This report sees journalistic “bias” less as partisanship and more as relying on too-comfortable habits
When people say the news is biased, what do they mean? Versions of the critique can range from the cartoonishly simple to the paralyzingly complex.
On one end of the spectrum lie straightforward claims of journalistic corruption. (“George Soros pays reporters to write fake news!” “No reporter can tell the truth without getting fired by their corporate masters!”) On the other, there’s room for nuance. (Who was in the room when that story was pitched? What were the underlying assumptions that shaped it, and what drove those assumptions? What perspectives weren’t considered important enough to seek out, or understand, or publish?)
It’s easy for journalists to get so annoyed at the cartoonish claims of bias that they ignore all the other ones. Nobody likes to be told they aren’t doing their job well. So the critiques that bother to dive deeper — to complicate the mechanics of bias — are worth paying special attention to.
That’s why I’d like to highlight a new report from the U.K. today that seems to do just that. It has the thoroughly bureaucratic title of the Review of the Impartiality of BBC Coverage of Taxation, Public Spending, Government Borrowing and Debt and it is, um, a review of the impartiality of BBC coverage of taxation, public spending, government borrowing and debt. Important, nation-shifting topics all — but ones notoriously difficult for news audiences to understand (much less enjoy).
The review did not find any systemic political biases in the BBC’s economics reporting — in the sense that it consistently favored one party’s views or others. But what it did find is more interesting. (All emphases mine.)
These weaknesses can lead to output that appears to favour particular political positions, but curiously these lean left and right. That makes a charge of systematic political bias in this area hard to sustain. So while the risks to impartiality may look political, we think they need a better explanation, which is that they’re really journalistic. This is no less serious and raises questions for the BBC and its journalists about what kind of journalism they want to do and how to do it. Inevitably, we focus on what could change. Much could apply at least equally to other UK media.
We think the emphasis on broad impartiality in the BBC’s response to the Serota Review timely and necessary. We found that significant interests and perspectives on tax, public spending, government borrowing and debt could be better served by BBC output and were not protected by a simpler model of political impartiality. We would not call this bias. But we don’t see how BBC coverage can be described as always fair to different interests if it’s unbalanced in this broad sense. This is an exacting and exciting ideal that drives much that follows.
The 50-page review was written by Michael Blastland and Sir Andrew Dilnot — a journalist and economist (respectively) who have collaborated on a BBC series and a book on the subject of statistics in the news. They examined coverage across platforms from October 2021 to March 2022, reviewing 11,000 pieces of BBC content (focusing on about 1,000 of them), and interviewing over 100 people inside and outside the corporation. (It’s also a much clearer, more enjoyable read than most 50-page reports I’ve come across over the years.)
They say the BBC is doing a good job on the subject overall. (Most people they interviewed “thought the output good (we agree). There was huge appreciation for its quality, seriousness, and especially the strengths of specialists.”) So what were the sources of the imbalance and journalistic weaknesses they found?
Reporters don’t know enough about economics.
Reporting on debt is a major focus of the report — understandably, since narratives around debt power narratives around public spending and taxation. (Maybe you saw this David Wallace-Wells piece the other day about the effects of a decade-plus of austerity policy: “By the end of next year, the average British family will be less well off than the average Slovenian one, according to a recent analysis by John Burn-Murdoch at The Financial Times; by the end of this decade, the average British family will have a lower standard of living than the average Polish one.”)
Blastland and Dilnot highlight the way the BBC used misleading charts that make debt levels look more catastrophic than they actually are. Their scale gets knee-jerk described as “eye-watering” or at “record levels” (often without adjusting for inflation, GDP, or the fact that certain “records” don’t go back very far). A BBC journalist might feel comfortable saying the government “needs to find billions of pounds of savings to keep the U.K.’s debt under control” — which is certainly one view, but not the only one.
A temptation a short while ago might have been to map this to a bias against a recent Conservative government. But usually, the case for more debt or borrowing has come from the left. To assume that this is therefore a bias against left or right is, to us, not the most productive starting point. We think the main issue is lack of impartiality caused by uninformed groupthink and lack of confidence to challenge arguments, often given an extra twist by hype.
Reporters bring unspoken assumptions about what fiscal choices are “good” or “bad.”
Above all they hide the trade-offs. You can’t be impartial between competing demands for resources if you don’t ask whether more over here means less over there. These trade-offs can seldom be known or specified completely, but they could be more explicitly acknowledged.
Like others before them, Blastland and Dilnot decry the seemingly unkillable metaphor comparing the nation’s budget to a household’s.
That states don’t tend to retire or die, or pay off their debts entirely, is one way national debt is not like household or personal debt, not like a credit card for example, and why analogies with household debt, or suggestions the government must “pay off” or “pay down” the debt can cause intense debate. Clearly, pithy, accessible metaphors are valuable to journalists and audiences. And “paying off” is a tempting phrase even to those who know the arguments because it seems to express the idea there must be some degree of discipline over debt, even for a state. We just used a household analogy by saying mortgage debt equal to 100% of income would not usually induce fear. But again, it helps to know that household analogies are dangerous territory, intensely contested, and can easily mislead.
One senior BBC journalist told them that, without strong subject-matter knowledge, a reporter is likely to return to “their ‘resting state’ — not a deliberate bias, but a set of presumptions. Never underestimate the BBC’s resting state, she said.”
Those assumptions can make choices seem like mandates.
That example highlights a general problem. Too often, it’s not clear from a report that fiscal policy decisions are also political choices; they’re not inevitable, it’s just that governments like to present them that way. The language of necessity takes subtle forms; if the BBC adopts it, it can sound perilously close to policy endorsement.
Economic issues get filtered through a political lens.
Not, again, a lens intended to help one party or another — a lens that takes guidance from politicians on how to talk about economics. Here’s how one person interviewed for the report put it:
In other words, reporters often feel more confident — on sounder ground, journalistically — evaluating the politics of an economic issue than, well, the economics of it. Once a government official made an announcement on the issue, one reporter told the reviewers, it “obliged him to serve up a predictable set of reactions,” making it a politics story.
Reporters don’t do enough to explain, and they focus too much on people like them.
Lower socio-economic groups tend to be worst affected, but not only those. Should broad impartiality concern itself with the extent to which different groups find the coverage accessible? We think it should. That leaves the BBC with a creative challenge: how to mix more engaging explanation into its coverage of economics and the political debate around economics.
Less-than-comprehensible coverage has knock-on effects, of course. Lower socio-economic groups are also less likely to have alternate sources of information on fiscal policy, beyond journalism. They’re less likely to have industry or lobbying groups working on their behalf and less likely to have sound ways to communicate their interests even when they can figure out what they are.
Another example cited in the report is coverage of two major forms of taxation: the income tax and the value-added tax, or VAT. (Americans, think of it like the sales tax, though an economist would shoot me for saying that.) The income tax is a progressive tax; the poorest one-third of U.K. residents don’t pay it, much like Mitt Romney’s famous “47% percent.” The VAT, as a consumption tax, gets paid by everyone.
That means, in some parts of the U.K., one tax has more impact on residents than the other. In Wales, for instance, residents pay 11% more in VAT than in income tax. But in rich London, they pay more than twice as much in income tax than they do in VAT. So if the BBC spends much more time and focus covering the income tax than VAT — and it does — that naturally favors some interests over others.
So it’s again worth asking what frames the coverage, and again politics plays a part. When the U.K. government talks about tax cuts, for example, it does not usually mean VAT, and the media absorbs that framing without sufficient question…
While there’s no doubt the political frames need reporting, they easily dominate, and this is a risk to broad impartiality. In general, just because we include what blue, red, yellow, orange and green said this week does not make coverage impartial between the nations’ varied interests.
You can’t discuss these issues without getting at the broader class issues that influence who gets to work in journalism. (People from privileged backgrounds have it far easier in the U.S. — but the U.K. seems to be even worse on that front.)
Another example cited in the report: Many more U.K. residents ride buses each day than do trains and planes. But stories on rail and air transportation get loads more coverage than stories about new bus routes.
The report really is worth a read. For journalists, it’s a useful check on assumptions they may not realize they’ve made, moves they didn’t realize they were making.
Blastland and Dilnot declined to make the de rigueur list of recommendations (“We think our views are clear but it’s for the BBC to decide how to respond given its other objectives”). But they do note the answer to much of what they describe is simply more and better journalism.
“Contrary to some fears, almost nothing here is about stopping people saying things,” they write. “It’s overwhelmingly about saying more, more creatively.”
This is demanding. We looked in only a few corners; there’d probably be more to find in other areas of public spending, local government, pensions and benefits, and so on, but it would take determination. The first step is to accept that broad impartiality brings a stronger obligation to look.
Leave a Reply