We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Cheryl. As has already been mentioned, I need to declare an interest; unlike John Howell, I rejected the advice of my father, who said I had a great face for radio, and decided to become a BBC TV reporter. I congratulate my hon. Friend Helen Jones on securing this crucial debate.
What could be more crucial in this period of political instability than the question of BBC bias, which is what I will address in my speech? I think hon. Members will be pleased to hear that I will not mention “Panorama”. I do not need to. This is a target-rich environment. When it comes to BBC bias, or impartiality and the BBC, we often find, as in this debate, that there are a lot of contradictory claims and counter-claims. That is partly because the BBC produces a vast amount of content, featuring a range of people and opinions, meaning that everyone will at some point see something to complain about.
Unfortunately, at times that has led representatives and defenders of the BBC to dismiss all criticism of its reporting. “If we are attacked from both sides,” the argument goes, “then we must be doing something right.” However, when faced with conflicting claims, we cannot just dismiss them all and assume that everything is fine; we must assess which are accurate—or which are more accurate.
When it comes to climate change, there is a weight of evidence among the scientific community, and then there are the ideas put about by right-wing think tanks, newspapers and politicians. Similarly, when it comes to debates about the BBC, there are the allegations of bias advanced by many of those same right-wing interests, and then there are the findings of independent academic research. What does the social scientific evidence tell us about BBC impartiality? One consistent finding is that the BBC allows the press and senior politicians to set the agenda for its reporting. In the BBC’s Bridcut report of 2007, it acknowledged that impartiality should mean representing a range of views in society, not just the perceived political centre ground or the balance of opinion in Westminster.
However, research by Cardiff University found that, five years later, BBC News was still dominated by elite sources with—and this is key—an over-representation of Conservative and Eurosceptic views. During the EU referendum, that “impartiality as balance” paradigm, which seems always to lean to the right, was scrupulously applied to the two sides of the referendum campaign, but with the right dominating both. Research by Loughborough University found that Conservative and UK Independence party representatives accounted for 74% of all party political appearances on television news. Cardiff University found an even higher level of prominence, with Conservatives and UKIP together accounting for almost 80% of politicians.
The striking domination of our political debate by the right is exacerbated by the influence of right-wing newspapers. One of the key functions of the BBC should be to act as a bulwark against misinformation and the abuses of private power, but how can it perform that function if its news agenda is set by an often unscrupulous, partisan press, owned by a handful of billionaires, which has spent decades misinforming people on every important issue of the day? Again, we can look at the research: Cardiff University found that more than half of BBC News policy stories during the 2015 general election originated with the press, with The Daily Telegraph and The Times leading the pack, and the right, once again, dominating overall.
Another crucial issue on which this has had an impact, alongside reporting on immigration and the EU, is austerity. There is now a fairly substantive body of work examining the reporting of the 2008 financial crisis, including, for example, Mike Berry’s recent book. Berry shows that the economic debate, at that crucial time for our country, was skewed toward the right, and that even mainstream economic opinion was marginalised in favour of the disinformation emanating from the Conservative party and its allies in the press.
I could go on, but the overall picture is clear: not only is BBC News overwhelmingly orientated towards the political and economic establishment but, in so far as it exhibits any political bias, it tends to be towards the right. The story behind that pattern of reporting is detailed in Tom Mills’s 2016 book on the BBC. The organisation has always been a quasi-state broadcaster, orientated toward officialdom and particularly vulnerable to pressure from the Government of the day, as the last charter renewal process showed.
The situation got much worse from the 1980s onwards, when the BBC became increasingly marketised and politicised. Independent reporting was curtailed as editorial and managerial authority was consolidated, funding was cut and services and programme making were contracted out. In short, the BBC’s public service ethos, which was always far too elitist anyway, was steadily eroded while the BBC was slowly privatised. None of that opened it up to a wider range of voices. The privately educated and Oxbridge graduates still dominate—just as they do the press, as a recent Sutton Trust report shows—but the BBC became an elitist organisation more in step with neoliberal Britain.
I have no doubt that the Brexiteers want a BBC that is even more right wing, even more vulnerable to Government pressure and even less economically literate in its reporting—or, alternatively, no BBC at all. Meanwhile, some on the left are so disillusioned with the BBC that they have given up on it altogether. That is a mistake. There are serious problems with the BBC that cannot be ignored, but they can be resolved by making it genuinely independent of Governments—of the left and the right—and accountable not to a narrow elite but to its own staff and to the communities it should represent. The left has always been a friend to the BBC, and should remain so, but securing a public and democratic media system with the BBC at its heart will require radical change.