Where are the alternative and challenging voices on the BBC?

By Bernadette Meaden
January 22, 2013

I have been concerned about the BBC for some time. I wrote about those concerns last year and since then I believe matters have got worse, not better. As far as political coverage is concerned, this national treasure is beginning to look like a cosy club.

Last week an excellent blog from Colin-Roy Hunter highlighted the way the BBC has failed to cover the serious and urgent issues affecting sick and disabled people, and this prompted me to address my own concerns in a slightly more organised way.

Is my feeling that BBC political programming lacks balance justified? I decided to take a close look at a week of programmes, from Monday 14th January to Saturday 19th January, taking in BBC2’s Daily Politics, Radio Four’s Any Questions, and Question Time on BBC1. I chose these programmes because they are regular and planned. Unlike news programmes they are not quickly responding to fast moving events, so guests can be chosen in a more considered way.

I counted and categorised all the people who took part, whether in a discussion in the studio, interviewed remotely, or as part of an outside broadcast (outside Parliament for instance).

Of those who were representing a political party, either as an elected MP, MEP, or party official, I counted a total of 28 people. Of these, 13 were Conservative, 7 were Labour, 4 were Liberal Democrat, and 4 were from UKIP. Now, personally, I count the Conservatives as right-wing, and UKIP as even more right-wing. The Liberal Democrats may not define themselves as such, but they are maintaining and defending a right-wing government. So by my reckoning, of 28 politicians, 21 were on air to promote and defend a right wing agenda, whilst only 7 were there to oppose it.

Things get even more interesting when we look at the guests who are not defined as professional politicians, and could be thought by the casual viewer to be giving an independent opinion. Seven of these were journalists. One was from the Independent, one was from the Daily Mail, one was a freelancer who used to work for the Liberal Democrats, and one was from Prospect magazine. The other three were from right-wing magazine The Spectator. I found this very interesting. Chairman of the Spectator Magazine Group is Andrew Neil, the main presenter of Daily Politics and political doyen of the BBC. The fact that his magazine was so well represented on the BBC seems worthy of note. It should be noted that Andrew Neil’s co-presenter Jo Coburn has no documented political affiliation.

The week seemed unusually light on guests invited to represent a think tank, but there was one in the Daily Politics studio, Philip Booth from the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) In economic matters the IEA is far to the right of the government, and believes the welfare state should be cut to a fraction of its current size.

Sunder Katwala from British Future was interviewed for Daily Politics, and as former General Secretary of the Fabian Society he can be described as left-wing. On Question Time, Roland Rudd represented an organisation called Business for a New Europe. It is a pro-European campaign for businesses which believes in economic liberalisation. Not a hotbed of Socialism.

Some guests were invited in another capacity but have a role in a think tank. Fraser Nelson of the Spectator has links with the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies and the Centre for Social Justice founded by Iain Duncan Smith. Lord Saatchi is also linked to the Centre for Policy Studies.

So, on the evidence of one week’s programmes, the people and views given air time were heavily weighted in favour of the government, austerity, and the political status quo. Far from holding the government to account, these programmes were, if anything, broadly bolstering the government’s position.

What I found to be particularly glaring was the absence of a single representative from the trades union movement. In a week when several High Street retailers collapsed and redundancies were announced, no union representative was invited to give a view. With a combined membership of over 6 million workers the TUC represents more people than all the political parties put together. But it didn’t get a look in. The Greens were also notable by their absence.

With around 15,000 members and not a single MP UKIP was grossly over-represented. (Ironically, and rather amusingly, when I looked at the Spectator website, there was an advertisement for UKIP which said, ‘Only Nigel Farage makes sense over Europe. Help him have his voice heard. Donate Here.’)

Should we be surprised? Perhaps not. The BBC’s Political Editor Nick Robinson was President of Oxford University Conservative Association, and Chris Patten, Chair of the BBC Trust, was Chairman of the Conservative Party. Andrew Neil was a member of his University Conservative Club, worked as a Conservative party researcher under the Heath government, and now has significant business interests.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that at the BBC, it appears that alternative and challenging voices are often frozen out of the public debate. When the public say of politicians, ‘They’re all the same’, it is a reasonable conclusion to draw. If they judge by what they see on the BBC, they really are pretty much all the same.

This undermines our democracy. If people are kept unaware of clearly defined alternatives to the government’s agenda, why would they bother to be politically active? It has all been sewn up and does not need their input. I watched listened and waited a week to hear the concerns of ordinary people expressed or addressed, and I was sadly disappointed.

My little project was hardly scientific, but I think it revealed what the public are being fed by the BBC. On the strength of these programmes, politics looks like a game being played by a privileged elite. The real impact of government-imposed austerity is almost completely ignored. People that could have spoken expertly about such issues were just not there. Respected organisations like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Shelter are all but ignored.

The BBC is ostensibly a public service. But this is a betrayal of the public.

© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor.

Keywords:broadcasting | bbc
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