Is the BBC biased or just sloppy? (in their own words)
ALSO: I go into the BBC and talk about Spotify
You won’t believe it – and almost certainly you won’t care – but I’m moving house this afternoon. So this edition of Future Proof is going to be short, to the point, and last until I get a call from the estate agents that I can pick-up keys…
It’s a shame that I’ve been so busy and distracted, because there have been several interesting media stories this week. Not least the release of a report from our old chums at the BBC titled, pithily, “Review of the impartiality of BBC coverage of taxation, public spending, government borrowing and debt”. The report was authored by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot: the former is the producing progenitor of Radio 4’s More or Less, the latter its first presenter. So while they are good, rational people (I’m sure) they are viewing the Beeb largely from the inside out.
Anyway, this isn’t going to be an inside baseball newsletter about internal BBC politicking, not least because that’s of little interest to my much-loved legion of American readers.
Instead, I want to talk about some of the general findings of the report, which is about impartiality in economic analysis (and can be applied across publications and geographies). I’ve written many times that I think that the BBC is on a hiding to nothing with its pursuit of true impartiality, and that a tactical rethink of the extent of its coverage would solve many of the issues that its current tightrope act fails to address. But usually the context in which that impartiality is discussed is Brexit or social issues. There is a perception that, in 2016, for every expert on EU trade law the corporation got on, they felt obligated to balance them out with a tub-thumping backbench MP wanting to “take back control”. Similarly, with climate change, there is a perception that the BBC views balanced debate as a scientist vs a right-wing commentator.
These are all unfair characterisations, both of the BBC itself and of those debates – but what matters here is the perception. Sadly, if you present people with a broad range of views and opinions (and the BBC must have hundreds of different contributors every day across its channels) people are more naturally drawn to the perspectives that anger them. If you hear 10 people reaffirming things that you already believe, and one with whom you violently disagree, I can fairly guarantee which voice you’re going to remember. It’s human psychology.
But economic analysis is fundamentally more objective than its political sibling. We have numbers to work with! And though we’ve seen plenty of times in debates that numbers are malleable and slippery, there is a degree of news delivery that can happen without contention. The BBC can report the closing figures for the FTSE100, for example, without fear of imbalance, or that the Bank of England has hiked interest rates just in time for me to move house. Of course, we don’t get very far beyond these figures before the analysis has to creep in; that’s where Blastland and Dilnot enter the picture.
“We had concerns,” they write, “about gaps and assumptions that put impartiality at risk… These weaknesses can lead to output that appears to favour political positions, but curiously these learn left and right. That makes a charge of systematic political bias in this area hard to sustain. So while the risks to impartiality may look political, we think they need a better explanation, which is that they’re really journalistic. This is no less serious and raises questions for the BBC and its journalists about what kind of journalism they want to do and how to do it.”
That is the broad conclusion of the report, which goes into more depth on specific issues such as the political framing of economic stories, the perceived average consumer of economic information, the range (and adventurousness) of explored ideas…etc. The report is worth a read, although, as you can see from the above, it comes to rather a woolly conclusion.
I don’t agree with Blastland and Dilnot. I think it is *far* preferable that the BBC should introduce bias by journalistic naivety than through a concerted political undertaking. And the reason is simple: the BBC cannot eradicate journalistic error. The BBC’s workforce is too large, and however talented its producers and presenters are, a lot of them are young (many in their early-to-mid 20s), underpaid and overworked. They also have to output more content than can reasonably be expected by a high-quality news source: sorry Mr Blastland and Mr Dilnot, this is not a weekly episode of More or Less. This is rolling news; breaking coverage.
So I do think that journalistic error is less serious than “systematic political bias”. Furthermore, the latter is the charge that has been presented – the former is something that very few punters care about. A few old dudes might still call The Guardian “the grauniad” in remembrance of its typo littered past, but very few publications are held to their historic errors. After all, the New Republic is remembered far more for Andrew Sullivan than Stephen Glass; the New York Times for David Carr rather than Jayson Blair.
In a way, I feel like the most striking thing about this report is its very commissioning. There have certainly been attempts in some parts of the press to get the BBC to be more rigorous about holding the government’s feet to the fire over things like, for example, the conflation of household budgets and state budgets (an analogy that has been used many times to justify austerity policies, even if it makes no economic sense). But the conversation there is not that much more complicated to me than asking that journalists been more interrogatively robust. “Do better,” is not a conclusion that a year-long report can come to, but 99% of the time it would suffice. I could put McKinsey out of business by charging a mere £100,000 for a print-off saying “do better” or, if I’m hedging, “do slightly better”.
The report was commissioned because a BBC journalist, Laura Kuenssberg, used a bad analogy, referring to “the national mortgage” and a group of economists wrote an open letter to the corporation. That was in November 2020. The report was commissioned in February 2022 and published in January 2023. Kuenssberg is no longer the BBC’s Political Editor. I don’t know whether her replacement, Chris Mason, is more economically literate, but I suspect that the demand for better, more in-depth coverage will inevitably butt up against the BBC’s fundamental desire to be an omni-population platform. Critics, writing at the time of the report’s commissioning, cited the tendency to represent the views expressed by Times columnists rather than Financial Times writers or academic economists. But the problem here is simple: about 100,000 people in the UK read the FT, while millions consume the BBC. And FT readers are signing up to a financial product – the clue is in the name – where the analysis should be deep enough to swim in. The BBC has to explain things in simpler terms; it’s part of their raison d’etre. The BBC, in Britain, is the first line of news coverage. Its job is to triage its audience: the uninterested can leave with a surface understanding, the economically invested can go off to the FT, and the people with grave political wounds over to Politico or the New Left Review or wherever.
The household analogy is bad, we can all agree on that. But the BBC has to communicate via analogy. This is not an undergraduate lecture, or a peer-reviewed paper; this is the news on terrestrial television.
As ever, the problems faced by the BBC – both in the commissioning of this report, and in its conclusions – speak to an organisation trying to do too much.
Yesterday afternoon I was on Radio 4’s Media Show, hosted this week by Ros Atkins, to talk about Spotify’s restructuring and the future of podcasting. You can listen to the episode via the link below (our conversation starts at about 20 minutes, before that there’s an interesting discussion about the BBC’s new Modi documentary being censored in India).