Despite the BBC’s obligation to provide impartial coverage, allegations that the broadcaster lacks impartial and objective journalism are regularly made by observers, whether they be activists, commentators, journalists or politicians.
Claims of partisan reporting have come from all angles. Those on the left of the political spectrum tend to argue that the BBC has a ‘right-wing’, ‘pro-business’, or ‘conservative’ bias. Columnist Owen Jones, for example, recently penned an article suggesting that BBC’s promotion of presenter Andrew Neil is indicative of the “right-wing domination of our media”, and has previously argued that the “BBC’s right wing bias is a threat to democracy and journalism”.
Similarly, those who could be considered on the right of the political spectrum reportedly criticise the BBC’s output as overtly ‘left-wing’, ‘metropolitan’ or ‘liberal’. A notable example being when Nigel Farage, who faced jeers from the audience at a BBC debate during the 2015 election campaign, complained that the audience was “remarkable…even by the left-wing standards of the BBC”.
But what do the public think?
To find out, BMG polled a representative sampled 1,005 GB adults. We asked to what extent, if at all, they believed that the UK’s largest television broadcasters – in this case – the BBC, Sky, ITV, Channel 4, and RT (formally known as Russia Today) are biased or politically neutral.
The key findings from our poll are presented below:
Many respondents didn’t have a view
The first thing to note from our results is that many respondents, often most, were unsure. Even for the BBC, one of the most well-known and watched television broadcasters in the country, one quarter (24 per cent) said they were unsure, with as many as 38 per cent, 43 per cent, and 59 per cent stating don’t know for Channel 4, Sky, and RT respectively.
It is worth remembering that while phrases such as ‘left wing’ and ‘right wing’ are familiar with activists, journalists and politicians, for much of the public these terms are not often used; and perhaps not well understood.
Moreover, while most people will have heard of these broadcasters, many will not consume their content, or if they do, they may not consume it in a meaningful way. Consequently, this may impair their ability to understand whether there is a ‘political’ dimension to the broadcaster’s content. It is therefore, unsurprising that the figures for those who say that they don’t know are correlated with overall viewership figures.
Public are most likely to say that ITV is politically neutral/balanced
The findings from our poll suggest that, to some extent at least, the public differentiate political neutrality between the broadcasters.
Looking first at the proportion who say that they feel a broadcaster is politically neutral or balanced, ITV comes out on top, with 45 per cent saying that they feel ITV is politically impartial, closely followed by Channel 4 on 41 per cent.
The outlet with the fewest describing their content as balanced is RT, on just 11 per cent. Meanwhile, 37 per cent describe the BBC’s output as impartial, five percentage points higher than Sky (32 per cent).
More people see the BBC as having a left-wing bias than right-wing, but only marginally
It is interesting to note that more people feel the BBC is in some way biased (40 per cent), whether left or right, than say it is a politically neutral broadcaster (37 per cent).
However, while questions about the BBC’s impartiality have been raised from all sides of the political spectrum, it is perhaps fair to say that the prevailing caricature of the BBC, particularly in the press, is of being guilty of a left-wing, cosmopolitan or a liberal inclination.
So, while more people in our poll said the BBC leans left – a total of 22 per cent – it is certainly interesting that almost as many, 18 per cent, said that they feel the corporation is biased to the right. Thus, even though more people see the BBC as having a left-wing lean than any other broadcaster, the BBC is also seen as most likely to be viewed as right leaning.
What do we make of this? Perhaps this is a classic case of confirmation bias. This is when people remember or interpret information selectively, or in a biased way that confirms their pre-existing beliefs. The effect tends to be stronger for emotionally charged and deeply entrenched social issues. Issues like Brexit for instance.
Data reveals considerable partisan effects
Perhaps the most striking finding from our poll is the extent to which views on each of the broadcasters’ coverage is largely explained through the lens of respondent’s own ideological self-placement.
Our poll also asked voters to place their own views/outlook on the left-right political spectrum using a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 being very left wing, and 10 being very right wing. For the purposes of analysis, respondents who scored themselves between 0 and 3 are considered here as left-wing, scores of between 7 and 10 are described as right wing, with 4-6 designated as centre ground.
For people’s perceptions of the BBC there is almost a perfect ‘mirror effect’, 41 per cent of those with left-wing views said that the BBC was biased to the right, and a majority (52 per cent) of those on the right consider the BBC to be left leaning.
And this effect is not limited to just the BBC. Figures show a similar skew for each of the other broadcasters polled.
Sky is a good example: despite the overall figures suggesting that it is the most right leaning of all the broadcasters, right wingers are still more likely to describe it as having a left wing bias (20 per cent) than right wing (12 per cent).