The BBC and political balance

By Bernadette Meaden
January 8, 2016

We can't expect political journalists not to have their own political views. So it is important for any organisation aiming to produce balanced and impartial news coverage to recruit staff with a variety of political leanings. If an organisation is publicly funded it would seem even more important for it to accurately reflect the broad sweep of political life.

It is cause for concern then,  that at the BBC, several of the most prominent people involved in political programming have either been involved in Conservative politics, or have to some extent identified themselves with Conservative policies – and there does not seem to be an equivalent degree of closeness to any other party. 

This is not to say that, as individual journalists, they don't do their jobs in a professional manner. But when a group of colleagues predominantly hold views at one end of the political spectrum, isn't it almost inevitable that some views will be neglected, and others which are actually quite partisan may simply be considered the norm?

Let's consider some of the BBC staff involved in political programming. Presumably most influential behind the scenes is Robbie Gibb, who as Head of BBC Westminster is the Editor of the Daily and Sunday Politics, Executive Editor of the  Andrew Marr Show and of This Week. Mr. Gibb was a Vice-Chair of the Federation of Conservative Students, and went on to work for former Conservative Cabinet Minister Francis Maude.

Top political presenter Andrew Neil once worked as a researcher for the Conservative Party, and in 2005 made a speech at the Institute for Economic Affairs in which he called for, "A radical reduction in tax and public spending as a share of the economy....The injection of choice and competition into the public sector on a scale yet not contemplated." and "A radical programme of Welfare reform."

Evan Davis, who was the BBC's Economics Editor and is now presenter of Newsnight, wrote a book in 1998 called Public Spending in which he argued for "the privatisation of public services as a means to increase efficiency."

Former BBC political editor and now presenter of Radio Four's Today programme, Nick Robinson is a former chair of the Young Conservatives. In 2011, as Iain Duncan Smith prepared to implement radical welfare reforms, Radio 4 Today presenter John Humphrys made a television documentary The Future State of Welfare in which he talked about a 'culture of entitlement' amongst benefit claimants. Following a complaint from the Child Poverty Action Group it was found to have breached impartiality and accuracy guidelines, but Iain Duncan Smith thought the programme was "thoughtful and intelligent".. He praised Humphrys, saying,  in a very telling remark "I don’t know anybody who thinks he is in any way biased."

Mr Duncan Smith may inadvertently have got to the heart of the problem. He admits he is relying on the people he knows, as we all do to some extent, to shape and confirm his views. Now, this is all very well for a politician, who we expect to hold a partial, partisan view. We do, however, expect our national publicly funded news outlet to have a much broader and more comprehensive understanding of the world. But if so many of the key people have similar political leanings, they will almost inevitably, as a group, confirm each others world view as being the norm, and feel far more comfortable with the politicians who share it. Equally, their ideas of what political beliefs and policies are considered reasonable must surely be limited, and they will feel less comfortable with politicians who stand for something completely different. Again, this is not to say that each of these people do not individually do a good job, but as a group they do not seem best placed to reflect the full spectrum of British political life.

There is now plenty of evidence to show that organisations with a more diverse workforce perform better. The BBC itself is striving to promote diversity in the areas of gender, ethnicity, disability etc. So it seems reasonable to ask why it cannot achieve a little more diversity amongst the people who produce its political output.

 © Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious 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. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.