Who Watches The Watchmen?

The sad state of press bias

Most people form their views from the media. Unfortunately for the electorate, the media is bogged down with their own biases, making reliable information hard to come by. British papers exaggerate, demonise, and fan the flames of hot button issues. One common cry is the harsh way the media treats Mr Corbyn, with the biased BBC and Murdoch press working tirelessly to discredit him. As this blog has discussed in the past, Mr Corbyn isn’t entirely blameless in the failure to reach out to voters. As Professor Steven Fielding of the University of Nottingham pointed out in Left Foot Forward, a left-leaning political blog, the electoral strategy of Mr Corbyn is backwards.

That doesn’t make the claim of media bias untrue. Ed Miliband knew the feeling of the media’s sharp tongue well. There has almost always been more papers which support the Tories in circulation than support Labour. This was true in 1945, where just over half supported the Tories, and 35% of papers in circulation backed Labour. And it’s true today. There was a marked shift against Labour since 1974, it swung in favour of Labour under Tony Blair, and swung back against Labour in 2010 (only 15% of the papers in circulation backed Gordon Brown versus the 71% that backed David Cameron).

Little has changed. Current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is getting a very hard time in print media, but the outright hostility towards him is quite shocking. A report by the London School of Economics (LSE) found that the media, rather than operate as a watchdog for the public holding politicians to account, has relentlessly attacked Mr Corbyn. 57% of columns were critical or antagonistic, rising to two-thirds in opinion pieces. While critical pieces are performing a watchdog function by holding people to account, the line between think piece and fact piece for Mr Corbyn has been blurred according to the LSE report. Something in direct violation of Independent Press Standards Organisation guidelines. Even more left wing papers like The Guardian, and centrist papers like The Independent, were at best lukewarm to Mr Corbyn’s tenureship, according to the study. Around three quarters gave no or a highly distorted account of his views and ideas, and the press more often uses anti-Corbyn voices than pro. Three in ten stories mock the leader’s ideas, policies, personal life and even looks. Meanwhile right-wing papers often described Mr Corbyn’s ideals as loony, unrealistic, radically left (i.e. communist) or outdated.

Perhaps even more shockingly is BBC bias. Most people get their information from the evening news, as discussed on this blog before. But the BBC is not only the most trusted of any news source, it also is one of the most watched. As a public body, which should operate and report on news impartially, accusations of bias are very serious indeed. Some will claim that the BBC staff are biased. Many have connections to politics and political groups from their student days. This is to be expected. Everyone has political views. In fact, they’re something of pre-requisite to getting involved in politics, so cross pollination between politics and news media isn’t uncommon, and isn’t necessarily bad. Andrew Neil argued the case for free markets at the Institute of Economic Affairs in 2005, and is chairman of the right-wing Spectator magazine. Nick Robinson was chairman of the Young Conservatives. David Cameron and Boris Johnson both recruited former BBC editors. Jeremy Paxman declared himself a “One Nation Tory”Michael Portillo, a former shadow cabinet member for the Tories and one time Tory leader candidate, now makes charming shows about railways

Labour, too, has had a few fingers in the BBC pie. Andrew Marr was a “raving leftie” in his younger years. Phillip Inman in 1947, and Gavyn Daves in 2004 sat in BBC chairs before sitting on Labour benches, though Gavyn Daves was made to resign by a Labour government. Lance Price became Labour’s Director of Communications. Melvyn Bragg from BBC Radio 4’s Start The Week became a Labour peer. He was subsequently dropped from Radio 4. Why was Melvyn Bragg dropped for his Labour connections, but not other politically connected BBC journalists? Who knows.

Most BBC bias is more subtle. Lady Thatcher was furious at the BBC referring to military personnel as “they” rather than “we” in the Falklands War. The protection of impartiality on the war’s coverage had been spelled out quite clearly by the BBC. Contrast this with Radio 4’s discussion of Afghanistan, where “we” peppers the talk. The lines are blurring.

Printed media also keeps broadcast journalism in general in lockstep. This has been discussed in passing before on this blog (the economy received 4 times the coverage of the NHS in 2015. The NHS helped Labour, the economy helped the Tories). But it reaches other areas too. Guess which story got coverage on broadcast media? The Independent story that two thirds of economists felt austerity hurt the economy? Or the Telegraph story of 103 businessmen supporting the Tories? In the EU referendum Mr Corbyn certainly didn’t help the Remain camp by not working with Stronger IN. The BBC didn’t help Labour much, either. Turning the story into a battle of the blue beasts meant Labour’s voice was lost. Messages about workers rights and the environment sat on the sidelines in TV coverage whilst immigration, the economy and the conduct of the referendum got the limelight. The same stories the press was dedicating its coverage to. Most of them were pundits, too. Not academics. Little wonder, then, that only a third of voters felt informed about the referendum – journalists had had enough of experts, too.

In 2013, the University of Cardiff conducted a review into BBC coverage of events. They found between 2007 to 2012, Labour had dropped off the BBC’s radar in terms of political sources. In 2007, there was a 2:1 ratio towards the Labour leader appearing over the Conservative leader. In 2012, there was a 4:1 ratio between the Conservative leader appearing on the BBC over Labour’s leader. Across all topics, it was 24 to 15 to the Tories appearing on the news over Labour. Not only did the BBC give more air time to the conservatives, debates were often framed in a eurosceptic, pro-business light. Business got more coverage on the BBC than other television networks, and voices of trade unions were all but invisible. Covering the crash of 2008, academic voices were dwarfed in comparison to voices from the City.

How the media interprets balance is key for a well informed electorate (mainstream media is, by definition, mainstream because people watch and read it). As Peter Preston writes in The Guardian, the BBC has no obligation to be balanced to a side that is lying. This is evidenced in BBC science reporting. The Jones Review on the standard of science reporting by the BBC found that, although it was by and large of high quality, the insistence on being balanced meant it gave undue attention to unscientific opinions. Another stinging report said the BBC must do more to give weight to scientific data. The BBC argued that it aims to represent all views and opinions of society and thus rejected the recommendations made in the reports.  

When it comes to scientific analysis, as well as political reporting, where the weight of peer reviewed evidence points to certain conclusions, peer reviewed research shouldn’t be balanced against opinion. This attitude lead to this egregious video about creationism, where balance was placed above scientific rigour. It leads to the failure of media outlets to report about flooding and climatic change. And it’s unfairly punishing those of different political persuasions.

A BBC charter review is due in 2016, and decisions have to be made. Does the media stand as a watchdog to hold to account those who would lie and mislead to get their way? Will broadcasters cease to march to the beat of Fleet Street’s drums? Will it be the champion of facts? Or will it bend to the will of political pressures to maintain an illusory balance?

Until then, don’t believe everything you see on TV.


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