Government and Institutions

IEA analysis shows systemic bias against ‘Leave’ supporters on flagship BBC political programmes



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IEA releases analysis revealing Brexit bias on flagship political programmes

A new analysis of nearly 600 panellists on two key BBC programmes has found that Leave supporters have been badly under-represented since the referendum.

The Institute of Economic affairs undertook an analysis of the composition of panels for Any Questions and Question Time from June 2016 to December 2017. Whilst on most metrics, there does not appear to be any substantial political or philosophical bias, on one issue a fairly systemic and long-term imbalance is clear: the stance of panellists on Britain’s membership of the EU.

Balancing on the basis of whether panellists voted for Remain or Leave, both programmes favour Remain by about 68% to 32%. 

Even if you were to re-categorise Remainers who are now supporting Brexit from the government benches into the Leave column, the balance is still 60% to 40% in favour of Remain.

Key findings:

    • Of 281 Question Time panellists over the 18 month period, 60% were Remain supporters, 31% Brexit supporters and the remaining 9% ‘Releavers’.

    • Of 297 Any Questions panellists in the same period, 59% supported remain, 32% supported Brexit, and 10% were ‘Releavers’.

    • Given the referendum result was 52% for Leave, this cohort does seem to be badly under-represented on both programmes. The analysis looked at 578 panellists across a prolonged period of time, indicating a systemic bias.

    • The imbalance on the two programmes is substantial, consistent and at odds with public opinion. The analysis reveals a two to one bias in favour of those who voted for Remain.

    • Brexit is probably the most defining issue of the UK policy debate at present and as such should be vital in balance. For the vast majority of both programmes, Brexit has been the most dominant issue discussed on both programmes. Both shows appear to accept the predominance of Brexit as an issue, but by the selection of panellists seem to attach a low priority to balancing the panel on the topic.


        • This analysis sought to categorise panellists in a number of ways, some of which are contestable. Party political status, gender and ethnicity are objective measurements, but an individual’s stance on the issue of Brexit is not always binary.

        • Most (but not all) panellists were clear – in advance of the referendum – whether they were for Remain or Leave, but our assertions are not absolutely certain. Theresa May, as an obvious example, was for Remain during the referendum campaign but now supports leaving the EU. The analysis therefore created the category “Releavers” to cover government supporters who were on the Remain side in the referendum, but are now backing a government committed to Brexit. We have still categorised Labour politicians as Remain unless they campaigned for Leave.

        • On left-right or market-statist axes, the overall panels seem reasonably balanced. On ethnic minority status, there also seems to be balance. On gender, the split seems to be 60-40 in favour of men on both programmes. This does suggest that the bias against Leave supporters is an outlier.

    Commenting on the analysis, Mark Littlewood, Director General at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said:

    “Brexit is the defining political issue of our times. The number of questions about it selected for broadcast on both programmes bears testament to this, yet low priority is still being attached to balancing its panels on the topic. It seems uncontroversial that the best metric for balance should be how the public voted in 2016, and as such both Question Time and Any Questions are out of step with public opinion. A public broadcaster should not be displaying such systemic bias.”

    Notes to editors:

    For media enquiries please contact Stephanie Lis, Director of Communications: [email protected] or 0207 799 8909 or 07766 221 268

    The Institute of Economic Affairs took no corporate view on the Brexit referendum and its staff and trustees were divided on the issue.

    To download the data analysis, click here.

    The mission of the Institute of Economic Affairs is to improve understanding of the fundamental institutions of a free society by analysing and expounding the role of markets in solving economic and social problems and seeks to provide analysis in order to improve the public understanding of economics.

    The IEA is a registered educational charity and independent of all political parties.

    Further IEA Reading: In Focus: The Case for Privatising the BBC