Society and Culture

Lord Adonis is wrong about the direction of BBC bias. But he is right to raise the issue

Lord Adonis doesn’t like the BBC very much these days.

Peruse the arch-Remainer’s Twitter account, and you will regularly see denouncements of the “Brexit Broadcasting Corporation”, which supposedly created Nigel Farage himself, and determined the eventual Brexit referendum result.

It “fanned the populist flames” and might better be described as “the public disservice broadcaster”, according to the former Labour cabinet minister.

This relentless assault has left some Remain-backing columnists questioning the peer’s sanity. Nick Cohen has mused about whether Adonis has gone “mad”.

Many hardline Brexiteers are asking the same question, for different reasons. Between 2005 and 2014, the BBC’s flagship Radio 4 Today programme interviewed 4,275 speakers on EU themes. Just three per cent of them favoured leaving the EU.

To the extent that there has been bias, surely it was in not giving proportionate voice to the 30 to 40 per cent of the population who consistently told pollsters they wanted a Brexit? If the Beeb created Farage, who represented over a third of these Leaver appearances, it was only because they didn’t have anyone else on to represent this widely-held opinion.

Media bias is a difficult subject, because ultimately journalists are human beings. They have their own priors, sources, and sense of what is important. What stories they run, who they quote, and how these are presented all involve subjective judgments.

Bias need not mean some top-down dictum or imposed worldview, but can arise as a consequence of hiring people with similar viewpoints and backgrounds.

In a referendum, a duty to act impartially between campaigns can theoretically lead to an equivalence between two viewpoints that, on other metrics, would be considered unequal too.

Far from being mad, Lord Adonis appears to know better than his colleagues just how significant the consequences can be when it comes to how things are presented on the BBC.

In that, he is similar to eurosceptics who for years bemoaned unfair portrayals of the issues. His campaign is one borne out of frustration at the result, but his aim is to pressurise the BBC into giving Brexiteers less air time and to paint Brexit in a more negative light.

And the reason is clear: the BBC is an immensely powerful organisation. The way it presents news could potentially have significant effects on election results.

In 2017, Patrick Kennedy and Andrea Prat, economists from the Columbia Business School, analysed 18 countries’ news media markets to develop a “power index”. Across all countries, the UK had the most concentrated media sector, mainly due to the Beeb.

Over all mediums, the BBC reaches 81 per cent of people who consume news, and has a 36 per cent attention share. It has the most power to affect public opinion of any news organisation worldwide.

According to the researchers, it would require just five per cent of the BBC’s audience to be completely trusting of its output to give it the power to swing a close election by one percentage point. It could swing an election by two points, if 10 per cent of consumers were naive.

This makes it much more powerful than, say, the Daily Mail. To achieve the same result would require 38 per cent of Mail readers to be trusting.

Poll after poll suggests that the BBC is the most trusted news source in Britain, and therefore the combination of its reach and reputation means its output could have substantial impacts on elections and public opinion.

Of course, trust in the BBC has arisen in part, no doubt, because it has been trustworthy. Newspapers have editorial viewpoints and priors, and the BBC does make a big effort to be impartial.

But with great power comes great responsibility. And the issue of bias is critical, as it only requires a small proportion of people to take the presentation of an issue at face value to really affect public opinion.

My instinct is that Lord Adonis is wrong on the central charge. In fact, I think that on some metrics – not least relative to public opinion – the BBC is still biased in a firmly anti-Brexit direction. But his repetitive denouncements of the BBC are perfectly rational given his aims.

Ahead of any eventual parliamentary vote on the final EU deal, or maybe even a second referendum, Brexit is going to dominate the airwaves and online in a way comparable to the referendum.

Given the BBC’s power, changing the way that debate is represented could come with a much bigger payoff than any campaigning by a Lord could achieve.


This article was first published in City AM.

Ryan Bourne occupies the R. Evan Scharf Chair for the Public Understanding of Economics at Cato. He has written on a number of economic issues, including: fiscal policy, inequality, minimum wages and rent control. Before joining Cato, Bourne was Head of Public Policy at the Institute of Economic Affairs and Head of Economic Research at the Centre for Policy Studies (both in the UK).

3 thoughts on “Lord Adonis is wrong about the direction of BBC bias. But he is right to raise the issue”

  1. Posted 01/05/2018 at 15:01 | Permalink

    Soundly argued. Adonis may be so incurably Remain that he interprets any discussion of Brexit (from either perspective) as an attack on EU, but he is right that we should all be alert to the BBC’s dominance of opinion-forming. No free country anywhere else in the world has such a massively dominant monopoly media player. It is beyond economic challenge by competition and too many otherwise liberal thinkers believe It is even beyond criticism.

  2. Posted 01/05/2018 at 22:02 | Permalink

    I am personally of the opinion that, in accusing thre BBC of pro Brexit bias, he is deliberately parodying the argument of Brexiteers that the BBC has an anti Brexit bias: If The Mogg is going to accuse the BBC of being closet remainers then Adonis will make the contra assertion.

    I see no other way of explaining what he is doing. He just can’t be serious. Watch any interview with a brexit spokeman and he/she is given a hard grilling, every point made being stripped back to its fundamental assumptions. And yet when a Remoaner is interviewed the treatment is a lot lighter and far less rigorous.

  3. Posted 02/05/2018 at 16:57 | Permalink

    Lord Adonis is obsessive about Brexit. I was in a panel discussion with him the other week about Vice-Chancellors’ pay but he managed to turn it round to Brexit. He is convinced that anybody who disagrees with his position is stupid, and that he and his colleagues in the HoL are perfectly entitled to stop this country making a colossal error – the worst mistake, as he says, of his lifetime.

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