Branding the BBC Right-wing is just silly
The Left really seems to perceive even the most fleeting balance as pro-Brexit bias
It may strike you as unhinged to accuse the BBC of Eurosceptic or Right-wing partiality. Leading figures in the Corporation accepted some time ago that it suffered from what Mark Thompson, then director-general, called “a massive bias to the Left”. This bias was not party political but cultural, infusing the Beeb’s assumptions: immigration good, Israel bad; Brussels good, austerity bad. Andrew Marr once argued that the BBC could hardly avoid having “an innate liberal bias”, because its staff were so much younger, more metropolitan and less white than the population at large. Few of them, it seems fair to say, will be reading this newspaper.
So what the blithering flip is Lord Adonis doing ranting on – as he has now done in more than 100 tweets – about what he calls the “Brexit Broadcasting Corporation”? And why is Owen Jones, the Guardian columnist, launching an attack on Andrew Neil for being Right-wing?
Let’s take the two issues – Europe and Left/Right bias – in order. The BBC’s default attitude to European integration is uncritical, if shallow. It starts from the proposition that the EU is modern and cosmopolitan, and that the people who don’t like it are bigots. When Lord Pearson of Rannoch, a Ukip peer, presented examples of one-sided reporting, a Corporation panjandrum dismissed his complaint saying: “These people are mad.”
During the referendum, for the first time, the BBC had to offer equal space to the two sides. For example, Question Time panels, which had until then been overwhelmingly Europhile, became numerically balanced. This blip of objectivity enraged Euroenthusiasts. Craig Oliver, then Downing Street’s chief press officer, spends much of his campaign memoir complaining about it. How could it be fair, asked Remainers, to give equal weight to serious Europhile businessmen and to any old Eurosceptic think tank?
Their rage was revealing. They were so used to having the BBC on their side that even-handedness looked to them like partiality. Not that they phrased it like that, of course. Being subject, like everyone else, to confirmation bias, they said what people always say when demanding that others agree with them, namely that the BBC should “report the facts”.
Before the campaign, the material benefits of European integration were indeed treated by the BBC as a datum or given. At a pre-referendum meeting in Broadcasting House, I urged editors to report, even if they didn’t personally believe, the economic case against membership. A nonplussed young executive responded that, whatever the arguments about immigration or sovereignty, she had to report “the fact” that the EU was good for our prosperity. But it’s not a fact, I protested: it’s the very thing we’re arguing about.
For a few months, the BBC did a pretty good job of representing different points of view. Then, the moment the referendum was over, its old assumptions reasserted themselves. Bad economic news was because of Brexit, while good economic news was “despite Brexit”.
Perhaps you think I am subject to my own confirmation bias. The plural of anecdote, as the saying goes, is not data. Is there any empirical measure of the BBC’s Europhile bias before and after the campaign? Actually, yes. In January, the think tank Politeia published the result of a monitoring exercise carried out by News-watch. It examined thousands of programme transcripts and hundreds of hours of broadcasting, and applied various transparent metrics, such as whether the questioning came from a pro- or anti-EU direction. It found that, in the decade leading up the referendum, the BBC was massively and quantifiably biased in favour of Brussels. For example, of 4,275 guests discussing the EU on the Today programme on Radio 4 between 2005 and 2015, only 132 (3.2 per cent) were Leavers. Since the poll, News-watch shows, a similar pattern has re-emerged.
What we are hearing from Europhiles are shrieks of affronted entitlement, and the same sense of outrage lies behind the campaign against Andrew Neil, whose forensic interviewing style is deployed disinterestedly against all his guests – as I can personally attest.
All BBC presenters, being human, have opinions. In the vast majority of cases, those opinions are left of centre. Again, we can quantify this in various ways, such as their self-descriptions on Facebook, their choice of newspaper and, in many cases, their past histories. The point is that none of it matters as long as they keep their personal views off air. Neil is unusual in having been a newspaper editor and columnist, and so having left a paper trail. Unusual, but not exceptional. Ian Katz, who was until October the editor of Newsnight, was deputy editor of The Guardian before he joined the Corporation. Andrew Marr edited The Independent. Both produced large and entertaining corpuses of Leftist opinion. Both were meticulously neutral in their subsequent BBC jobs, as Neil has been.
What seems to be bothering Owen Jones is that Andrew Neil has focused on Labour’s anti-Semitism. Jones has, to his credit, been sincerely horrified to discover the views of some of the people in his movement. We can hardly blame him for lashing out. But the idea that the BBC is conservative is too silly for words.
Consider not just its current affairs output but its comedy, its children’s programmes, its dreary David Hare dramas, even its soap operas (try to imagine an EastEnders plotline about a market trader being hit by EU subsidies, say, rather than people struggling against homophobia). Right-wing? Chuck it, Jones.
All BBC presenters, being human, have opinions. None of it matters as long as they keep them off air