Is the BBC politically neutral?

I think it’s pretty clear that over the next few years the government is going to be putting pressure on the BBC to shift it’s overall editorial standpoint a bit to the right.

This is obviously going to create controversy – are they trying to force a neutral organisation to be come right-biased, or a left-biased one to become neutral?

What standards should the BBC be aiming for?

Well, first of all, what do we even mean by “neutral”? One thing I think we absolutely shouldn’t mean is “accurate”. Ensuring that you do not make false claims of fact is absolutely necessary to be a reputable media organ, but it’s in no way sufficient.

As well as the core factual content of reporting, there’s also the question of what words you choose to use. “X killed Y” , “X executed Y” and “X murdered Y” may all be ways of describing the same action which are not technically false, but they’re putting very different spins on it, and which one you choose will colour your reporting. The adjectives you choose to describe a politician’s speech won’t really be “true” or “false” per se, but they’ll matter a lot to the impression you create.

And there are an awful lot of possible true statements about the world that you can choose to report. A story about crimes being committed by immigrants and story about crimes being committed against them can both be entirely true, but which of them you choose to put on your front page will illustrate your agenda. All the media can ever do is report edited highlights, and you have to have some rule to decide which aspects of the truth to emphasise.

Telling the truth is easy. But no-one can do nothing but tell the truth, and no-one can get even close to telling the whole truth.

I don’t really like the phrase “unbiased” in this context – it can sometimes lead people to think of “this reporter doesn’t have an agenda, they’re just objectively reporting the unvarnished facts”- but I wouldn’t actually rule it out. But whatever process you use, you will be taking choices about which facts to report and which words to use to describe them, and those choices will inevitably be somewhat subjective. But, on the other hand, I think some approaches to making those choices to correspond much more closely to what people who use the word “unbiased” are thinking about (see “Honesty is next to representativeness“), and in general I think it’s reasonable to view those approaches as being “less biased” in some nebulous sense of the word.

But the thing that, in addition to accuracy, I think the BBC should be required to aim for, is what I would call “neutrality”.

  • Its algorithm for deciding which facts are and aren’t important should be roughly in line with the median vote: it should report about the same numbers of facts that left-wingers think are important but right wingers don’t and vice versa.
  • The language it chooses to report those facts, and its reporting of subjective value judgements should be roughly half-way between the languages and judgements that left-wingers and right-wingers would use.
  • It should feature roughly the same number of left-wing and right-wing commentators.

Does it do that?

I don’t have a TV, so my exposure to the BBC comes in three forms: watching old BBC comedies on Youtube, listening to random bits of radio 4, and reading the BBC news page.

I don’t think that anyone would disagree that BBC comedy is massively, overwhelmingly left-wing; the only disagreement is whether that matters.

I would say that Radio 4 also leans very, very heavily left – it has more left-wing than right-wing commentators, spends more time talking about things that left-wingers care about than things right-wingers care about, and is more likely to present its articles from a left-wing than a right-wing perspective. But I don’t have a clear sampling frame to verify that, and it’s only one station – perhaps it’s not representative of their output as a whole.

The news page is less clear-cut, but easier to work with. I think it leans left, but I’m not sure, so I’m going to do an experiment:

My upcoming experiment

Actually, “my just-started experiment”, but I figure that for a blog post declaring your methodology almost-in-advance is probably good enough. I’m going to read the BBC news page at random intervals, whenever I get round to it, but not more than once a day.

I’ll record all the articles that I think either fit better into the narrative of one side the other, or are presented from one perspective or the other. I’ll also include any near misses, to give readers a clearer idea of what I am and am not counting.

I’m specifically not fact-checking. I have a high level of trust in the BBCs factual accuracy, and that’s not the standard I think it should be held up to.

It’s very easy to say “It’s not media bias, the facts have a liberal bias”. And if you’re reporting 100% of the uncountably infinite set of all facts, or if you’ve formally declared your sampling frame, everyone’s agreed that it’s neutral, and you’ve found that facts that get picked under that rule support left-wing rather than right-wing narratives better, then that’s fine. But while some facts clearly have a liberal bias, others clearly have a conservative bias, and if you’re picking your facts by hand and choose to report more of the former than the latter, I think that if you want to claim to be politically neutral (which ,of course, there’s nothing wrong with not being unless you’re a state-funded broadcaster) then the burden of proof is on you, and you’ll struggle to meet it.

 

 

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