2014 – 038 BBC Today programme and its bias

‘UKIP regarded as ‘Incompetent, venal and racist’’

The latest News-watch monitoring report covers 14 weeks of the Today programme. The findings include:

• EU matters relating to the structure and operation of the EU were inadequately covered. There is systematic ‘bias by omission’.

• Withdrawal from the EU was only barely considered. In 84 editions only 800 words were spoken by ‘come outers’ about the topic.

• Those who support the EU were given regular platforms for their views and were not challenged as rigorously as those who don’t.

• Items about withdrawal assumed it was supported principally by amateurish, potentially venal politicians with racist views.

• That withdrawal was a matter that concerned only the ‘right’ in British politics, and that those politicians were deeply divided.

• That Labour views about the EU were not worth exploration. This added to the bias by omission and reinforced the impression that withdrawal is a ‘right-wing’ issue. The report is here.

This is the summary in full:


SUMMARY: ‘Today’ 16 September – 21 December 2013

News-watch has monitored and analysed almost half the editions of the Today programme since 2002 – almost two thousand programmes. It is believed to be one of the longest and most detailed media monitoring exercises ever undertaken.

This latest survey covers fourteen weeks between September 16 and December 21, 2013 and encompasses every word spoken about the EU over 84 editions, adding up 251 separate items and a total of 121,000 words. The analysis is based on widely accepted data analysis techniques used by academics in media schools at universities such as Leeds and Loughborough.

This was a period when debate about the future of the UK-EU relationship remained at the top of the national agenda, with the referendum bill continuing its passage through Parliament and continuing controversy over the impact of the EU’s free movement of people directive.

The conclusions are:

Withdrawal: Those who support withdrawal very rarely appear on Today. Leaving the EU is supported by an increasing proportion of the electorate, significant numbers of the Conservative and Labour parties, and of course by UKIP. But Today still does not cover the subject properly. There were only eight occasions when figures known to be withdrawalists actually appeared to speak about EU-related themes. They spoke around 2,341 words, 4.3% of the EU-related airtime. But sequences in which advocates of leaving the EU actually spoke directly on that theme were only around 800 words (less than five minutes of airtime, divided between four interviews). Of this, there was only one sequence in which the speaker had the opportunity to express more than one sentence on the topic. Detailed transcript analysis at the end of Section 1 illustrates that the main points put to ‘come outers’ were that they were incompetent, potentially venal, and racist. No questions were put which attempted to explore the pros and cons of leaving the EU.Pro-EU: Those who want to stay in the EU, and defend its policies, are prominent. There was a heavy skew in the features towards those who said they supported the EU. Of 186 speakers who appeared talking about EU themes, discounting those who gave a neutral or factual perspective, 63 were clearly pro-EU, and only 28 ‘anti-EU or eurosceptic’ (though the latter category is not completely ‘anti’ because it includes those like David Cameron who simultaneously advocate reform of the EU but want the UK to stay as a member). These ‘Pro-EU’ guests had ample space to make their arguments and were encouraged by presenters to do so. Section 2 shows that 24 of them from the EU itself( figures such as European Commissioners) spoke more than 5,500 words, more than double the total contributions of withdrawalists, Four contributions have been highlighted which show that over 1,800 words-these ‘Europeans’ were able to make highly controversial points – such as that the UK was ‘a nasty country’ for wanting change in the movement of peoples directive – without effective challenge.

Eurosceptics: Eurosceptics are regarded by Today as a warring faction within the ‘right’ of British politics. Section 2 argues that Today does not properly understand what Euroscepticism is and further, treated those it believed to be in the category as a right-wing faction, comprised almost exclusively of the Conservative party and UKIP, immersed in a civil war. Section 2 also demonstrates there were only three interview sequences in which ‘Eurosceptics’ appeared and the aim of each sequence was primarily to show that there was division in the ranks. There was no attempt to explain to the audience the complexity of the views involved. Further, important issues in this area – such as the bill for a referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the EU – were dealt with primarily in Today’s Yesterday in Parliament slot, meaning that the main contributions were predominantly one-sentence soundbites.

Labour: During the period, no Labour politician was interviewed about EU-related policy. The only evidence that Labour had views about the EU came through soundbites carried primarily in Yesterday in Parliament. This was ‘bias by omission’ in that Today seemed to judge that the only views about the EU that were newsworthy were those on the ‘right’ where there was perceived division.

Immigration: Section 2 demonstrates that Today worked especially hard to give prominence and credence to those who believed that the continued operation of the EU’s free movement of people directive was vital in the economic interests of the UK. It regarded as highly controversial the steps taken by the Coalition to curb benefits of immigrants (unveiled on November 27) and worked to ensure that the audience knew there was strong resistance to the measures, both in the UK and (especially) within the EU . There was less effort to explore the views of those who thought differently.

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