Is the UK biased against the conservatives? How do we even measure this?
More conservatives complained to the BBC about anti-Tory bias in its 2019 election coverage than Labour supporters complained about there being an anti-Labour bias. (Source).
This trend is consistent with complaints about bias received by the BBC throughout 2019 – most complaints were from conservatives, complaining about the BBC being anti-Tory or anti-Boris – especially The Today Progamme, Andrew Marr Show and Newsnight.
However, the above analysis is based on formal written complaints, which is not a valid indicator of the nature or extent of bias in the media – there may have been more complaints on Twitter and Facebook about the BBC being pro-Tory in its election coverage, but these aren’t ‘formal’ complaints and so don’t need to be dealt with by the BBC.
Hence we need to treat the above figures with caution, especially when Tory voters tend to be older, and Labour voters tend to be younger – the former are more likely to make formal written complaints, the later more likely to take to social media.
Writing in the Observer, Peter Oborne calls out the BBC for being biased towards to Tories and against Labour, so there is definitely a difference in subjective opinions over what counts as bias.
NB – sociologically speaking, all of the above should be dismissed as subjective value judgments – there is nothing factual about the nature or extent of bias in the BBC in any of this!
Is it possible to measure political bias in the BBC objectively?
For the BBC as a whole, probably not, because it’s so difficult to measure agenda setting – what’s kept out of the news, which is itself ideological.
Where the narrow news agenda is concerned I guess any attempt to objectively measure bias would need to focus on specific programmes – say Newsnight, where one could count the air time given to different guests, and the kind of interaction between the presenter and the guests too, and the amount of time given to pro-Tory and pro-Labour issues.
However, the later is tricky – although inequality is more of a Labour issue, is devoting half a Newsnight programme to it biased towards Labour? It’s still something the Tories have to deal with.
Also, how do decide whether a presenter ‘asking hard questions’ is biased against an interviewee or just doing their job?
In short, it’s difficult to measure bias on Live T.V. shows, much easier in News Papers.
Examples of right wing media bias from the filthy Daily Mail, from the 2019 general election.
There’s nothing quite like a General Election to reveal the bias in mainstream newspapers, which is a major topic within the media option for A-level sociology.
I mean, we all know that the mainstream news is biased, but during elections, any attempt to report political events in a fair or neutral way just seems to disappear altogether.
In the case of the the UK’s most widely circulated, and most offensive, newspaper, The Daily Mail, even the most cursory discourse analysis reveals a very strong pro Tory and anti Labour stance, often framed as ‘pro-Bexit and anti-Brexit, and also often personablised as pro Boris and anti Corbyn.
Below are a few examples from the filth that is the Daily Mail.
Corbyn in the Dock
Corbyn on trial – implies he’s done something so wrong as to be accused of being a criminal. And next to it an assertion by Boris presented as truth.
Labour’s Brexit Portrayal
So here the headline moves away from the personal attacks, but we’re back to it underneath – with a ‘sneering’ Corbyn, implying he’s somehow evil and arrogant, not caring about the people.
Corbyn’s Two Fingers to Leavers…
This is probably the most disgusting headline of all: as if Jeremy Corbyn is that flippant about how leavers feel, and as if the issue is that simple.
And finally: how to help the Torys win…
Mainstream newspapers may be less well circulated than ever, but they do offer a very easy insight into just how biased they can be. And if this bias is in the print version, you can be it’s in the online versions, and not just at election times, although at less fraught times, the bias will be a lot subtler!
Is there a right-wing bias in the British media? Here I explore some of the sociological evidence which suggests that there is a right wing bias in the media and point out some of the limitations of this evidence.
But is David Dimbleby right about the media being ‘to the right’? In this post I explore some of the available evidence to see how far it supports this view.
NB – I am aware that how you answer this question depends on how you define left and right, and that not only are there different dimensions to left and right (YES I have come across the political compass!), but that the meanings of left and right shift over time, so they are relative concepts.
Having said that, we have to start somewhere – so I broadly define ‘right wing’ as neoliberal – pro-privatisation of public services, deregulation and lowering taxation, an emphasis on economic growth rather than social progress, and a current commitment to austerity. I also include within my broad definition of ‘right wing’ anti-immigration sentiments (sorry, I know it’s vague!). Left wing I define as against further privatisation of public services (more to the left is in favour of re-nationalisation), an enhanced role of the state in regulating especially big business, and a belief in higher levels of taxation of especially the wealthy (those earning over £50K a year for example). Also included within a broadly leftist perspective is a commitment to end austerity and a commitment to internationalism – the free movement of people across boarders and so a much more relaxed attitude to migration than the right.
NB – That was all just off the top of my head, I’ll write something more articulate when I get around to it!
Something I find very interesting is that the first piece of evidence below gets around the whole tricky issue of operationalizing right and left wing… just by asking people ‘do you think the media is right or left wing’? This raises all sorts of sociological questions about objectivity and subjectivity and categories. From a teaching perspective I’m currently thinking this ‘measuring political attitudes’ topic could be the perfect one for explaining the difference between positivist and phenomenological approaches to social research.
Anyway – on to the point of this post…
Four pieces of evidence of right wing bias in the media
The general public certainly seem to feel that British newspapers have a right-wing bias, as the results of this March 2017 YouGov poll demonstrate:
The two most popular newspapers in Britain are the Daily Mail and the Sun (a joint readership of 10 million) and these are two of the most ‘right wing’ according to public opinion, which again suggests that according to people’s ‘gut feelings’ we do, indeed have a right wing press.
However, there are limitations with this evidence – it is only based on the subjective feelings of people – just because people feel a paper has a left or right wing bias, doesn’t mean that the paper actually has a left or right bias.
From a positivist point of view, in order to answer the question of whether there actually IS a right wing bias in the press, what we need is some more objective data, and in order to get that we need to find some content analysis of media sources which pin down, or operationalise more precisely what they actually mean by left and right wing views…..the rest of the sources below do just this, by focusing on specific aspects of right, or left wing thought.
The research cites the following examples of unfair representation:
through a process of vilification that went well beyond the normal limits
being denied his own voice in the reporting
sources that were anti-Corbyn tended to outweigh those that support him
He systematically treated with scorn and ridicule in both the broadsheet and tabloid press in a way that no other political leader is or has
The press repeatedly associated Corbyn with terrorism and positioned him as a friend of the enemies of the UK.
Given that Jeremy Corbyn’s views are much more left wing than most labour MPs, evidenced by the fact that JC is one of the most outspoken critics of right wing neoliberal austerity policies, his vilification in the mainstream media could suggest a right wing bias: the very fact that he is generally talked about critically, rather than being allowed to express his views without distortion suggests an attempt to prevent left-wing political view points coming to public attention, and if they do come to public attention, an attempt to dismiss them as silly.
HOWEVER, a fundamental limitation with this piece of research evidence is its lack of representativeness of coverage of people with left wing views – it only focuses on Jeremy Corbyn – it might just be the case that during 2015 there were other people with left wing views who were being taken more seriously, so the vilification of Corbyn might have nothing to do with his left-wing views, it might be purely personal. This is unlikely, I know, but we don’t know this from the above research.
Neoliberalism, Austerity and the Mainstream Media – a 2015 report by the university of Sheffield looked at how over 1000 news articles about the impact of social policies. The research specifically looked at whether news articles had a neoliberal framework – i.e. did they discuss things like austerity purely in terms of economics (‘squeezing public finances’) or did they widen their discussion to talk about the broader human impact (family breakdowns, illness and death for example)
If an article limited itself to how policies would impact people’s finances, or the wider economy, then it was classified as a ‘neoliberal frame’, if it focused on the impacts on family, education, health or other non-economic impacts on individuals, it was coded as a non-neoliberal frame.
To my mind this is much stronger evidence of a ‘right wing’ bias in the media than the previous two pieces – at least if we accept the operationalization of ‘neoliberal framing’ as indicating a ‘right wing’ point of view.
However, a problem with the above research is that the category ‘neoliberal frame’ is quite broad, and precisely what statements come within the category is open to differential interpretation by researchers.
Also – exploring neoliberal framing is a very general level of content analysis – for more valid evidence of a ‘right wing’ bias you would have to look at how the media treated specific neoliberal policies such as privatisation, deregulation, lowering taxation, or the issue of immigration…
“Hate speech in some traditional media, particularly tabloid newspapers, continues to be a problem, with biased or ill-founded information disseminated about vulnerable groups, which may contribute to perpetuating stereotypes.
It singled out Katie Hopkins’ article in The Sun, published in April 2015, as an example of how bad things can get – the article was entitled “Rescue boats? I’d use gunships to stop migrants”, in which Katie Hopkins likened migrants to “cockroaches”, “feral humans” and that gunboats should be dispatched to prevent further arrivals.
While the above does suggest a clear right wing bias in The Sun, case studies are not representative, so we’d need something more quantitative to see how widespread such a tone of reporting is.
So that’s four pieces of evidence, based on systematic research of several sources (NB the last one did look at more than one article!) which suggest a right wing bias in media content, however, they all have there limitations, so I’ll leave it to you to decide whether there’s sufficient evidence here to conclude that we really do have a right-wing media here in the U.K.
Further pieces of evidence of right wing media bias
Jeremy Corbyn being accused of making a U-turn on a promise to abolish student debt, when he didn’t actually promise to abolish student debt.
In the run-up to the general election, Jeremy Corbyn made a comment about student debt. Speaking to the NME about the issue, he said: “I will deal with it.”
At the time, this was not widely picked up on by the national media. But – where it was reported – most papers accurately reflected that Corbyn had not explicitly promised to write off all debts. For instance, the Daily Mail said the Labour leader had pledged to “reduce or even write off” student debt.
But then (on Sunday (23rd July 2017) Corbyn was quizzed about this remark during a BBC interview.
Presenter Andrew Marr put it to him: “If you are a young voter and you heard those words: ‘I will deal with it’, you might have thought Jeremy Corbyn is going to relieve me of my debt.”
Corbyn was forced to defend his position, saying: “We never said we would completely abolish it.”
For some, this constituted a U-turn.
The Mail said: “Labour has backtracked on its promise to write off £100 billion of student debt.” The Telegraph said the party had “retracted its pledge to abolish student debt”. And Alan Sugar called Jeremy Corbyn a “cheat” and said he should resign for having “lied”.
So – the above is a great example of how a hostile right-wing editorial team from the BBC, fronted by Andrew Marr, can take a positive vote-winning part of Labour’s education policy, spin it out of context and turn it into a negative, which an even more hostile right-wing press further exaggerate.
If you know of any more systematic content analysis on this topic, please do share – sharing is caring – which is very much NOT a right wing idea of course!
In this post Craig Murray analyses the political background of senior bureaucrats at the BBC – finding that they range from Blairite to UKIP – in other words, very right wing.
Identifying media bias through content analysis is a key skill in sociology. The American media is often accused of having a right-wing bias which means they will present a pro-capitalist, pro-business world view as normal and desirable and promote a neoliberal policy agenda. (1)
Below I analyse one newspaper article (about why 66 million Americans have no savings at all) to illustrate how agenda setting, or what and what isn’t included in the article, results in a subtle right-wing, neoliberal bias.
OK – It looks like it might be a lefty topic, because it’s about the precarious financial life of the poorest sections of American society, but there’s no class-based analysis focusing on how it’s mainly low-paid and temporary jobs in the context of 30 years neoliberal economics resulting in productivity gains, but increasingly unequal national income distribution meaning the very rich get richer, while most of the rest of us, especially the poor, get relatively poorer.
Having alerted us to these ‘shocking statistics’ (oh those poor, poor Americans), we are then told that this low-savings rate is spread among all households –
‘the problem is hardly confined to the poor. Yes, more than half of all households with an annual income under $30,000 have no emergency savings. But fully one in six households with an annual income between $50,000 and $75,000 had no emergency savings either’.
The article then goes on to talk about how Gen Y is better at saving than Gen X – the tone of which seems to blame 40 to 60 somethings for having too high consumption levels and not saving enough… (‘if your damn kids can save, then why not you too’?) – here ignoring the following two important contextual facts:
(A) Gen Xrs were encouraged to consume in the context of a growing economy, then the neoliberal crash came in 2007, and here we are: hyper-precarity;
(B) OK Yes – Gen Yrs may appear to be better at saving, rather than avoiding debt, but why are they saving? I bet once you take out all of those saving to go travelling (and hence consuming) or saving for a mortgage (you now need a bigger deposit than your parents), you’d have similar rates of debt being racked up across the generations.
The article ends with the classic neoliberal trick of individualising the whole problem:
“The biggest barrier to saving is not being in the habit of saving,” says McBride. “You have to set some money aside with every paycheck.” Making it automatic can help, he advises. But no matter how you do it, start now.”
Ignoring the fact that for the typical person with no savings (mots of them are in low-paid jobs) there simply isn’t enough money left at the end of the week to put something extra by!
In summary: why don’t people save according to the narrow agenda of this right-wing, neoliberal article?
40-60 somethings got into the habit of consuming too much.
It’s a problem which effects all levels of income
20-30 somethings are much better at saving than their parents
Irresponsible parents need to learn from their kids and just save more….
What’s not considered/ emphasised
There are 10-15% of American households which are in no position to save for emergencies
This is because 30 years of neoliberal policies have created precarious and low-paid jobs, which has meant productivity gains, the gains from which have gone disproportionately to the top 1%.
Generation Yrs are shit-scared of their futures and so are more likely to save compared to their parents.
We need state-intervention to redistribute wealth away from the richest 1% and back to the lowest paid workers who actually created this wealth through their labour power.
(1) I didn’t intend to write this today, it just sort of happened, I was actually looking up stats on inequality in America, and I got quite annoyed when I read (and thought) about the content of this article.
This is the lead into a brief article about the Sun’s waning influence over it’s readers – as the article points out that the paper ran an anti-Corbyn campaign, which it did, and some of the headlines and articles were shockingly one-sided:
However, I think the 28% figure above is a bit misleading. You only get this when you calculate in the low turnout by Sun readers, the lowest of all the readerships of the major newspapers, with a turnout of only 48%.
Of those who voted, 62%, or nearly 2/3rds of Sun readers voted for either the Tories or UKIP.’
The article then goes on to point out that the swing in this election was 16% points away from UKIP, 12% gain for the Tories, and 6% gain for Labour, meaning that above headline is at least somewhat misleading.
A few things to note here
While objectively true (only 28% of Sun readers did vote Tory, it’s true!), this is a good example of how sound bite snap-shot statements of stats do not actually give you an accurate picture of what’s going on. You need to know that 48% didn’t vote, and that of those who did vote, almost 2/3rds of them voted Tory! AND the swing was mainly away from UKIP.
This article shows you a good example of how subjective political biases in reporting can distort the objective statistical facts (of course there are problems with those too, more of that here) – Obviously there’s the example of the bias in The Sun itself, but there’s also bias in The Independent’s (sorry, the ‘Independent’) reporting of the bias in The Sun. The ‘Independent’ is a left wing newspaper, as the above snapshot on how its readers vote handily shows us, and so it leads with a story about how The Sun is waning in influence, the kind of thing its readers will want to hear as they’re currently caught up in Tory-turmoil rapture, suggestion this is biased reporting designed to appeal to people’s emotions.
Finally, surely the real headline should be just how many Sun voters didn’t show up to vote – this seems to be a case of the working classes dissociating themselves from the formal political process rather than not voting Tory? Or more thrilling is the increase from 0% to 1% of Sun Readers voting Green, an infinite increase…!
Finally, having said all of this, I actually think The Sun today has less influence over its readers, but the evidence here isn’t sufficient to come to such a conclusion.
What the article should have done to prove this more conclusively is to compare the paper’s 2015 election content to it’s readership’s voting behaviour, and then compared that to the 2017 relationship.
And doing that would require a more complex metholodogy which wouldn’t fit in with the newspaper’s publishing schedule.
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