Is the BBC biased?

Resignation of chairman Richard Sharp has reignited claims of political favouritism

Pedestrians walking past a BBC screen
The BBC is often accused of leaning to both the left and the right, depending on the standpoint of the viewer
(Image credit: Oli Scarff/Getty)

Richard Sharp has announced he is standing down as BBC chairman to “prioritise the interests” of the broadcaster after a report found he breached the governance code for public appointments.

Sharp “became embroiled in the cronyism row” earlier this year over helping Boris Johnson secure an £800,000 loan facility, said The Independent. An investigation by the commissioner of public appointments has now concluded Sharp broke the rules by failing to declare his link to Johnson’s loan, creating a “potential perceived conflict of interest”.

The controversy has brought the question of BBC bias back into the spotlight. Last year, Sharp himself told The Sunday Times that the broadcaster “does have a liberal bias” but that “the institution is fighting against it”. However, others have accused the Beeb of having a right-wing bias.

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What is impartiality?

According to BBC guidelines, the broadcaster is committed to due impartiality. This means that “the impartiality must be adequate and appropriate to the output, taking account of the subject and nature of the content, the likely audience expectation and any signposting that may influence that expectation”

The obligation “usually involves more than a simple matter of ‘balance’ between opposing viewpoints”, it continues. “We must be inclusive, considering the broad perspective and ensuring that the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected.”

In practice, this means a commitment to “reflecting a wide range of subject matter and perspectives across our output as a whole and over an appropriate timeframe so that no significant strand of thought is under-represented or omitted”.

However, the corporation retains the right to exercise “editorial freedom to produce content about any subject, at any point on the spectrum of debate, as long as there are good editorial reasons for doing so”.

Gary Lineker

The question of BBC bias moved centre-stage when Gary Lineker’s criticism of the British government’s asylum policy on Twitter led to a prolonged and high-profile row.

Responding to a video message by Home Secretary Suella Braverman about stopping migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats, the football broadcaster accused the government of “an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s”.

As politicians and columnists rushed to condemn or support Lineker, the BBC was accused of left-wing bias when it did not immediately suspend the Match of the Day host. The BBC then attracted allegations of right-wing slant when it said Lineker would indeed step back from his job because it considered “his recent social media activity to be a breach of our guidelines”. Three days later, Lineker was reinstated, opening up the BBC to fresh claims of a left-wing predisposition.

The Lineker saga “poured petrol on a fire that was already well alight”, said David Sillito, the BBC’s media and arts correspondent, namely “the debate about the BBC’s role in British politics and perceptions of bias both to the left and the right”.

Brexit bias in the spotlight

Few things have brought the BBC’s claims of impartiality under more scrutiny than its coverage of the 2016 Brexit referendum and its aftermath.

In the Radio Times, journalist Raymond Snoddy said that the BBC came under attack “from both the right and the left” over what critics called its “tit-for-tat news coverage”.

As an example of what he calls a “phoney balance”, former BBC journalist Professor Ivor Gaber cites an occasion when “1,280 business leaders signed a letter to The Times backing UK membership of the EU”, a story that was supposedly “balanced” by a brief quote arguing the opposite from a single entrepreneur, Sir James Dyson.

As far back as 2005, the BBC was accused of failing in its duty of impartiality and “promoting an institutional pro-European Union bias in a damning report that it commissioned”, The Times reported.

Journalist Sir Simon Jenkins referenced these claims in an article in The Guardian in the wake of the referendum, in which he defended BBC coverage of the vote itself as balanced. However, he said the broadcaster could not undo the impact of “years of brazen pro-EU bias”.

In fact, according to Jenkins, then BBC Director General Tony Hall “went round the London dinner circuit wailing that BBC balance had ‘lost us the election’” because “it had given too much credibility to leave”.

Does the BBC give a platform to extremists?

For those on the left of the political spectrum, lending credibility to figures and causes they deem extreme is a common gripe against the BBC.

In an article on The Conversation, Dr Chris Allen of the University of Leicester addressed criticism levelled at the broadcaster over its supposed role in the “normalisation” of alt-right and far-right discourse since the rise in populist sentiment exemplified by the Brexit vote and the election of President Donald Trump.

These incidents have included the “former Breitbart London editor Raheem Kassam appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to discuss the release of Tommy Robinson”, while Ezra Levant, Robinson’s former employer at the Canadian far-right website Rebel Media, appeared on BBC 5 Live’s Breakfast Show.

Criticism has also been levelled at the BBC for its decision to give airtime to hard-line Islamic cleric Anjem Choudary.

The broadcaster came under fire again in November 2018 after then Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon pulled out of a BBC-hosted conference in Edinburgh after learning of its decision to invite Trump’s former advisor Steve Bannon to speak there.

Bannon has “championed far-right nationalist parties across Europe since exiting the White House in August 2017”, said The Independent.

Robert Peston, who served for nine years as BBC business and economics editor before moving to ITV, has been highly critical of this element of the BBC’s approach to debates, telling reporters in 2018: “Impartial journalism is not giving equal airtime to two people, one of whom says the world is flat and the other one says the world is round. That is not balanced, impartial journalism.”

So is the BBC biased?

A study carried out by researchers at Cardiff University, who analysed BBC news coverage from 2007 and 2012, concluded that conservative opinions received more airtime than progressive ones.

Those findings were contradicted by a 2013 report by the Centre for Policy Studies, a right-leaning think tank, which claimed that the corporation is biased towards the left.

Bias is often heavily subjective and thus difficult to measure. What is certain is that more and more British viewers are losing their faith in the BBC as the high watermark of impartial public service broadcasting.

Ofcom noted in its 2018 report on news consumption that only 61% of those surveyed agreed that the BBC News was impartial, lower than the ratings given to ITV News (68%) and Sky News (64%).

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