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.