We need to have a serious conversation about BBC bias. Because this really isn’t on.

BBC sign
Emily Apple

Just six days apart, the BBC‘s Today programme ran two stories on MPs saying they wouldn’t vote for their former political parties. On 7 November, Ian Austin was given a platform to say how evil he thinks Jeremy Corbyn is. And on 13 November, it was the turn of David Gauke to denounce Boris Johnson.

You could be forgiven for thinking ‘so far, so good’. After all, both former MPs were interviewed on the programme and both stories were given prominence in the subsequent 8am news bulletins. But this is where the balance ends. Because context and framing is everything. And it’s in this context and framing that we need to have a serious conversation about BBC bias.

Compare and contrast part 1 – 8am, 7 November

On the 8am news bulletin on the 7 November programme, Austin’s comments were the second story, introduced with the line:

Start your day with The Canary News Digest

Fresh and fearless; get excellent independent journalism from The Canary, delivered straight to your inbox every morning.




The former Labour MP Ian Austin has urged people to vote Conservative, telling this programme that Jeremy Corbyn is unfit for office.

This line was reiterated in the extended commentary on the headlines. Political correspondent Chris Mason then delivered this eulogy to Austin:

Ian Austin has devoted his adult life to the Labour Party – first as a councillor and then as a party official, then at the side of Gordon Brown when he was chancellor and then prime minister. His disagreements with Jeremy Corbyn are not new. Mr Austin’s father was a Jewish refugee, his aunt and grandmother were murdered by the Nazis. When he gave up as a Labour MP in February, he accused Mr Corbyn of creating a culture of extremism and intolerance. There’d been a failure to tackle antisemitism and the party, he said, had been turned into a narrow sect.

But nonetheless, his intervention today is still astonishing. He said the decision of Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson to give up was enormously significant. ‘If Tom thought Jeremy Corbyn was fit to lead the country, would he really be standing down?’ he asked. In an emotional interview on this programme, Ian Austin said people should vote for the Conservatives to ensure Boris Johnson remains as prime minister.

This was then followed by a clip of Austin’s interview, again reiterating his view that he doesn’t think Corbyn is fit to lead the country. Mason’s commentary then continued:

He added he didn’t think Jeremy Corbyn was a patriot. ‘I don’t think he loves his country,’ he said, claiming the Labour Party had been poisioned with anti-Jewish racism under Mr Corbyn. The Labour leadership has always insisted it’s done everything possible to eradicate antisemitism. Mr Austin said he wasn’t a Tory, but it was important to ‘stand up, tell the truth, and do what is right’.

Only after a minute and a half did Mason give one line to a Corbyn-supporting MP, saying:

The shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey said Ian Austin had done fantastic work as a Labour MP, but they disagreed over the policy and direction of the Labour Party.

What was missing?

Apart from devoting a large amount of uncritical time to Austin’s comments, using loaded words like “emotional” and “astonishing” and only giving Labour a one-line response, there was another crucial fact missing from this news bulletin.

While attention was given to Austin, the BBC failed to mention prominent Conservative MPs who are no longer supporting or finding it difficult to support their party. As shadow home secretary Diane Abbott tweeted:

Clarke’s comments were more nuanced than Abbott expressed. He stated that he wouldn’t rule out not voting Conservative and that:

It depends what sort of campaign they run, if we really do make ourselves the Brexit Party under our brand, my loyalty is going to be strained, absolutely.

I’m not voting for some crazy right-wing nationalist organisation calling themselves a Tory government, but that I think is laying it on a bit, I don’t think that will be where we wind up.

Regardless, the BBC apparently decided not to publish the story on its website. But it did run a story accusing Abbott of sending a “misleading” tweet that included his comments without any prominence.

The BBC also failed to mention another former cabinet member, Justine Greening, who said:

it will be very hard for me to vote for the Conservatives

Greening made these comments on 5 November to BBC Radio 5. But again, it appears the BBC failed to cover this on its own news website.

These omissions are particularly relevant when looking at the BBC‘s coverage on 13 November.

Compare and contrast part 2 – 8am, 13 November

Gauke’s comments were also the second story on the 8am news bulletin on 13 November:

David Gauke, who was a Conservative cabinet minister just four months ago, has warned voters that a Conservative victory could pave the way to a very hard Brexit.

The commentary on the headlines said that Gauke had “criticised” the government. Assistant political editor Norman Smith then continued:

David Gauke, just four months ago a cabinet minister and regarded as one of the Tories’ safest pair of hands, is now urging voters to stop Boris Johnson from winning a majority. His decision to stand as an independent prompted by his fear that Mr Johnson is boxed into a no-deal Brexit by his refusal to consider any extension to the transition period beyond December 2022 – an impossible timetable, Mr Gauke believes, in which to secure a trade deal. And speaking on this programme, he urged traditional Tories to lend their votes to the Liberal Democrats and independent candidates to thwart Boris Johnson.

After a quote from the interview, Smith continued:

Mr Gauke is one of only a small band of former Tory rebels who’ve chosen to fight on rather than to quit politics altogether. This morning, Lib Dem sources said they were unlikely to stand aside in his Hertfordshire seat. Downing Street, meanwhile, has shrugged off Mr Gauke’s decision. And this afternoon, Boris Johnson will repeat his core Brexit message that his deal is ‘the only way to get Britain out of the rut to end the groundhoggery of Brexit’.

This was immediately followed by the news that:

A former Labour minister has said he’ll vote Conservative because he believes Jeremy Corbyn is a danger to the security of the UK and the future of the union. Tom Harris, a former MP in Glasgow and a Leave supporter, made the annoucement as Mr Corbyn travels to the city to promise more investment in Scotland.

Yes, so that’ll be the Tom Harris who writes for the controversial right-wing website Brexit Central and who lost his seat in 2015 being given almost as much prominence as someone who was a cabinet minister four months ago. Both Clarke and Greening’s comments, meanwhile, were omitted from the segment on Austin.

No wonder then that when Michael Gove was interviewed shortly afterwards he described the news bulletin as ‘fair’.

Spot the difference

By the 9am news bulletin on 7 November, Austin’s comments had been promoted to the lead story with pretty much the same lead-in as the 8am one. Although on this bulletin, Long-Bailey’s comments were included.

In contrast, on 13 November, the Gauke story was bumped to the third item, after Gove’s comments on the show about Brexit, and with the line that “a Tory majority would be bad for the country” and that he “urged traditional Tory voters to lend their support to the Liberal Democrats in many cases”.

The language is significantly different. Unlike Austin, the BBC didn’t headline the Gauke story with him ‘urging people to vote Liberal Democrat’; and where it was mentioned, it was tempered with comments such as “in many cases”.

Moreover, and perhaps most significantly, the emotional language wasn’t there in the longer segments. With Gauke, there wasn’t the personalisation of the story with his political and personal background. Meanwhile, words such as “emotional” and “astonishing” were absent from the broadcast.

Bias is nuanced

The BBC claims it is:

committed to achieving due impartiality in all its output.

According to its charter, meanwhile, it should:

provide impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them: the BBC should provide duly accurate and impartial news, current affairs and factual programming to build people’s understanding of all parts of the United Kingdom and of the wider world.

The BBC would obviously argue that it covered both stories and gave prominence to both stories. But bias is nuanced. It isn’t just about airing the story; it’s about the context, the framing and the language used. And comparing the difference between these two stories, just six days apart, provides a stark contrast and a window into that bias.

Unsurprising

This perhaps isn’t surprising given the editor of the Today programme, Sarah Sands, is a former Evening Standard editor who backed the Conservative Party during the 2015 election.

It’s also possible that this bias isn’t deliberate. Unconscious bias has an impact on all of us. But whether or not it is deliberate is, in some ways, a moot point. It’s there, and it’s something we need to have serious conversations about. Because at the moment, we’re a very long way from having an impartial national broadcaster.

Featured image via Flickr/Tim Loudon

Since you're here ...

We know you don't need a lecture. You wouldn't be here if you didn't care.
Now, more than ever, we need your help to challenge the rightwing press and hold power to account. Please help us survive and thrive.

The Canary Support
  • Show Comments
    1. The BBC are now an absolute disgrace. I thoroughly resent being charged to pay for this Tory propaganda machine and for the presenters and executives gravy train.
      The whole setup is now just a platform for the “presenters” to air their personal “elite” views, it no longer provides news in any balanced form. I refuse to watch it now. It needs to be reformed root and branch or perhaps even scrapped altogether.
      Why should anyone pay a licence fee to be fed this sort of rubbish.

    2. Whilst listening to this article with the new listening option, it reminded me of something that many of us did not so long ago, even as our doubts about the BBC were forming.

      Many of us protested, signed petitions, and answered survey’s regarding Rupert Murdock’s attempted take-over of the BBC. I think my fear (although by this point I was very aware of the BBC’s rapidly declining standards) was that a Sky-owned BBC, or even a Sky-partnered BBC would make the BBC the mouth-piece of the Elite, and a corporate attack-dog.

      Well what a waste of time, worry and care! The BBC has become exactly what I feared it would, and that in spite, and it really does seem in SPITE, of our efforts, in SPITE of our Love for The BBC, they stuck their fingers up at us and CHOSE to become what they are now, which is to say a complete parody of the Institution they once were, and a danger to the very core of our Nation and Democracy.

      1. Emily Apple is bang on! We do need a National conversation regarding The BBC, because what they are doing to us and themselves is just not on, or logical, or even consummate with Democratic Principles.

    3. I cancelled my tv licence and subscribed to Netflix and Amazon Prime. I can watch news on the internet and avoid the state propaganda. There is no point complaining against the BBC as it makes no difference and they argue that they get complaints from all political views, writing own alibi to deny bias.

      1. Like you said, long but worth a read, though in my case I watched.

        I noticed that even this was used to highlight an anti-Jeremy Corbyn message, even though this comes after the ‘Politicians are very brave’ and ‘journalists recognise there’s good intentions in many politicians’ statement. The speaker made a point of singling Jeremy Corbyn out for a character attack, which really shows the reason the speech was given in the first place, it is a politically motivated, don’t blame the journalists speech.

        What this talk is about is trying to make journalists look like they are the victims of Political lies, rather than the fact that it is their job to ask, question and research the facts so that we are better informed (not as it currently is, with political bias depending on the source). Lamenting the fact that politicians feed journalists lies which by her own admission they are all too willing to just accept, is just further proof of what this speech is really about.

        Politicians, in cahoots with mainstream journalism is the reality, and trust is not just very low with politicians, but also with main-stream Journalism … something she does her best to avoid mentioning.

        Of course she would say that going to external sources for news is not a good thing (dig at RT, The Canary perhaps?). Unless Journalists fight to remain impartial, and actually report the facts, rather than blindly trusting politicians, or deliberately avoiding covering something that they should be banging on about each day …. The Plight of Julian Assange!

        The entirety of UK and USA MSM is as guilty of misleading and manipulating us as a great number of Politicians are. It comes as no surprise that Politicians are worried for their lives, nor the fact that they refuse to acknowledge they are the cause of it … along with bad Journalism. No, in a show of incredible cognitive dissonance, they look to blame each other, or anything else, rather than the blatantly obvious.

        Politicians and Journalists alike must be truthful, because without it, none of them can be trusted, and that does not make for any stability, any progress, or any hope for our collective future well-being.

    4. Throughout my lifetime, that dating back to inception of the NHS, the BBC has been accused of bias. Seemingly most often from persons identifying with the so-called ‘centre’ and ‘right’.

      Doubtless instances of deliberately partial reporting and comment have occurred. These are attributable to lack of attention by individual programme editors rather than organisation policy. The BBC is staffed by humans and cannot realistically aspire to day by day perfection; it must suffice for the ‘moving average’ of performance to be generally acceptable.

      I have no direct connection with the BBC. My perception of it is as an institution working in dedicated fashion to meet obligations set in its charter. Although not the only public service broadcaster in the world it was the first and remains the most innovative and daring.

      People seeking to denigrate the BBC ought bear in mind its many virtues. Among these is freedom from commercial pressure relating to profit. Its programming is not influenced by advertising industry imposition of ‘values’ and ‘taste’. Its programmes are not interrupted by ‘commercials’ or worse, as in the USA, intruded upon by advertisements as they play out between formal ad-breaks. Writers, producers, and directors, are not required to build drama around ‘breaks’ e.g. setting up ‘cliff-hangers’ just before ‘breaks’ in hope the audience will continue listening/viewing afterwards.

      Despite imperfections, the BBC truly is a national treasure. It should be borne in mind that should the Johnson creature have his way regarding trade deals with the USA, the BBC’s integrity (intellectual and moral) is at risk. This because commercial broadcasters regard the BBC as unfair competition consequent upon its being a state enterprise rather than in private hands. Arguments deployed for dismantling the BBC will have the same neo-liberal doctrinal basis as those for privatising the NHS.

      1. A clear and timely reminder that the BBC has its good points, however whilst the BBC has always been accused of bias, so have many media-related enterprises. There will always be those who see bias, even in the most unbiased reporting.

        The BBC however WAS a national treasure, but that jewel has become scratched and faded, and is not shining its light as well as it used to. There is blatant, observable-by-many bias in the BBC now. It has become a state mouth-piece, and is corrupting our democracy with its behaviour, in the way it has traditionally outed other nations state-controlled media for doing.

        What is more important, our country or the BBC? As the BBC is behaving in such a poor manner towards us, we MUST not let that stand. I don’t want to see the BBC dismantled, but if they keep on they way they have been doing for the last few years, then yes it should be dismantled, not in its entirety, destroying the non-advertising stance we love, but internally dismantled, replacing staff, and leaders with those who can maintain objective, unbiased reporting, and maybe even The Charter needs reviewing.

        You say that “Arguments deployed for dismantling the BBC will have the same neo-liberal doctrinal basis as those for privatising the NHS”, this is a generalisation which does not stand up. There certainly are arguments for dismantling the BBC that are not from a neo-liberal basis, but a legal and democratically necessary basis, that does not require the destruction of the best bits.

        Admittedly, I think the wording, ‘dismantling’ is the misleading element here, because that phrase means something different to different people, and I suspect that some use that term to mean ‘a major overhaul of’, rather than the complete destruction of. I do however think that what you are presenting with your post is the notion that this is a black and white issue, that if the BBC were completely dismantled, nothing but an advertising model could replace it, which though likely, is not necessarily the truth.

        There is nothing really to prevent a ‘New BBC’, and a ‘New Charter’ replacing the old, and as the Licence Fee model works, it is simply not the issue here (bias, blatant state interference and censorship is). If the BBC continues along the road of serious anti-democratic bias, and we can’t reform it because the rot has set in, then it MUST be replaced, even if the name stays the same, and the funding remains on the same non-advertising model.

        The BBC is ours, and it needs reminding of that fact, it simply cannot be allowed to be ‘Too Big To Fail’, particularly as it is failing spectacularly to provide unbiased coverage of our democracy, doing serious and lasting damage to it, and in a traitorous way it is helping to sell us all into U.S.-inspired corporate slavery.

        I disagree with you also on the point of the BBC ‘accidentally’ being in the position they are now in. It is of course to be expected that the BBC, like any other media outlet, will make mistakes and gaffes, we know it, we have seen it, and …. in the past the BBC was quick to apologise and publish/broadcast apologies and retractions. Today it is guilty of refusing to admit it is wrong, choosing rather to lie and dissemble than apologise, and to show the most egregious acts of political bias and chicanery, including illegal, anti-charter behaviour towards our democracy and our democratic sensibilities.

        It is party to and equally guilty of spreading fake news and disruption across our nation, this is extremely damaging to our democracy, and our national cohesion, and our National Security, it must be addressed pronto!

        I appreciate that amidst all the anger, you have provided a moment to think about the good the BBC does, and that is a good thing, but that should not come at the expense of blinding ourselves to the wrong they have done, nor the very bad behaviour they are currently displaying.

    Leave a Reply

    Join the conversation

    Please read our comment moderation policy here.