If you spent Monday morning watching or listening to the news in the UK, you would be forgiven for thinking that the BBC was getting it badly wrong on impartiality.
Lucy Frazer, Britain’s Culture Secretary, was interviewed by almost every major news show in the country, ostensibly to speak about some uncontroversial reforms the government is making to the BBC’s regulatory arrangements.
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As she was paraded in front of a variety of presenters, Frazer was repeatedly pressed on whether the BBC was biased. She answered yes, on behalf of both the government and the BBC’s millions of viewers and listeners
“There is a perception amongst the public that the BBC is biased,” Frazer told Sky News. She went further in an interview with GB News: “Audiences are feeling like the BBC is not performing that role in relation to impartiality and they are getting less impartial … Trust in the impartiality of the BBC, unfortunately, is going down.”
Frazer was, however, unable to present a material example of BBC bias, nor could she offer any incontrovertible evidence to support her views. It resulted in a particularly awkward exchange with Sky News anchor Kay Burley going viral.
— Kay Burley (@KayBurley) January 22, 2024
In place of hard facts, Frazer, a former lawyer, appeared to make claims that could, at best, be described as misleading. So let’s unpack some of her rhetoric and offer a little more context.
The main evidence she used to support her allegations was a rise in the proportion of complaints to Ofcom about the BBC’s impartiality. Here, she is correct: 39% of the total BBC complaints to Ofcom in 2023 concerned impartiality, compared with 19% the previous year.
But the reason Frazer is making this intervention at this time is because of the mid-term charter review. The review was designed to give the government the chance to reflect on the BBC’s performance on impartiality since 2017, rather than making simplistic year-on-year comparisons.
In this longview context, the BBC’s impartiality record has not gone backwards. In 2018, 52% of complaints to Ofcom concerned bias. Last year’s figure of 39% was the second highest since 2017, but it is hard to justify how this is evidence of the BBC “getting less impartial.”
Let’s take another step back. Are complaints to Ofcom the most scientific measure of impartiality?
The 39% figure quoted by Frazer equates to 918 complaints. The BBC reaches 447M people a week with thousands of hours of content across more than 60 international, national, and local services. Assuming the 918 complaints were all made by separate people, they only represent 0.0002% of the BBC’s weekly audience. Is this enough to say that there is a perception among the public that the BBC is biased?
Of the 918 complaints, 671 were either dismissed or sent back to the BBC for investigation by Ofcom. The remaining 247 complaints related to three pieces of content, only one of which broke impartiality rules: a December 2021 online news article that contained a “serious editorial misjudgment” relating to disputed audio evidence from an antisemitic attack on Jewish students traveling on a London bus.
Frazer could have used this as an example of the BBC lacking neutrality, but she did not. Instead, she turned to a recent example of a mistake, saying the BBC had apologized for suggesting that Israel could have been responsible for the devastating blast at a Gaza City hospital in October.
In reality, the BBC did not apologize for this report, but it did quickly admit that it was “wrong to speculate” on the incident. The BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit concluded last week that this was enough for the accuracy issue to be resolved.
Another measure of impartiality cited in the government’s policy paper on the BBC’s mid-term charter review originates from Ofcom’s news consumption survey. As with the number of complaints, this does not show that audience concerns over bias have increased over the past seven years.
Ofcom’s 2023 news report revealed that 60% of regular BBC television viewers considered its output to be impartial. This was down from 62% in 2022, but an improvement on the 55% recorded in 2021. Overall, it was above the BBC’s average score of 59% since Ofcom launched the study.
This did not stop Frazer from telling ITV’s Good Morning Britain that the public has a “growing level of mistrust” in the BBC’s impartiality. To repeat, this is not supported by the evidence relied upon by the government.
Frazer found no time to mention that Ofcom’s 2023 news survey showed that 47% of all TV news viewers scored the BBC highly for impartiality (a further 18% gave it a medium score). This put the BBC 19 percentage points ahead of its nearest rival, ITV, and 43 points ahead of GB News, which Frazer praised on Monday for showing “balance” across its output.
There were two other things Frazer did not mention on her media round on Monday. Firstly, that the BBC is meeting the standards Ofcom expects of UK broadcasters, but also that the government is not concerned enough about BBC bias to establish an independent impartiality unit.
The BBC readily admits that its record on impartiality is not perfect and it has work to do to maintain audience trust. As the government says in its policy document, the concept of impartiality is complex. Ministers tend to forget this when making claims about BBC bias that serve their own political agendas.
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