Brand­ing the BBC Right-wing is just silly

The Left re­ally seems to per­ceive even the most fleet­ing bal­ance as pro-Brexit bias

The Sunday Telegraph - - Sunday Comment - DANIEL HANNAN

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

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