In September of last year as hostilities flared across the West Bank, OFCOM recorded thousands of complaints made about the BBC. The third most common complaint was that the BBC was biased against Palestine. The second most common complaint was that the BBC was biased against Israel. The most common complaint by a country mile was that an episode of Pointless had been repeated in error.
This describes the position of the BBC in a nutshell. In its attempts to be impartial, none of the people who care are pleased and everyone’s upset. On the plus side, most people can only be stirred from their britches after being deprived of a fresh installment of Richard Osman’s lovely, cheeky hamster face.
The issue of the BBC’s amazing double sided bias has become a political hot potato this week. The Sun ran a column under the headline ‘Licence to Kill’ claiming that the Tories were going to take revenge on the BBC for “decades of bias against the Tories, both subtle and blatant”. On the flip side, Ed Miliband’s currently unemployed spin doctor Tom Baldwin, accused the BBC of playing the Tories tune throughout the election campaign.
The Tories and Labour can’t both be right. So perhaps it would be useful to look at the raw data. Cardiff University lecturer, Mike Berry performed a comprehensive content analysis study of BBC coverage to determine where the so-called bias lay.
One of his findings was that the Conservatives persistently appeared more frequently than their Labour counterparts. Naturally, the party in government will receive more coverage than the party in opposition so Berry contrasted coverage from the BBC from 2007 (when Labour were in power) and 2012 (when the Conservative-Liberal coalition was in power). He found that in 2007, Gordon Brown appeared on the BBC 46 times and David Cameron appeared 26 times. In contrast, in 2012, Cameron featured 53 times and Ed Miliband made only 15 appearances. This means that when Labour were in power, their leader appeared nearly twice as often in BBC coverage as the Conservative’s but when the Conservatives were in power, their leader appeared four times as frequently as the Labour leader.
This finding is consistent across the board in regards to the coverage offered to members of the Cabinet and the Shadow Cabinet. Labour cabinet ministers appeared twice as often as their Conservative shadows when they were in power, and Conservative cabinet ministers appeared four times as often when they were power – despite being in a power-sharing coalition.
Airtime isn’t everything. After all, the BBC have a habit of letting Grant Shapps loose on television and that’s hardly a resounding endorsement for the Conservatives. In fact, one could even suggest that allowing Grant Shapps to speak on a public platform definitively indicates North Korean levels of left-wing bias. So what about key positions in the BBC itself?
The Conservatives were furious at the appointment of former TUC activist Duncan Weldon as Newsnight’s new economics correspondent. This to them clearly pointed to a left-wing bias and they responded with hyperbolic hysteria which hit fever pitch when some genius decided to brief that it was the position of the Conservatives that Arthur Scargill would have been a more objective appointment. Maybe they could keep him in mind for next time. I think we can all agree that it would be marvelous.
But really, the Conservatives don’t have a lot to complain about given that so many of the BBC’s political and economic correspondents have an unambiguously Conservative background. Nick Robinson was a member of the Young Conservatives, Andrew Neill was a vocal supporter of Thatcher, Michael Portillo and Chris Patten have both served as Conservative ministers and even Jeremy Paxman has claimed to be a ‘one-nation Tory’, albeit after he left Newsnight.
On the basis of the facts, it definitely appears that the BBC has a significant bias towards the centre-right rather than against it. This really begs the question of what the Conservatives have been doing so vociferously condemning the BBC’s non-existent left-wing bias for so many years? One can’t help but wonder if the BBC’s bias towards the right has not been influenced directly by the Conservatives threats against the Corporation for not toeing the official Conservative Party line firmly enough. Perhaps the BBC’s bias towards the right wing is not based in conviction but in fear of what the Conservative Party might do to the organisation.
If that is the case, then the Tories may wish to rethink their plans. Currently, they’re onto a winning strategy. The BBC’s coverage is weighted towards their favour and they still have the room to moan about its fictional left-wing bias if any reporting doesn’t go their way. However, if they dismantle the organisation, remove from public control and allow it to set its own political agenda, the BBC will no longer have to cater to Tory threats and this could seriously backfire on the party. The Conservatives need to be careful what they wish for, they might not like the consequences if they get it.