Bias at the Beeb?

Compelling evidence of bias in BBC news reporting is uncovered by economist Dr. Oliver Latham in Bias at the BEEB? A quantitative study of slant in BBC Online reporting.

This paper uses objective, quantitative methods, based on the existing academic literature on media bias, to look for evidence of slant in the BBC’s online reporting.

These methods minimise the need for subjective analysis of the content of the BBC news website. As such, they are less susceptible to accusations of partiality on the part of the author than approaches using case studies.

The paper first looks at how often BBC News online cites each of 40 think-tanks in any article between 1 June 2010 and 31 May 2013; and then compares the number of BBC think-tank citations to those of the same think-tanks in The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph (taken as representative of left-of-centre and right-of-centre publications, respectively).

The statistical evidence is clear:

  • The BBC citations of these 40 think-tanks are “more similar” to that of The Guardian than that of The Daily Telegraph.
  • In particular, the number of articles on the BBC website mentioning a given think-tank is more highly correlated with its number of mentions in The Guardian than its number of mentions in The Daily Telegraph.
  • Regression analysis also shows that coverage in The Guardian is a much stronger predictor of coverage by the BBC than is coverage in The Daily Telegraph.
  • The results suggest that if The Guardian prints an extra 10 articles citing a given think-tank, that think-tank can expect to be mentioned in an additional 7 articles on the BBC News website. In contrast, 10 extra articles in The Daily Telegraph translates to only  3 extra BBC website hits.
  • Once we control for the coverage a think-tank receives in The Guardian, the number of hits it receives in The Daily Telegraph has no statistically significant correlation with its coverage by the BBC.
  • These results are robust to a number of alternative specifications, including controlling for single-issue and foreign-policy think-tanks.

The paper then looks at the “health warnings” given to think-tanks of different ideological persuasions when they are mentioned on the BBC website.

  • It finds that right-of-centre think-tanks are far more likely to receive health warnings than their left-of-centre counterparts (the former received health warnings between 23% and 61% of the time while the latter received them between 0% and 12% of the time).
  • A higher proportion of left-of-centre think-tanks than right-of-centre think-tanks are referred to as “independent” by the BBC.

This quantitative analysis of think-tank citations and the use of “health warnings” is consistent with existing evidence that the BBC exhibits a left-of-centre slant in its online reporting.

Dr. Oliver Latham concludes:

“Although the effects measured may seem trivial at first glance (who, apart from the think-tanks themselves, really cares if the IPPR is more likely to be referred to as “independent” than the Centre for Policy Studies?), they could be indicative of a wider problem in areas of reporting where slant is harder to measure…

With this in mind the BBC should take steps to implement the recommendations of the BBC Trust report. In addition, the BBC should follow up its previous study with a more wide-ranging investigation that looks not just at the level of coverage given to voices from across the political spectrum, but also the manner in which these voices are presented.”

Tim Knox, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies, comments:

‘Antony Jay has written for the CPS about how, 50 years ago, the institutional liberal bias within the BBC warped its news output:

“We were anti-industry, anti-capitalism, anti-advertising, anti-selling, anti-profit, anti-patriotism, anti-monarchy, anti-Empire, anti-police, anti-armed forces, anti-bomb, anti-authority. Almost anything that made the world a freer, safer and more prosperous place, you name it, we were anti it.”

More recently, BBC insiders such as Peter Sissons, Andrew Marr and Robin Aitken have all confirmed that such prejudices still predominate within the Corporation today. This new evidence, published by the CPS as James Harding takes up his position as Director of News, asks many questions of the BBC. The most important is why should everyone in the UK be forced to pay a poll tax to support an institution which has so conspicuously failed for so long to obey its founding principle of impartiality?’

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Oliver Latham - Thursday, 15th August, 2013