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:
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.
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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:
Ian Austin, 1 year as a junior minister at DCLG, says he won't vote for Labour.
Ken Clarke, 9 years as Secretary of State, including as Chancellor, says he won't vote for the Conservatives.
Balanced election coverage?
— Diane Abbott (@HackneyAbbott) November 7, 2019
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.
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.
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