Ivor 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.
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.
The BBC’s former political editor and now Today programme presenter Nick Robinson was chairman of the Young Conservatives, a fact that much exercised Alastair Campbell when he was Labour’s director of communications. But, I would argue that his political analysis and commentary were generally fair and 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 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 might argue, is behind the scenes, where the left dominates. Or does it? Nick Robinson’s former senior producer, was Thea Rogers, who left in 2012 to become special advisor to the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne. Then there’s Robbie Gibb, the editor of all BBC TV’s political programmes; he was a vice-chairman of the extreme right-wing Federation of Conservative Students and before joining the BBC was chief of staff to the senior Conservative MP Francis Maude. And we should not overlook the fact 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).
In the context of Tory-aligned personnel in influential positions within the BBC, perhaps most importantly of all, one thinks of the recently retired chair of the BBC Trust, 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 no. 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 two – 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.
The last chairman with any Labour connections was Gavyn Davies who was forced to resign 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 all this 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.
Secondly, there is the nature of journalism itself. It attracts curious, slightly obstreperous, people who like to ask awkward questions, usually of the establishment. This 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 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.
One of the key factors driving 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 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 sounding 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 being in the hands of left-wing troublemakers.
Might they ponder mounting a joint investigation into the allegations about the BBC’s supposed left-wing bias? Such an inquiry, if it found the charges to be untrue, would lay the issue to rest, at least until the charter and licence fee settlement had been finalised, or at least one might hope that that might be the case. Of course, if the inquiry upheld the complaints about left-wing bias then that in itself would beg a number of other questions about the validity, or otherwise, of the whole system of broadcast regulation .
Ivor Gaber is Professor of Journalism at the University of Sussex and Emeritus Professor of Broadcast Journalism at Goldsmiths, University of London. Before entering academia he was a political journalist during which time he reported and produced programmes for BBC TV and Radio, ITN, Channel Four and Sky News. He currently makes documentary programmes for Radio 4 and is an Independent Editorial Advisor to the BBC Trust. This article is based on the author’s chapter in a forthcoming book The BBC Today: Future Uncertain (Eds John Mair, Richard Tait and Richard Lance Keeble for Abramis published this month)