC Today: Future Uncertain, Abramis Academic Publishing: Suffolk

Posted by Einar Thorsen