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A question of bias: Is the BBC's Question Time balanced?

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In the midst of more accusations of bias around the BBC’s European election coverage, can we prove if the BBC’s flagship political show is fair?

For those that follow the programme on Twitter, the bias of BBC’s Question Time would seem to be a given. Every panel announcement is met with howls of derision, and the furthest right place on the panel — often occupied by a tabloid journalist whose views match their seating placement — was dubbed the “cunt chair“ by certain members of the media.

But it’s not just the left wing Twitteratti who cry foul: both sides of the political spectrum claim there’s a bias against them. They always do.

This quote comes from the BBC Trust’s 2014 review of news and current affairs:

“BBC news coverage is less objective and always has liberal left bias. Question Time
audiences seem overwhelmingly loaded with lefty plants.” (Male, 35-44)

It’s not impossible that it is biased, the BBC, ITV & Channel 4 are all more than twice as likely to invite Tory spokespeople for comment than Labour ones: the BBC Six O’Clock News is 54% to 17% more likely. These programmes have to remain balanced but follow a news agenda, so bias is difficult to prove but, with its panel format, Question Time has every opportunity to be perfectly balanced.

Does it even matter if QT is biased? It is the most watched political programme on UK television, with 2.8 million regular viewers, and informs the news cycle as well as following it. The problem for those frustrated by what I see as the focus on the narrow obsessions of Westminster and Fleet Street, (where are the debates on climate change? Or transport policy? Or anything apart from immigration sometimes) is that this could be a very good example of Noam Chomsky’s idea that: “the smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum…”.

So, I set out to discover if Question Time is indeed biased one way or the other, and to prove it with nothing but the figures. Discounting the time given to guests on the programme, or my suspicions that ex-Bullingdon Club member and panel chair David Dimbleby might have a natural inclination to the right, I looked at only the make up of the guest list.

First, I took the panel for every show* for the past year from the BBC website, and then recorded occupations and political affiliations of each guest (this was open to all Contributoria readers to edit and add to — you can see it here ). Non politicians got a rating from one to ten on a scale that went from Katie Hopkins to Bob Crow. Marking on a a right/left political spectrum is a rough measure, and could be described as subjective, but I tested my ratings with crowdsourced opinions and by measuring the results of elections and polls by the same system and it proved to be robust.

Some non-politicians didn’t end up being rated as their positions didn’t seem to have any logical, consistent position: on the scale or otherwise (sorry Fairground Attraction singer Eddie Reader). Politicians were assigned ratings based on their party: for example Ukip were a ‘2’, the Conservatives a ‘3’, Lib Dems ‘5’ and Labour ‘7’.

And is Question Time biased? Yes. And no.

The party split is astoundingly close to both the make up of the House of Commons and polls on voting intention: 30% of guests are Conservative, 29% Labour. Ukip gets around 8% of panel slots which is more than their number or MPs (0) but less than their polling (which moves between 9% and 20%). And, yes, Nigel Farage has been on often but it was just three times in the last year, which is the same as members of other parties such as Grant Schapps or Chukka Umunna. (And if you were Ukip who else would you send?)

Of the guests who appeared on QT in the last year, it would seem the 123 strong party politician contingent, is scrupulously balanced — the position on the right/left spectrum of polls, elected members and BBC QT panels for politicians cluster about the 5/10 mark. A ‘5’ is slightly to the right on a system of 10 points, 5.5 being completely in the centre.

But when you factor in the guests that are not politicians the show takes quite a leap to the right. Non-politicians sit at 3.7 on the right-left scale (about equal to a leftish Tory or a Danny Alexander) — as opposed to 5.02 for party representatives.

The BBC Guidelines state that “due political impartiality … involves giving appropriate coverage to all the main political parties across the whole UK.” But it has no such hard rules on the views of non-politicians.

It says: “Impartiality does not necessarily require the range of perspectives or opinions to be covered in equal proportions either across our output as a whole, or within a single programme, web page or item. Instead, we should seek to achieve ‘due weight’. For example, minority views should not necessarily be given equal weight to the prevailing consensus.”

And that’s the thing, the prevailing consensus.

The BBC exists in a media climate where almost all of the national news coverage is right wing: much further to the right than the public which reads it. At the 2010 general election 73% of the newspapers by circulation urged their readers to vote Tory, but only 36.1% of the voting population did.

Question Time invited 30 journalists onto the programme in the last year and they were overwhelmingly from outlets with a right wing bent. Overall they rated 3.2/10 — further to the right than any significant group apart from those from thank tanks.

The left wing of the invited guests was mainly made up of those from the entertainment industries: three comedians, and a poet rated left wing — from 7 to 8 — with some back up from a member of the clergy (John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, rated 6). This may be because it is hard to find right wing comedians, but surely it can’t be too hard to find a left wing journalist?

Go further and the bias becomes even more pronounced: the panellists from serious non-political professions, from the business world or think tanks, who might have more gravitas than Billy Bragg or Mark Steel, display a clear right wing tendency. Three business people, three think tank workers, and two economists — all of which come out on the right wing — line up against only one political campaigner, Peter Tatchell, and one trade unionist. The trade unionist was Paul Kenny, General Secretary of the GMB (on the 14th November 2013) — that’s one person to represent the UK’s 6.5 million trade union members (2012 statistics).

Suddenly the prevailing consensus starts to look a bit wrong. The prevailing consensus on Question Time is a media consensus, not a real reflection of the views of the public. And this is where it starts to get really interesting.

Recent research suggests that the British public is even more left wing on many issues than their voting shows, as they are in favour of renationalisation of rail, mail and energy companies and higher taxes for the rich and financial transactions: all of which is further to the left of Labour. This is despite the constant misinformation of the media who have led them to be ‘wrong about nearly everything’.

On benefit fraud, for example, the public think that £24 of every £100 of benefits is fraudulently claimed, when official estimates are that just 70 pence in every £100 is fraudulent (Ispos Mori for Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London). Perhaps this is why the audience seems to the left of the panel and of our friend Male (35-44) who complained of ‘lefty plants’: if it’s a representative sample of the public it should be.

The problem for left wingers who see bias on Question Time is that the BBC is part of the establishment, and the establishment is institutionally right wing. As such, it does not represent the views of the public.

The problem for right wingers is that, as Stephen Colbert identified: “reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

And, after the most recent “political earthquake”, it may be the BBC that needs to get in touch with that reality beyond the political media bubble. Much more than the mainstream party leaders need to.

*I discounted the QT special from South Africa after Nelson Mandela’s death as not being representative of UK politics.

Data and analysis on this Google Spreadsheet
Please feel free to copy and use in your own research.

Infographic background photo CC by: flickr.com/uk_parliament

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