The BBC is often accused of Liberal-Left bias and of acting like a campaign group with an agenda that it actively drives. We refer to this as promoting its own ‘pet causes’ in a clear attempt to influence rather than just inform. This section deals with the many techniques available to the BBC to inject bias into their output.
Biased coverage is most effective when it works at a subliminal level to influence or subtly manipulate the views of the audience. While bias is sometimes overt, it is more often covert; nuanced, just under the surface, or by degrees with a weighting in favour of the broadcaster’s pet cause. Bias can be carefully crafted to be impactful, but still undetected by the relaxed casual viewer at home who is not necessarily alert to it.
Below are some of the techniques that may be used by a campaigning broadcaster to inject bias to promote their various pet causes. It is worth stressing that these are often used in conjunction with attempts to ignore or disparage the opposing viewpoint. If they can diminish or sideline what they see as the opposition then their pet cause can prevail.
Engineered bias is often difficult to prove, so it is for you as the viewer to judge which of these techniques are used by the BBC. The list has been sorted into four categories :
1. Editorial Power
The most obvious method to inject bias is simply to give their pet cause more airtime, with more broadcast minutes devoted to the pet cause and more interviews of people in favour of the pet cause.
Another obvious technique is that bad news about the pet cause, or good news regarding the opponent position is crowded out by giving prominence to other news items that objectively are less important. In 48 hours the moment has passed, it is ‘old news’ and the issue is forgotten. A variation of this is to give an important topic low priority and fleeting coverage towards the end of the programme, as a token exercise in claiming they have met their balanced reporting obligations.
The broadcaster uses pleasant uplifting images such as children playing happily or rolling country scenes while the voice-over sympathetically describes the position of their pet cause. By contrast when the voice-over in the same segment moves on to describe the opponent’s perspective they use different images, for example, a rubbish-filled alleyway in a run-down area of town. A picture paints a thousand words by association
Playing a sound bite or clip of an opposition speech but cropping it by removing a key element, in order to convey a different meaning or impression from that originally intended by the speaker. As an invented example take the sentence: ‘It would be heartless to think that….unwanted pets should be left out in the cold this winter….and so we intend to help alleviate their plight’; is cropped and only the middle section played. Real world use of cropping to inject bias is obviously more subtle than this example.
Words and phrases are loaded with meaning and emotion. They can be carefully selected by the broadcaster to a convey a subtly different complexion in order to inject bias. For example, if an opponent launches a plan to change something, this may be described as a ‘scheme’ instead of a plan. Another example may be the frequent BBC use of ‘crashing out’ or ‘cliff edge’ as dramatic catastrophising terms at the prospect of the UK disengaging from the EU in the event of no formal agreement.
The pet topic is mentioned in glowing terms while the opponent’s view is treated negatively, dismissively and occasionally scoffed at. i.e. an attempt to repel mainstream viewers from the alternative view, which the broadcaster positions as so unacceptable that it is unworthy of serious consideration. A variation of this is to mock the opponent’s perspective.
A more extreme version is that the opponent’s views are consciously ignored or never even mentioned as though they don’t matter or don’t exist. The opposition seldom if ever receive an invitation to be interviewed or participate in discussion panels, so their message is stone walled. By contrast only various shades of positive support for the pet cause receive coverage. The BBC have been accused of such bias in their coverage of climate change.
The historical background to an important event, or the build up to a current issue is explained as a pre-recorded ‘backstory’ to help educate the viewer. However, this is presented in a biased manner to favour the current pet cause. Revisionist history relies on most viewers being too busy to check historical facts themselves, unable to recall events from many years ago, or too young to have been present at that time. It also provides an opportunity to mislead by omission or gloss over key facts. For example, the almost Orwellian absence of the words ‘Marxist, communist or socialist’ in BBC coverage of the disastrous economic policies that have ruined Zimbabwe, Venezuela and North Korea and impoverished their people.
The broadcaster may operate at arms-length, but can still act in concert with their pet cause. One way is to weaponise a topic which supports their pet cause and detracts from the opposition by giving it undue prominence. E.g. problems in the NHS receiving top slot in the BBC news on cue with commentary from the Labour Party. This can be maintained over time with protracted and repeated coverage to reinforce the point.
A more subtle manipulative variation on the above. The broadcaster starts a segment by sounding neutral or even supportive of a certain position. However as the piece unfurls it swerves or pivots in a different direction which enables promotion of a pet-cause or denigration of an opponent. This is more obvious in BBC segments focusing on the Democratic Party in the US, which often seem to end with a side swipe at Republican President Trump. Another example is a broadcast segment on ’30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall’. This should have been a reminder of the evils of communism, but was instead twisted around into a negative review of current populist movements in Germany. The uninformed young viewer may have been left confused as to who exactly imprisoned its citizens with border walls, armed guards and watch towers decades ago.
2. General Techniques
Polarise and Medicalise
The broadcaster pushes the position of the opposition to the extreme end of the spectrum so it can be discredited. For example, the BBC often presents a good person as one who 100% believes in man-made global warming. People who do not hold such strident views on the subject seem to be stereotyped as ‘completely denying its existence’ – implying a type of ill informed flat-earther. Most of the general public probably sit in the middle and would like to know more about the facts, forecasts, solutions, costs, consequences and different expert opinions, but these are often withheld in a polarised debate. A variation of this is for the broadcaster to medicalise the opponent by claiming they have some type of inherent defect or problem. Such as inferior intelligence, personality issues or dominance trait – as occasionally implied by a disapproving broadcaster to explain voters in favour of Brexit.
The journalists manufacture, borrow, spin and run with a narrative that a senior figure in the opponent camp cannot be trusted because of XYZ. They attempt to breathe life into the smear by constantly repeating as if it were an ‘accepted fact’ when mentioning the opponent. By contrast, the integrity of senior figures in the pet cause is hardly ever questioned, or is only raised in order to help refute it. A variation of this is to echo and amplify invented claims that the opponent has engaged in a ‘U-Turn’ or a ‘Gaffe’ or has caused ‘Confusion’ by their actions. Overt BBC Bias did appear to surface in 2019 when Boris Johnson was repeatedly confronted with an accusation that he was ‘widely not trusted’. It was never explained by whom exactly.
The scope of debate is framed in terms which restrict it from the start in favour of the broadcaster’s biased stance. For example, if a debate is entitled ‘How austerity has harmed the NHS’ – thus inviting only degrees of negative input. Or in a variation – the alternative viewpoint in a segment is represented by the extremely soft or ‘wet’ end of the opponent, which is unrepresentative of the opposition group as a whole. Within the spectrum of views it is often much closer to that of the broadcaster. For example, Conservative remainer rebels being repeatedly interviewed by the BBC to represent the ‘Conservative view’ of Brexit. Additional airtime is then given over to the same subject from a different remainer party. Therefore, the audience receives two shades of what is essentially the same message, as an example of token or phoney balanced reporting.
The opponent’s position on a pet cause is wilfully mislabelled by the broadcaster as a way of discrediting it, or as a smokescreen to try to limit the area of discussion. The pet cause may then win through as the accepted orthodoxy and remain unchallenged. As an example, the technique may be used when a politician suggests a review of a public service in order to make it run more efficiently. This can be mislabelled by the broadcaster as a sign that they wish to ‘sell it off’. Or concern over the impact of mass-immigration on local services is mislabelled as ‘bigoted’. The debate is therefore stifled and shifted to new ground where the opponent is obliged to defend themselves.
The broadcaster’s ‘force multiplier’ is the ability to inject bias into other categories of output, and not just project it via news and current affairs. With its large media footprint the BBC has reach and influence over a wider demographic. Bias may be injected into drama where certain pet causes are promoted in sympathetic light or scripted as the hero characters. Or the cast of a drama may include an unpleasant ruthless businessman or heartless aristocratic lady who the scripts hints or reveals to be ‘Tories’. Broadcast comedy often appears bias with a disproportionate percentage of jokes mocking the Conservatives – the power of the pay cheque. For example, the BBC programme ‘Have I got news for you’. Celebrities (including the virtue-signalling variety) who issue endorsement or criticism of opponents are used to excerpt additional influence, in particular on young voters. When publicity hungry celebrities support a pet cause they are rewarded by the broadcaster with undue prominence, and ignored when they don’t.
Arguably the most leveraged form of bias is that which is excerpted directly upon the political class at Westminster. Law makers can become disconnected from their base, especially when they are too busy with the affairs of government to rank order the importance of new issues on their own. They need additional input from advisors and people of influence immediately around them, which includes the journalist community. This gifts ‘soft power’ to broadcasters especially the BBC who set the news agenda, which in turn may influence the political agenda. The ‘optics’ of how an issue will play out in the media is in the mix of consideration when formulating policy. There is an inevitable political desire to try to secure positive news coverage from the journalist community at Westminster. As a result, there can be a slow magnetic draw in the direction of the pet causes of the BBC.
The broadcaster projects their preferred narrative by overlaying a synthetic position and invented level of mass-support over the real majority grassroots view. They attempt to create an impression of widespread support for a policy, group or individual, where significantly lower or little support actually exists. The purpose is to sway the audience to fall in line with the false ‘majority view’. As this is a form of deception that lays wide false trails, it may be a contributing factor in the failure of pollsters and politicos to accurately forecast recent election results and voting patterns. The BBC in particular seemed to over emphasise support for the EU in the Brexit debate.
The promotion and indulgence of groups who position themselves as being victims of government policy or somehow treated unfairly in society, but where objectively to the mainstream this is not the case. While such words are not used directly, issues are framed in terms of the implied ‘oppressed’ and the ‘oppressor’. Anyone with a grudge, grievance or complaint that aligns with the broadcaster’s pet cause are given undue prominence.
3. Studio Based Output
When the advice of an independent expert is sought on a given topic it often transpires that they are from an organisation, institute or political party with a natural leaning towards the pet topic i.e. they are not independent, but have been carefully selected by the broadcaster to be the on-message ‘talking head’ who is supportive of the pet cause. The average BBC viewer does not question their presence and assumes they are impartial.
The casual viewer of a studio-based debate comprising ‘independent experts’ and interested parties would naturally assume the panel was assembled with broadly balanced viewpoints. In fact, it is often stacked with those in favour of the pet cause, so the opponent is seen to be outnumbered. For example, three people in favour of the pet cause vs one opponent, to give the impression they represent a minority viewpoint. If the host presenter also contributes, then the single opponent is even more marginalised. BBC Question Time has often been accused of this.
During the introduction of participants to a TV debate or expert interview, if the guest holds an opposing perspective, they are introduced in a manner suggesting the viewer needs to be cautious. E.g. ‘we are joined by Jane Smith, Director of Communications from the Right Wing Think Tank….’. The same ‘health warning’ is not issued if the interviewee is from an organisation supportive of the broadcaster’s pet cause. Or the guest from the pet cause may even be teed up in glowing terms such as ‘from the respected independent institute of….’.
The studio audience in a debate is assumed by the viewer at home to represent a cross-section of society with a large percentage of neutral citizens. It has in fact been vetted and loaded with supporters of the pet cause. An unpleasant side to this sometimes manifests itself in a shouting-down of the opposing or mainstream viewpoint. In addition, the questions posed can be carefully vetted and loaded with bias and play to the strength of the pet cause, or be detrimental to the opponent. BBC Question Time has often been accused of this.
A topic is covered by the main host interviewing the lead journalist for that subject area, but from the same TV channel. The interview is performed in a similar style to a genuinely independent guest interview, but is in fact an echo chamber between two people from the same broadcaster holding the same overarching ‘group think’ views. As a large employer of journalists with many in-house experts to call upon the BBC can readily inject bias using this technique.
In interview situations the spokesperson from the pet topic is given a noticeably easier time. They are asked questions by the host in a more respectful tone and are given the opportunity to answer without interruption and are able get their key points across. By contrast the opponent’s views are interrupted, challenged or tripped up in a somewhat rude manner. This form of bias plays on the fact that the viewer will assume there is ‘no smoke without fire’ and there must be legitimate cause for the host to treat the opponent in such an abrasive manner. Plus, it distracts and prevents the opponent from delivering their key messages in a coherent fashion. There are several BBC political interviewers renown for their confrontational style, which is not universally applied.
Only polls or forecasts that bolster the pet cause are given prominence – attempting to wish them into being. In so doing they are trying to massage the audience to fall in line with what is positioned as the ‘mainstream viewpoint’. This plays on the fact that most adults wish to feel part of their wider community and not stand out – the herd instinct.
4. External Footage
A trivial misdemeanour or casual misplaced comment of an opponent is over-emphasised and they are continually hounded in public by the channel regarding the issue, to wrong-foot them, or in an attempt to force their resignation. Often accompanied by orchestrated synthetic anger from their pet cause cohort. This can be maintained over time with protracted and repeated coverage to reinforce the point.
Footage broadcast of prominent figures in the opponent’s camp is highly selective and designed to discredit them, by making them look foolish in unguarded moments. This may include showing an opponent tripping as they get out of a car, or pulling a strange face at a meeting or fumbling as a microphone is fitted prior to formal TV interview. A form of mockery that is rarely deployed against senior figures of a pet cause. For example, the BBC news coverage of Boris Johnson speaking at a large auditorium. They chose a brief clip of him squinting with screwed up face and his hand at his brow in an ungainly mannerism. He was actually attempting to shield his eyes from the bright stage lights while responding to a question from the audience. Did they have no other footage of him speaking normally on stage for the previous hour ?
Proponents of their pet cause are interviewed directly face to face in a fair and open manner. By contrast an opponent is shown in the same style of footage as used for suspects who are caught fleetingly on camera while trying to evade justice, or when trying to dodge into a building to avoid being confronted by an investigative journalist. The opponent has done nothing wrong and may just be too busy to give an interview, but the BBC Crimewatch style of footage suggests otherwise. A slanted version of the opposition viewpoint may then be presented in a voice-over style by the broadcaster.
Street interviews are conducted of several supporters of the opponent and the footage edited. The carefully selected clip that is broadcast may show a scruffy person, who makes foolish or extreme comments, or comes across as inarticulate and not very bright. By contrast the adjacent interview with a supporter of the pet cause is selected for appearing smarter, brighter, or better informed. The broadcaster may well have recorded an equal number of quality interviewees from both sides to select clips from. This is a signal to the viewer by inference that all supporters of the opponent are of lower grade. It is designed to repel the mainstream viewer from identifying or empathising with the opponent. This technique is often used by Liberal Left US TV channels when conducting street interviews with Republican supporters.
On a recorded walk about or site visit an opponent is suddenly confronted with an angry stranger. The stranger conveys a problem or issue in robust terms they believe to be the fault of the opponent. It is hard for anyone in this situation to give a smooth reasoned answer when they are suddenly ‘put on the spot’ and not in possession of any background facts. These encounters may be spontaneous and genuine, or they may have been staged. Sometimes it later transpires that the stranger is not a normal citizen, but is in fact connected to the broadcaster’s pet cause. For example, Boris Johnson during a hospital visit being confronted on BBC News by an angry parent berating him over the state of the NHS – who was later revealed to be a Labour Party activist.
Protest marches provide several opportunities to inject bias by careful selection and editing of footage. A clip of the pet cause protest can be shown to be well attended and comprise respectable people behaving well in an orderly, friendly and enthusiastic fashion. Any rowdy element is never shown and the number of attendees can be exaggerated. As a bonus the camera can dwell on the placards they agree with, for example ‘Down with the Tories’ for additional free messaging. By contrast the opponent’s protest is often shown as thinly attended by filming it at the start or finish. The broadcast can also concentrate on any rowdy troublesome rump element on the side-lines of the main protest and imply they are representative of the whole group. Yob behaviour repels the mainstream audience at home and acts as an anti-recruitment mechanism to stifle growth of the opponent’s support base. An example of this type of bias is found in the BBC coverage of Brexit marches and rallies in 2019.
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For further reading on the subject of BBC bias we recommend the book by David Sedgwick entitled ‘The Fake News Factory’ published 2020.