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Tuesday, 3 May, 2005, 09:09 GMT 10:09 UK

BBC rebuts anti-Tory bias claims

By Kevin Marsh
Editor, Today

The Daily Mail last week published the findings of a report for right-leaning think tank the Centre for Policy Studies which claimed Radio 4's Today had been anti-Tory in its election coverage. Here, the BBC responds.



" It's surprising - and disappointing - that the Centre for Policy Studies has put its imprimatur on such a flawed piece of work.

"Damning dossier of BBC's anti-Tory bias"
Daily Mail headline

Cogent, well-researched criticism is important to Today - and everyone else at the BBC. This is neither.

Minotaur Media tracking concede that they could find "no evidence of deliberate or even conscious bias" in our political journalism, that they "cannot demonstrate whether the BBC is systematically hostile to centre-right views" and that Today's coverage of the early part of the election campaign was "robust journalism in action".

Not quite the "damning dossier of BBC's anti-Tory bias" the Daily Mail headlined it on Thursday.

Even the report's plaudits, though, are not based on accurate, undistorted research and evidence-based conclusions.

Highly questionable

The second paragraph of the opening summary states the unsupported assertion that "since at least the mid 1980s, the BBC has often been criticised for a perceived bias against those on the centre-right of politics".

What it doesn't mention is that the centre-left, left, right and centre have also persistently criticised the BBC for the bias they perceive.

The authors' methodology is highly questionable. They arbitrarily choose two chunks of Today's output - the coverage of the Conservative and Labour party conferences (but not the Liberal Democrat) in 2004; and the period of 31 March to 15 April 2005 - a period that starts a little after a succession of Today interviews with Michael Howard and ends just before four of the toughest interviews of the campaign with Labour spokesman.

One - John Humphrys' interview with Jack Straw on Monday 24 April - was heaped with praise in the leader columns of the Daily Mail no less.

Minotaur's monitoring is also questionable. They claim that "monitoring the output of the Today programme... shows a remarkable disparity in the studio time allocated to Labour compared to the Conservatives".

"We welcome criticism and debate - but it's important that it's reasoned criticism and an informed debate"
Kevin Marsh

Kevin Marsh

And as part of their evidence, the authors cite the interviews with Gordon Brown and Oliver Letwin on 1 April. Gordon Brown's interview, the authors claim, was 11 minutes 15 seconds and Oliver Letwin's 5 minutes 18 seconds - proof of bias, they say.

Certain naivety

However, they appear to have missed two of the other three interviews with Oliver Letwin (against none with Gordon Brown) in the same period - 5 and 7 April. Had they included these, they would have reported that in appearances, Letwin outscored Brown by four to one; in time, by about three to one.

Their account of Mr Letwin's fourth appearance - 12 April - makes interesting reading. This was a long interview - 11 minutes. The balancing interview with Labour's Ed Balls was less than half as long.

However, Minotaur arbitrarily add an interview from the following day's programme - with Alan Milburn - to Balls of 12 April to produce a figure of 16 minutes for Labour and 11 for the Conservatives.

They criticise Today for not following up a story in the Times - on postal voting - on 11 April. However they missed our report on 6 April that covered the same ground - indeed, went slightly further, including an interview with an ACPO spokesman.

The report shows a certain naivety. They observe in one footnote that Today has never carried a panel discussion including Paul Dacre. True - but that's because we have asked Mr Dacre onto the programme repeatedly over the past three years and he has always refused to appear.

Impartiality paramount

The most doubtful element of the report is its measure of bias: counting the number if interruptions.

The logic of this "measure" of an interview appears to be that the BBC should introduce an "interruption metre"; or that presenters should carefully count the words and restrain themselves from challenging a contentious assertion until the required number of phonemes has been uttered.

Answers, in reality, can be short or long for a variety of reasons; interruptions can be challenges or clarifications or even assent. It has not necessarily to do with integrity or honesty.

The report presents assertions as fact and shows a poor understanding the nature of daily news - believing that it can be done according to a grid and decided months in advance.

Impartiality is paramount to Today and to the BBC. We welcome criticism and debate - but it's important that it's reasoned criticism and an informed debate. "




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