Sunday 25 November 2012

Is there Bias on BBC Question Time?

Is the BBC in thrall to the liberal establishment? Do right-wingers take to the telly in disproportionate numbers? Does it really deserve its Tory epithet, 'Buggers Broadcasting Communism'? Or is the BBC getting it about right in striking an impartial balance? Whichever way you look at it, these are not a set of questions likely to be settled by a single blog post.

But one place you might want to look for evidence of  BBC bias is its flagship politics programme, Question Time. More specifically, if there is a leaning to the left or the right, this could be clarified by the political affiliations and loyalties of its guests.

Below are the top ten recurring guests by category since 4th December, 2008 - the date from which consistent and complete evidence of panelists are easily available. This gives us just shy of four years worth of data. Please note I have excluded Question Time's annual forays to Northern Ireland from the figures.

As of Thursday 22nd November, 362 individuals have occupied 704 panel slots. For those interested in gender and political participation, only 98 guests have been women. These between them have occupied 235 slots.

The most frequently-featured guests by party are:

Ken Clarke (10)
Theresa May (8)
Sayeeda Warsi (7)
Iain Duncan Smith (6)
Liam Fox (6)

Caroline Flint (10)
Peter Hain (8)
Diane Abbott (7)
Andy Burnham (7)
Alan Johnson (7)

Liberal Democrats
Vince Cable (12)
Chris Huhne (7)
Shirley Williams (7)
Paddy Ashdown (6) Menzies Campbell (6) Charles Kennedy (6) Simon Hughes (6) Jo Swinson (6) Sarah Teather (6)

Nigel Farage (11)
Caroline Lucas (8)
Nicola Sturgeon (7)
Elfyn Llwyd (5)
George Galloway (4) Alex Salmond (4) Leanne Wood (4)

The overall top five looks like this:

Vince Cable (12)
Nigel Farage (11)
Ken Clarke (10)
Caroline Flint (10)
Peter Hain (8) Caroline Lucas (8) Theresa May (8)

In total, there have been 47 Conservative politicians occupying 137 slots (of whom 16 were women taking 41 slots), 51 Labour with 148 slots (17 women taking 51 slots), 31 LibDems with 109 slots (9 women and 33 slots), and 18 Other taking 57 slots (7 women and 25 slots).

A slight advantage for Labour perhaps, but hardly indicative of a systematic political bias - and even less so if you strip out the Question Time dedicated to the Labour leadership election in 2010.

Matters are skewed when you introduce other categories of guests. We have trade unionists (7 occupying 9 slots), business people (23 and 32 slots), celebrities (31 and 46 slots), campaigners and wonks (4 taking 11 slots), 'other' (authors, scientists, clergy, retired military, etc. - 23 taking 29 slots), and by far the largest category, journalists (61 occupying 127 slots (21 women and 42 slots)).

Would you like to see who the five most frequently-featured journalists are?

Kelvin MacKenzie (8)
Melanie Phillips (6)
Janet Street Porter (6)
Mehdi Hasan (5)
Peter Hitchens (5)
Douglas Murray (5)

Balance-wise the right outweigh the left here, but that could be a freak of the figures, right? No. Of the 61 journalists, 40 could be described as explicitly political writers. 27 are of the right, and 13 are liberal/left. Rightwing journalists took 64 slots, and the liberal/left 31. For whatever reason, not only are hacks overrepresented on the Question Time panel, but Tory-leaning journalists outnumber their liberal and Labour-leaning contributors by over two to one.

The balance is not addressed by the other category of guests. Of the 31 celebs, 18 have definite views that align one way or the other. Six are on the right, and 12 of the liberal/left. The former had 13 slots, and the latter 16.

There are other questions that need to be asked. The predominance of business people over trade union voices came as no surprise at all. But come on, leading trade unionists combined have been on less than Nigel Farage! In case anyone needs reminding, trade unions are the largest voluntary organisations in civil society with a combined membership of some six million. Farage is the leader of a party whose supporters can fit into my living room. And if that wasn't bad enough, his odious minion Paul Nutall has been on twice too. So why are UKIP way overrepresented on the panel and a mass movement of millions virtually ignored?

Question Time is the most-watched political programme in these islands. An appearance on the panel sacralises you as a commentator or as a politician/political party of serious standing. You become part of the BBC's construction of 'official Britain', of the country's image it contrives to reflect. So in this media-saturated age, questions of gender and political underrepresentation are important.

Being the sad geek that I am, I shall revisit this in a year's time (provided the blog's still going) to see if there's been any evidence of a shift.

In the mean time, feel free to join me in the traditional Thursday night tweet-a-long.


Alex Dawson said...

At last, someone has actually done the job that needed doing to destroy the myth of a "political balance" on Question Time once and for all.

1) UKIP have cemented their place as the establishment "safe" fascists with a lot of help from the media and the Farage/Nuttall semi-permanent fixture on QT is probably one of the biggest reasons.

2) The issue with journalists going on Question Time and spouting off completely destroys the laughable notion that still gets trotted about hacks being "neutral" - all news and editorial judgments are inherently subjective.

But rather than bleating about this, and imaging that Lord Leveson is going to deliver a fairer media through some sort of state-backed regulation, the the left would do better to develop more TV friendly independent minded journalists who are able to articulate the very many popular left positions clearly. The rise of Owen Jones and others shows that actually the space is there ready to be taken.

3) Rather than looking at the political orientation of journalists, another interesting stat would be the number of them that are members of the NUJ. Without busting too many data protection rules, I can tell you that the number of these journalists (even those of the liberal/left persuasion) that are members of the relevant trade union for their profession is woefully low.

4) I do feel, in defence to QT, the union voice has been better served recently than it has been over many years. I remember in the 90s when it was still taken as read that trade unions and New Labour were one and same thing, you were lucky to get a near-retirement moderate male Gen-Sec in a suit once a season. Now at least the awkward squad and everyone else seems to have a look in, although obviously not often enough given the reach of trade unions in the population as a whole.

5) Lest we forget, the great neutral arbiter Dimblebot himself has form as a nasty, penny pinching businessman. He and his brother owned a series of newspapers in south London until the late 90s where reporters had to buy their own notebooks and were reputedly paid less than the minimum wage based on their long working hours. These journalists only received a substantial payrise and celebrated wildly when the Dimbleboys sold it to the US multinational Newsquest - itself a hated firm not known for their high pay!

Anyway, great piece and should be spread far and wide every Thursday the minute a right-winger opens their cake hole to bleat about the Marxists controlling the BBC.

Phil said...

Re: your final comment, I wrote it specifically for those annoying Question Time moments ;)

Anonymous said...

The missing factor in your analysis is producers' obsession with 'good television'. UKIP give good television, not in or of themselves, but because their views encourage a good deal of anger and comment on the panel, in the studio audience and in the twitter sphere of public opinion. Rather this than a calm, logical discussion. QT is about eristicism not informed debate

The Purpleline said...

The only problem with this assessment is the audience factor & questions asked.

These are generally left wing. I will never forget or forgive the audience immediately after 9/11 that was quite frankly disgusting.

Phil said...

While I agree Mad Mel, Farage and sundry right wingers give good television, I would accept that argument if left wingers didn't. Galloway and Bob Crow do a very good job of getting people's backs up - yet they're not on anywhere near as much.

mike Dixon said...

Surely Lib Dems should just be included with Tories

Chris said...

You will never persuade the right with facts, when the whole right wing is built on ignorance.

I remember a Tory MP complaining that a QT panel had a left wing bias but he had included the former head of the CBI as neutral!

Let them say the BBC is left bias, let them say Hollywood is pinko liberal, let them say the music industry is full of commies. These, after all, are the best apsects of the capitalist system. We can turn around and say the best bit of your system, is us!

Imaagine how much better socialism would be!

Fr Peter Weatherby said...

Interesting stuff. Though actually the Christian Churches, at 7.6 million (Tearfund, 2007) considered as one are a larger voluntary organisation than the Unions, and it seems, even less well represented, though thats only if you count clergy and not also adherents.

kevinzim said...

Liberal/Left = didn't that cease to exsist in May 2010 ?

David said...

Very interesting. Of course this show & the one that follows has a very London political & media hack bias. There is very little representation from East Anglia, possibly as they think we are all carrot-crunchers!

Rex said...

This isn't particularly relevant but might interest you. It's a blogpost I did a while ago where I worked out the ratio of men to women on comedy panel shows.

Madam Miaow said...

Useful bit of research. You should do Newsnight as well. Who are all those business pundits like Jon "shrink-the-state" Moulton? What's the ratio of business to trade-union?

Rebecca said...

To add to this. From 2010 Lib Dems have sometimes appeared to represent the current right-wing administration and sometimes to represent their own political party (even arguing against current governmental policy), so while Labour politician appearances may have slightly outweighed other parties it would be interesting to compare appearances post-2010 election and see if this balances the left and right more equally or even skews it to the right.

Richard Evans said...

The problem with this analysis is it ignores the left-right balance. Lib Dems are left of centre, SNP are left of centre, Greens are left of centre, UKIP and Cons right of centre. Now do the sums and we have 137 + 12 + ? right wing politicians V 109 + 148 + ? left wing politicians.

I make that 149 right wing and 257 right wing guests. And that's without the "non-political" guests who are more often clearly left wing than right in my experience.

Balance? Do me a favour.

Joe Daniels said...

Watch Question Time with a view to counting the numbers of time Dimbleby interrupts right-wingers compared to the number of time he interrupts others.

Would also be interesting to see an analysis of audience members, but I don't know where you'd get the figures.

Phil said...

Richard Evans: Remind me who the LibDems are in coalition with again?

Youthpasta said...

The 1 thing that is missing in your research is how the balance has been on the night. Looking at an overall balance is good, but I have still felt that on certain evenings there is a political bias one way or the other and it has, in my eyes, tended to be a lean to the left. For example, I can remember an evening where they had a Tory, a Labour, a left-leaning LibDem, a left-leaning journo and a left-leaning "celebrity".
Counting up those scenarios and how often they happen and in which direction they lean would be very interesting.

Anonymous said...

You reckon Ken Clarke is right wing???

Bishop Hill said...

Is there any chance you could publish your categorisation of each name.

Phil said...

Perhaps I'll do that MM when I literally have nothing better to do. Sad to say this post took a fair few hours to put together. I think a proper Newsnight job could take weeks.

Phil said...

Joe - an analysis of Dimbles interjections is for someone with more time and geekiness than I!

That's a good point, YouthPasta. Though I think on those sorts of occasions they happen when a guest has pulled out.

Anyway, I know the BBC have a mania for collecting stats on itself sp perhaps they have the answer hidden away somewhere?

Anon - if it walks like a Conservative cabinet minister, talks like one, and votes like one ...

Phil said...

It will have to wait for the xmas hols, Bishop.

asquith said...

Not bad that. Which way did you consider Deborah Meaden as aligning, out of interest?

Common sense news said...

"Farage is the leader of a party whose supporters can fit into my living room."
Wrong. This week UKIP are just 1% behind lib dems in the polls and will soon easily draw ahead as the Lib dems are a dead horse. Next election Ukip will be the 3rd major player.

Phil said...

UKIP has about 16,000 members. The LibDems between 50,000 and 60,000.

You've got a long way to go before you can claim the mantle of 3rd party status.

Phil said...

Re: Deborah Meaden and other business figures, I did not count them as part of the party affiliation/support figures. Had I done so, Meaden would have been down as a N/A figure like the majority of other business people.

Anonymous said...

Why is media analysis probably the most important kind of activism? Because, as the sociologists Stuart Hall et al. explain: Not only do the media "Define for the majority of the population what significant events are taking place but also, they offer powerful interpretations of how to understand these events" ('The Social Production of News').

The British historian, Mark Curtis, adds:

The framing of discussion on issues is critical in setting the boundaries of debate. The programme Question Time is a *microcosm of how the media works here*(my emphasis)... rarely are critical voices invited. If they are, it is so rare that their views can end up sounding ridiculous in comparison with the 'normal' and 'balanced' views of the other panellists. It is acceptable for Question Time panellists to criticise each from within the elite consensus but not for anyone to criticise all of them from outside that consensus" ('Curtis, 'Web of Deceit': 378).

Dimbleby often interrupted Owen Jones and he was given less time to speak than the other panellists.

FlipC said...

To pose the question a different way - should the BBC reflect the bias of the country?

If so taking into consideration 59% of the voters at the last general election voted for Labour or LibDem is there a reason why it shouldn't be leaning slightly to the left?

Phil said...

Tbh I'm more interested in the gender figures. Women are approximately but consistently a third of guests. Conscious policy or a blind outcome?

Anonymous said...

If you want to go a bit further back there is a complete list of QT panels between 25th September 2003 and 15th October 2009 here:

Phil said...

Oooooh! I'll have some fun with that over the festive period!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your work on this.

If you want to check out how the Right's BBC critics are responding to your findings - and if you fancy a laugh! -, give the 'Biased BBC' site a try:

The psoter decides to play the man rather than the ball. No attempt is made to engage with your findings. He also drops a clanger by completely misunderstanding one of your Tweets.

The comments are a hoot too. They seem to be competing with each other to see who can make the daftest comment. So far 'Demon' wins by a country mile.

FlipC said...

"Women are approximately but consistently a third of guests"

Hmmm indeed is it simply a question of bias within the pool they have to draw from. After all if you wanted a panel of CEOs and picked them proportionally how many would be female?

"Oooooh! I'll have some fun with that over the festive period! "

I don't which is sadder - that you said that or that I'd agree with you :-P

Phil said...

I took a look at Biased BBC. A site so far up its own arse that no one else on the right ever bothers linking to it! Still, fame of a sort is still fame ;)

I think you're right on the third - it is slightly higher than the percentage of women who make up the Commons. But still, I think more of an effort can and should be made.

And aren't all people involved in politics geeks?

Anonymous said...

Bob Crow's useless on QT. An embarrassment to the left.