Bias Towards Action 

15 April 2005

Last year, when America was having its elections, there were many of accusations of media ‘bias’ flying around. It was one of the strongest election battles seen for quite a few years and accusations of bias across all media were quite plentiful. In this year’s British general election, the topic is still in the air, and the broadcast media are not exempt from criticism.

When I was young, I used to think that BBC1’s blue colour schemes and blue 6 O’ Clock News set (later becoming the standard style for the new generic news look of the 1990s) represented sly support for the Conservative government at the time: an idea perhaps reinforced by the sudden change to a red BBC1 style in 1997, and not long after, a red and beige news set.

It’s a silly notion, I know, but it’s one of many examples of how people claim the BBC, and other broadcasters, have a hidden bias towards a political party in particular, or a political cause in general. Is there any truth these accusations of bias, or are we misreading the issue entirely?

It is worth considering how a news broadcaster becomes regarded as biased to begin with, because if we start by looking at how balanced the broadcasters tend to be on a specific story of political sensitivity, it is very difficult to find instances of clear favouritism towards a particular cause. Indeed, in the UK at least, there are specific rules and regulations as set by the regulator to stop this happening and it is very rare indeed that these are ever considered to be in breach.

On paper at least, our large broadcasters seem to tackle the stories they show with a pretty even hand and fair mind. But what about the stories they don’t show or give little airtime to? Implicit bias – that is to say, bias in what a broadcaster chooses not to give airtime to – is something very important and something the rules cannot really ever cater for. Yet it is where a broadcasters’ style really begins to become clear.

Plenty of distinctions of this nature can be seen between the output of the BBC News and ITV News. The BBC, for example, tends to cover significant international news stories in far greater depth: one such example being the political situation in Israel and Palestine. With a lot of coverage in the main news, feature and analysis programmes on its rolling news station and a significant section dedicated to the topic on its web site, the BBC give this subject far greater overall airtime than ITV, who generally refer to the situation only when there are terrorist attacks or major political developments at a high, often international, level.

It could therefore be argued by some that the BBC are guilty of a pro-Palestinian stance, if only because they, more than anyone else, give us a picture of the lives of Palestinians and an insight into the conditions in the occupied territories, which may be seen as a way of cultivating support for the Palestinian cause. When contrasted with other broadcasters who hardly report this situation at all – and hence don’t really have any stance on the Palestinians – the BBC could be seen to have a bias in their favour.

Another example might be the amount of time given over to violent crime by ITV, generally more so than the BBC. It could be inferred, perhaps, that because the BBC reports far less on violent crime, they have a favourable stance towards liberal views on law and order, whereas ITV are implying a more authoritarian stance is favourable.

But is any of this supposition actually true? Could it not simply be that the BBC take world affairs a lot more seriously; and that ITV is more interested in sensational headlines with direct relevance to their English audience?

To be realistic, can a broadcaster have any editorial policy without creating a perception of implicit bias? If the producers of a news magazine programme made a story on climate change a top feature, could they be seen as supporters of the Green Party and against large corporate activity? If the feature was instead about certain problems with the government’s asylum claim processing procedure, could they be seen as supporters of the Conservative Party, and against immigration? If they don’t mention immigration enough, are they over-politically-correct lefties? If they don’t mention the environment enough, are they part of ‘the neoconservative conspiracy?’

In any of these cases, certain groups of people would accuse broadcasters of having such stances and agenda, whether this was a fair accusation or not. And to a large extent, these accusations will be based upon what is not being shown rather than what is, as much as what they show but all their rivals do not.

It should also not be forgotten that it is actually the audience who are the most opinionated, prejudiced and biased party in this whole relationship between broadcasters, political bodies and those receiving the ‘finished product’. Every individual has their own set of political beliefs, opinions and preconceptions about the world, and use this as the starting point for everything they see and hear over the airwaves.

To return to the beginning of this article, we saw in the US last year a number of Americans curious enough to seek out the portrayal by foreign media of a number of key issues – such as the Iraq war and the US Presidential election – a vocal subsection of these accusing many of the European broadcasters, including the BBC, of being left leaning. This is simply an outcome of the fact that US residents live in a nation with a clearly right-of-centre political system compared to the political system of Europe, and are used to US media that naturally reflect this difference.

One man’s centre is another man’s extreme, and one man’s view on what constitutes balanced journalism is also going to differ to another’s – especially if they live in very different cultures. This is obvious between continents of differing opinion, but it can happen within all sorts of social and political groups of opinion at home too.

Of course, if it is the audience who are at fault, then it will of course come back full circle to the broadcaster who, after all, has to attract viewers and can be forgiven (at least in commercial circles) for selecting news stories not just on abstract notions of interest or public enlightenment, but on the touchy basis of what people actually want to hear; or at least what they think they want to hear.

Sensationalist and parochial stories may not be very interesting to the higher political chattering classes; nor may they be what educationalists like myself think newscasters should be putting out; but it is an unavoidable fact that to a mass audience crime, drugs, celebrities and sex scandals often rate higher than foreign aid, the melting of the polar ice cap, the doings of the European Parliament or important scientific breakthroughs.

In the commercial sector especially – though not exclusively – catchy, easy news coverage attract and retain an audience. If the audience is significantly biased (as all audiences invariably are) and the broadcaster’s perception of this audience (right or wrong) forms the basis of how it selects its stories to be aired or to be omitted from air, then this is where the trouble really begins. Even the BBC in their non-commercial capacity, must take notice of popular interest.

Thus the election of a US President will invariably get a vastly higher amount of both direct and analytical coverage than the appointment of a new German Chancellor – why? Because people are perceived (rightly, one might argue, bearing in mind the relative power of the two leaders) to be more interested in the former than the latter.

The BBC chooses to reflect this view rather than giving us what they feel we should be seeing purely in the interests of enlightenment. Whether this is in fact right or wrong is another debate for another time.

So how should we view our television and radio news? In an ever-cynical world, it is often very easy to cast doubt and suspicion over any official body airing views that do not reconcile precisely with our own ideals – but does bias actually exist at the editors desks of the BBC, ITN and BSkyB?

My personal hunch is that it is 99% viewer perception and 1% opinion, but I am by no means letting the broadcaster off the hook so easily. The BBC may not be biased towards any ideology, organisation or affiliation and nor may ITV or Sky, but many viewers and commentators are perceiving this bias to exist and broadcasters are using viewers expectations and interests when they set the agenda.

Ultimately this perceived bias, and accusations of implicit bias, are perpetuated by the broadcasters, both unintentionally and perhaps through taking the profitable and popular course a bit too often. The consequence is a growing lack of trust and a continuation of confusion for some, and a lack of coverage of important stories, which are perhaps getting overlooked, for others.

For our part as the audience, we can perhaps be a bit too suspicious and untrusting, and it wouldn’t do us much harm to be willing to embrace a different point of view and be a little more adventurous with what we expect from news. On the whole, though, I am happy to lay to rest most of the accusations of bias and pass them off as hot air.

Of course, I may have trouble trying to tell that to the poor bloke standing by with a brush and tin of blue and yellow paint behind the 6 o’clock news on May 5th.

This article was written in the lead up to the UK Parliamentary Elections in May 2005

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