After first acknowledging my own biases in the topics I examine, and also distinguishing the difference between absolute bias (deviation from an objective truth) and relative biases (deviation from perhaps other media or public opinion or some other variable), I set out case studies of relative bias by omission, by selection and by presentation.
Over the next week, I’ll outline some of my findings. But I think the latter of these three is an interesting area for future research, particularly the biases that can be seen in how guests are introduced using so-called ‘health warnings’.
Perhaps the most egregious example of this bias came back in March 2012 when the subject of minimum alcohol pricing was under discussion. BBC 2’s Newsnight had organised a debate to take place on the subject between Eric Joyce (an MP opposed to the proposal) and Sarah Wollaston MP (who was in favour), chaired by Emily Maitlis. Wollaston was introduced as “a GP and a Tory MP, not to mention a member of the Commons’ Health Select Committee.” The introduction for her opponent was “Eric Joyce, an MP against minimum pricing, was forced to quit the Labour Party after a drunken punch-up in the House of Commons bar. Tonight he’s under curfew in his Edinburgh home.” The way that this was introduced clearly would leave viewers uninitiated in the subject to simply assume that Wollaston had a monopoly on credibility to talk about the issue, even though both MPs were on the show to assess the economic and political implications of the policy, as well as the health effects.
Though not as overt as this, it is common for BBC coverage to attach ‘health warnings’ to participants in debates. In the context of a discussion, unbalanced introductions act to undermine the credibility of one of the speakers. This is hardly trivial if it alters perceptions of the issue and ultimately public opinion.
Academic economists have noted how a common form of media bias is ‘put an ideological label on conservative and libertarian organizations and interviewees, but not on liberal and leftist groups’ (Boaz 2010). This sort of ‘bias by presentation’ is commonplace on the BBC.
Building on Centre for Policy Studies research, I examine how 15 multi-disciplinary think-tanks were treated on the BBC news website between the general elections in 2010 and 2015. All articles containing the names of the think tanks were examined to ascertain whether health warnings had been used to describe the organisations. ‘Health warnings’ here, as with Latham’s analysis, include: a) a statement of the ideological or political position of the think-tank b) an expression of the think tank’s prior position on an issue or c) mention of an affiliation of any political actor to the think-tank.
The results were striking, with think tanks perceived to be conservative or free market much more likely to be ascribed a health warning. The four main think tanks which advocate for free market policies are given ideological warning labels including ‘free market’, ‘centre-right’ and ‘right-wing’ often: the IEA 22.1 per cent of the time, the CPS 30.3 per cent, Policy Exchange 41.7 per cent and the Adam Smith Institute 59.5 per cent. The communitarian-conservative Respublica is given an ideological warning label 50 per cent of the time.
In contrast, left-leaning think tanks are given these labels far less often. The New Economics Foundation is probably the most left-leaning policy think tank in the country. Yet the only health warnings it has been ascribed are that it is a ‘sustainability think tank’ and a ‘member of the Tescopoly alliance’. Demos and IPPR, despite having clear ideological left-leaning positions, are introduced as such much less often than their equivalents at Policy Exchange or the Centre for Policy Studies.
This is important. Health warnings such as ‘centre-left’ or ‘centre-right’ are used to inform the readers that a think tank or organisation might be seeking to shift public opinion in a particular direction. Therefore we might expect that think tanks with close associations or formal relationships with political parties would be more likely to be assigned ideological warning labels. Thus, it is unsurprising that the Fabian Society receives health warnings a very large proportion of the time – since it is actually affiliated with the Labour party. Likewise, Policy Exchange, the Centre for Policy Studies and the Centre for Social Justice all have strong political associations with the Conservative party, though they are independent of it. Yet think tanks with comparable but not official connections to the Labour party, such as IPPR, are given health warnings far less often.
This therefore seems like a clear relative bias. The BBC News website is much more likely to use ideological or political labels when introducing right-of-centre or free-market opinion. The key question then is: why? It might be because they think left-leaning think tanks are more credible – though a quick examination of the staff and authors of major think-tanks, their qualifications and educational backgrounds doesn’t suggest a ‘quality deficit’ at conservative or free market organisations.
Maybe, just maybe, it is because these left-leaning think-tanks are closer to the worldview of the editors or journalists who book or interview them, and thus they do not even notice their relative ideological positions.
Read Ryan’s chapter ‘The problem of bias in the BBC’ in the new IEA monograph ‘In Focus: The Case for Privatising the BBC’.