Is the BBC really unbiased?
Updated: Dec 15, 2020
Is the BBC truly unbiased? How representative of the views of the nation is it?
Over the past years, the BBC has faced many significant accusations and incidents such as the Jimmy Savile scandal, the controversy surrounding Jeremy Clarkson’s contract, the Executive Payoffs in 2013 or the 2008 fake child labour footage in Bangalore accusing Primark of using child labour. Like any successful organisation in its industry, the BBC has its problems. However, despite all these events they do claim to report unbiased, balanced news and suggest they are representative of the views held by residents of the United Kingdom. Is this truly the case? Do they represent your viewpoints? Obtaining answers to these questions is the aim of this article, as seemingly the above cases suggest a significant failure to adhere to the charter points.
The BBC Charter sets out the certain values and aims of the BBC and it is what dictates their publication and censorship. The BBC uses the Royal Charter to determine its constitutional biases, its sets out their object, mission and public purposes and includes regulations of use of hypnosis, sets out recommendations for the availability of sporting events, fake news bans, accessibility in the form of subtitles or sign language and product placement limitations. The current charter came into force in January 2017 and will continue until December 2027. The charter states that “the BBC must be independent in all matters…particularly as regards editorial and creative decisions, the times and manner in which its output and services are supplied, and in the management of its affairs”. This relates to the BBCs Mission, which is to act in the public interest, be impartial, provide high-quality output and education. We will look at how the BBC adheres to its own values and whether it does enough to supports its claim of being unbiased.
In a 2001 publication by Intermedia, the authors address the perceived bias of the BBC from both conservative and liberal politicians. Yet, multiple studies have found that at the time the public mostly considered the BBC to be unbiased, other than a small percentage who viewed them as mostly reporting in favour of conservative views, with numbers peaking in the Thatcher years. Over the years the perceived bias has fluctuated, with political changes and international relations causing trust in the BBC to shift constantly. While it is not possible to accurately determine the bias of such a company, the best indicator to go by is perceived bias. If most people believe the organisation to represent them fairly then it is possible to assess their reliability by the product that they publish.
We have established the levels of perceived bias in BBC reporting in the early 2000’s, but what about more recently? A 2019 study suggests that even now, BBC coverage diverts spending into more conservative leaning topics. Through a thorough look into the financial data, and transcripts of aired BBC news reports, this research suggests that BBC media bias may be influenced by the political climate of the country. The BBC is accused of lacking both fundamental pro-Remain and pro-Leave arguments in their articles and publications, throughout the Brexit process. In 2018, 48% of UK residents used the BBC as their main source of news, meaning they have a significant role to play in informing the population about the UK's democratic processes and their viewers vote on both sides of the political spectrum. This suggests that either, the BBC is indeed unbiased and follows the charter’s aims to the letter or, despite being biased, still provides their audience base with enough well-informed content, to retain their viewer base. Despite this, new news channels seem to indicate that the more conservative leaning audience members may feel under represented by the BBC.
Several other news agencies, the public and politicians accuse the BBC of being racist or biased due to the admitted inaccurate coverage of global warming issues, namely failing to challenge climate change sceptics in interviews. Cases of use of inappropriate language in their articles have arisen, like in the coverage of the Bristol attack, where a reporter used the N-word repeatedly when quoting slurs used by the attacker during the incident. Black BBC employees have made claims of ‘institutional racism’ in the workplace. All these incidents can combine into a multitude of conclusions, does it mean institutional racism? Or local incompetence? Is it planned misinformation? Or bad research skills?
While individual cases such as the use of derogatory language by the BBC Points West reporter can be attributed to a single individual, it still raises questions about what is acceptable as part of the BBC’s culture. Continuous misinformation about global warming cannot be completely attributed to ‘bad research’. While it would be only fair to assume that the first few articles may have been misinformed, eventually the editors of such news would have had to pick up on such inaccuracies. The role of editors revolves around spotting such mistakes, just like this article has been through several checks. So, the conclusion, in this regard, is yours to make.
It is also important to consider that the BBC relies on product demand, and therefore the content they produce is somewhat based on audiences’ existing views. The varying scandals could potentially suggest that despite geographically varying perspectives of BBC personnel, on average they are balanced out on a national level. The BBC is an intergenerational institution which is deeply ingrained in British society and therefore an unavoidable connection is formed between the people and the corporation. It is interwoven into the culture of education, news, and politics, meaning that it will have to adapt to the development of this country’s morals and social norms.
If it does not represent your views but you still own a television, is it still fair that you must pay to support the BBC through your TV licence if you do not wish to watch their broadcast? While the charter has good intentions in ensuring the BBCs impartiality, the lack of diversity in positions of power within the institution prevents it from reaching genuine objectivity. The BBC is working to increase its ethnic diversity throughout the organisation and you can read more about that here. While the bias of each journalist is unavoidable, the introduction of a more politically, ethnically, and economically diverse range of staff could provide the necessary balance. Some work has been done but will take some time to change the fabric of the organisation.
Of course, the BBC’s current perceived imbalance does open doors for other news outlets to step through, to fill in the perceived lack of representation within the industry, but not in the way we have just mentioned. Two such outlets plan to enter the British landscape as soon as possible; ‘News UK TV’ and ‘GB News’ aim to represent UK residents from a more right-leaning perspective. More on that soon!
Take a look at our Fake News & the Role of the Media section for more insightful resources.