April 30, 2007


Is the BBC biased and does it matter? Edward Driscoll, writing at TCS Daily, definitely beleives that the BBC is biased and brings forward some evidence to substantiate his claim. Mr Driscoll isn't alone- there is now a UK blog whose main subject is BBC bias, not to mention plenty of articles and even videos all documenting bias. Most of these websites are rightwing- but like the last one quoted there are quite a few leftwing critiques of the BBC as well.

Its worth thinking a little about this though: some of the criticism appears to me to be fairly accurate- there are times when unconsciously the stories that the BBC chooses to report and the way that for instance it will frame a story with facts reflect the way that its editors and reporters think. That is mostly unavoidable- selection of what to report will always go on within a news organisation and part of that selection will always rest upon someone's view of what is important about the world- and therefore be biased. Such bias though unconscious operates in all parts of the media and at all times. Interestingly such a bias becomes more evident the smaller the ammount of space devoted to reporting on issues- five minutes allows one to share all views, two minutes allows one to mention two views but thirty seconds only really allows a reporter to acknowledge a single view.

Its here that I would want to defend the BBC personally. The television networks often don't allow enough space for proper reporting but on Radio 4- and in particular with a couple of programs- File on 4, Analysis, In our Time, From our own Correspondent and Start the Week- the BBC devotes a great deal of space to a proper examination of issues. All of those programs, in very different ways, put out detailed examination of an issue. Some of them- File of 4- are explicitly campaigning and hence invite criticism and rebuttal- others, In our Time, are more analytical and set out to be a fairly accurate statement of the case of things as they exist in the world. It is on these programs- not the five item news service- that the BBC's reputation in my view stands. The most important and most damaging BBC bias- one it shares with almost all other media networks- is a bias against this type of programming, a bias for bitesize news made accessible. The problem with such coverage is that the news isn't accessible, nor is it bitesize- it requires a program that mentions the Isreali Palestinian conflict say to go into much more detail than you can in a five second segment.

Returning to the question of political bias, the BBC's bias though in my view cannot be equated with the bias of Fox News in the United States. It is important that we distinguish between the BBC's occasional unwillingness to be serious, and its framing of issues in a leftwing way- from Fox's determination to be on the 'right' side of every issue- to stand with the Republicans- and to only report things that serve the Republican cause. The BBC's bias is the kind of unavoidable bias and temporary error that every news organisation faces: Fox on the other hand is a deliberately untrustworthy network that funnels out propaganda for one side rather than another. Such statements as this (the link includes plenty of other incidences) from Bill O'Reilly,

Coming next, drug addicted pregnant women no longer have anything to fear from the authorities thanks to the Supreme Court. Both sides on this in a moment."--Bill O'Reilly (3/23/01)

would never be heard on the BBC. As Scott Norvell recently admitted Fox is a conservative organisation and seeks to be from the start. The BBC does not seek to be a Labour supporting or leftwing organisation even if its unconscious biases may take it there sometimes.

But lastly advocates against the BBC would hold that this unconscious bias means that the organisation should be decoupled from the license fee and that it should be privatised. There is an argument to be had about privatisation- but I don't think that the bias proves that privatisation should happen. The argument is really about the services the BBC provides that noone in the private sector has ever seemed able to provide- the programs I have cited from above which give a viewer or listener an insight into the world unavailable in other places. The problem with privatisation might well be the loss of such programs and consequently the loss of a space for considered reflection about things in the world. No other news organisation that I know of- not Fox, CNN, 18 Doughty Street, Channel 4, or any other (PBS in the States might be an interesting exception) has these kinds of programs on- and without them I feel that British political discourse would suffer. The argument about the license fee is ultimately one that is much wider than this- and I don't want to get into it other than providing this one statement- that the BBC does things that if it were not there, might not be done and we would all be poorer.

At the moment- thanks to a variety of factors- political discussion across the West is becoming less informed and nastier. 24 hour news has not produced advanced knowledge about the news, rather it produces a rolling series of 5 items and bolsters ignorance. The proliferation of channels like the UK's 18 Doughty Street has encouraged concentration in the minutiae of who said what to who at which time- Doughty Street running attack ads as part of its main business symbolises how unReithian it is. UK newspapers too often are less enlightening than they are partisan- it is to the BBC's credit that five or six times a week it ploughs a furrow that few people wish to plough, it educates rather than fulminates- that's something worth thinking about when discussing its bias- because no matter what else the Corporation may be, and contaminated by the sins of the times- triviality for example- as it is, it does maintain those other programs which noone else seems willing to maintain.


Political Umpire said...

Interesting post, and a fair treatment of what is necessarily a contentious subject. It was cringeworthy when James Naughtie said on the night of the last election "I hope we [Labour] win". And as far back as the Falklands the BBC was up to no good as there were those within it who wanted rid of Thatcher.

That leads on to the question of what the BBC - a state broadcaster - is supposed to do in wartime. Should it be "neutral"? What does "neutrality" mean - not disclosing information helpful to one side? Disclosing all information irrespective of the consequences (eg telling the Argentines their bomb fuses weren't working properly, or warning of the Goose Green attack, both of which they did)?

Lord Nazh said...

Why does everyone argue that Fox is biased based on O'Reilly (and Hannity)? Not just you, everyone that does it uses him... the thing is, O'Reilly and Hannity are not news casters and their shows are not news, and not claimed as news.

It's like saying Olbermann at MSNBC is a newscaster.

If you are going to show bias from other news sources (than the BBC) then at least show bias from the news :)

EMH said...

lord nazh, the reason that O'Reilly is sited the most is because he is, by far, the most prominent and controversial presenters on FOX News. O'Reilly might not claim to be news, but he certainly does not explicitly say that his programme is not news. And unfortunately, too many people in the States view O'Reilly as a news programme and use his show (and FOX in general) as one of their priamary new sources. In that regard, it does not really matter what O'Reilly claims to be, but how he is actually viewed by the public.

In general, though, I would say that the general perception of the right-wing bias of FOX is quite right: it is blatant and purposeful and they do not really care who says so, nor if their viewers get a full and non-biased representation of current events.

Vino S said...

I don't think the BBC is biased. It is criticised from the left as well as the right - see the Glasgow University Media Group's work on this.

Right-wingers simply think it is left-leaning because it is not as right-wing as (most) newspapers.

T said...

good point vino. lord nazh - fox news is fascinating whichever way you look at it. The future looks bleak - with a democratic in the Whitehouse will America be so keen on a news channel telling them that the US is on the wrong path when it strikes me that many people tuned in to Fox to be reassured that the opposite is the case ("whatever you've heard over at CNN or the NYT, don't worry Iraq is going well, the French are really all morons, etc..."))

Lord Nazh said...

State how you think that Fox NEWS is biased, show me something :)

Again, use the news. The BBC is hard biased against Israel, but I don't know how their news programs run.

Note: I don't watch Fox, BBC, ABC, etc. Basically I don't get my news off the TV

Chris said...

The question of bias, I think, is a misleading one. It almost always relies on the assumption of a factually correct political center compromising between two mutually-exclusive views, as if everything could be so categorized. The problem, as I see it, is that facts and news rarely fit into any ideological framework. Those who are locked into a certain worldview--left, right or otherwise--invariably see news not fitting into that scheme as biased. Such claims reflect more on the accuser than the accused.

If news were biased toward the political center, would it be any more accurate?

The journalists I've worked with tend to have their own peculiar politics, some left or right leaning, certainly, but the best I've met have always been much more interested in the story itself.

As for Fox, citing O'Reilly is indeed necessary, because that's how most of the "news" is presented on cable, unless things have changed in the last year. It's persona journalism, infotainment, as much about the presenter as anything else.

Lord Nazh said...

"As for Fox, citing O'Reilly is indeed necessary, because that's how most of the "news" is presented on cable, unless things have changed in the last year. It's persona journalism, infotainment, as much about the presenter as anything else."

That's not the NEWS of Fox News. O'Reilly is an opinion show and not claimed to be news. Perception is 9/10ths of bias, but at least claim there is bias in the news programs if talking about news :)

Otherwise EVERY channel is biased based on their non-news casters (ABC because of Rosie and the View, MSNBC because of Olbermann, CBS (until recently) because of Imus). This has nothing to do with whether their news is biased though.

Of course if we are simply talking channels, then all my arguments are moot :)

EMH said...

lord nazh: That just goes back to the fact that O'Reilly is perceived as news, whether it is or not. The View, Imus and others do/did not have that perception.

This perception, in my opinion, is fueled by the fact that FOX News has news in its name, while the other networks do not. Also, the other shows (as far as I can tell) are not aired during the television primetime window, whereas O'Reilly's show is.

These little differences make a big difference as to the effect that a particular presenter's show (and opinion) has on the target audience (which is a lot larger when O'Reilly airs, than, say, the View).

While I think that your arguments about 'If you are going to show bias from other news sources... then at least show bias from the news' are quite valid, you also need to take into account how a particular show is perceived and presented to the public. And in that account, O'Reilly comes off a lot more as news than any of the other opinion shows that you have cited.

As I said before, it is not just how the show (or their home network) officially catagorises the show, but how it is catagorised by the viewers, that gives a show the clout that it has as valid news, or as opinion, to the people who watch it.

Lord Nazh said...

BTW, olbermann (MSNBC) is shown at the same time as O'Reilly. And every cable news channel has an opinion show on at that time.

I guess the bias of Fox news comes from the people who watch O'Reilly instead of actually fox news o.O

Pappusrif said...

It is curious how the discussion turned on Fox news. The subject was on the BBC. I believe that we cannot compare BBC with Fox News. They do not play in the same category, I think. It was probably better comparing BBC to PBS (to stay in UK and US), that would have been interesting.

Unfair and unbalanced, that is how I see Fox. It is pro bush (not only the O' Reilly Factor). It rejects the protocol of Kyoto, supports the right to have weapons, supports the death penalty, the denunciation of “the axis of evil”. The bonds between GWB (and republicans) and Fox are so much so obvious.
“”Are there still credible black leaders in this country?”” It is the kind of topics on Fox news. Recently, they started to demolish Barak Obama by affirming that he is a smoker, that he studied in a madrasa (coranic school) in Indonesia and that his 2nd name is Hussein (for the average viewer, like Saddam, like Al Quaida,). Rather alarming!
All opposite of the BBC

Lord Nazh said...

"It rejects the protocol of Kyoto,"

You do realize the the U.S. Senate (democratically controlled at the time) voted 95-0 against Kyoto.

And a station that is FOR the Constitutional Rights of its citizens, gasp

Gracchi said...

There are some interesting points here

a Political Umpire- I agree war is a difficult area for a broadcaster- criminal trials strike me as difficult as well for similar reasons ie that broadcasting all you know may not be helpful to the public good. I think that is a whole other post but it is an interesting issue and one I'm thinking about writing on.

b. Chris yes I agree with your post completely bias is not a simple issue as I was using it here. I do think that the BBC's biases are unconscious- but I agree news doesn't fit into any ideological view of the world and information should always be troubling. Personally that's why I like the BBC's more extended programs because they inform- they don't just provide bits that one can slot where one needs them to be slotted in one's thought patterns.

c. now the debate I was dreading Fox News, well Source Watch has some details here just to summarise- when Fox invites on Partisan guests, 89% of them are Republican and 70% avowed conservatives. Charles Reina a former producer was told every morning by his bosses to run rightwing stories as Sourcewatch documents. Mark Gross another former producer was told 'Seek out stories that cater to angry, middle-aged white men who listen to talk radio and yell at their televisions'. The University of Maryland did a survey on Fox's impact over the Iraq war and found that if you watched Fox you beleived lies about what happened in Iraq- including a fact that a fifth of the Fox audience beleived that Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons against US soldiers in 2003. Furthermore some of their own producers resigned over what they saw as the racist coverage of the war in Lebanon in News programs. There is plenty of evidence out there about bias in Fox's coverage and that's when you get beyond the coverage of Obama and the Madrassa, labelling Mark Foley a democrat twice.

Having said that I might be wrong- and possibly am- I was writing about the BBC and the idea was that the BBC was not deliberately biased- personally I don't think it is and I do value it as an organisation.

Ruthie said...

"At the moment- thanks to a variety of factors- political discussion across the West is becoming less informed and nastier. 24 hour news has not produced advanced knowledge about the news, rather it produces a rolling series of 5 items and bolsters ignorance."

I agree completely... in fact, I had been writing about this, too...

LN: Fox News is biased. Incredibly so. But to be completely fair, it's no more or less biased than many other cable news networks (CNN, MSNBC). And ABC "World News Tonight" is the worst of all.

Pappusrif said...

Lord Nazh. You are right, the Senate rejected the protocol of Kyoto, but that does not exclude the fact that Fox News is a channel, which rolls for the republicans.

Regarding wearing weapons and the constitutional right, I thought myself that it was a sacro-saint right, but my American friends (some vote republican) convinced me that the second amendment was perverted (thank you the NRA). The text more or less says: well-organized militias being necessary to the safety of a free state, the right the people have to hold and to carry weapons will not be transgressed. This amendment was to protect the militia, which the British seeks to disarm during the revolution. In fact, the communities will be well organized in militia in the respect of the law and under the control of the state, (this is very important), that has nothing to do with the idea that anyone gets weapons and does whatever he wants with. Obviously, in the case you read only the second half of the text that becomes completely different.

I think I'm right but I might be wrong.

Gracchi said...

Ruthie I agree completely.

Pappusrif- I'm not sure if the militias are supposed to be under state control- the use of the word is interesting though. The phrasing makes one think that it might be less of an individual right than a communal thing. Its not something I know much about though...

Pappusrif said...

How could they set up a militia able to fight without knowing who are the people composing it, who possess the weapons and who know how to use them? I think that was managed carefully. Without reglementation, It's anarchy. NO?

Gracchi said...

Remember we are in the eighteenth century so militias might be self organised or organised by local notables- I would imagine the Americans were thinking of a militia along the lines of the UK militias recruited by JPs to confront local problems. Think of the role of the Marshall or even just local thug in a Western and that's much closer to what we are talking about.