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Issue 05

Constructing the News: How Bias is Built In

Robin Aitken

Robin Aitken trained on newspapers and then worked as a BBC reporter for 25 years including as an editor on the BBC Radio 4’s flagship current affairs programme Today; he now works freelance. He has written a number of books about media bias, the most recent being The Noble Liar: How and Why the BBC Distorts the News to Promote a Liberal Agenda (Biteback, 2018). He was made an MBE in 2014 for charitable work.

When I was young, before I became a journalist, I had a very naïve understanding of news, what it is and how it is created. It seemed to me then that “the news” was something ordained from on high; immutable, obvious and universal. I believed that the day’s headlines were akin to holy writ – they were handed down to the audience, and could not be challenged because they reflected an underlying reality. They were like the laws of physics, or the rules of mathematics; the news of the day seemed to me solid, dependable and unchallengeable.

I was, of course, completely wrong. As I came to understand, “news” is a construct; it is always open to challenge, it is always contentious, and it is always contested. My youthful misconception owed much to  my very restricted intake: at home my parents generally watched or listened to the BBC; the newspaper my father favoured was the Daily Telegraph and, to me, this seemed the natural order. I was blissfully unaware that there were other news organisations that followed very different agendas, and I was largely incurious about the disparities. It was only when I started learning my trade that I came better to understand the real nature of news and what it is that journalists actually do – which is to “create” news rather than merely observe and report it.

Once this fundamental point is understood the world becomes, paradoxically, both easier to make sense of but more complex and less straightforward. As soon as you realise not only that The Guardian and the Telegraph inhabit different “news worlds,” but that every news organisation follows its own agenda, you are on the road to personal enlightenment. For many this is a daunting prospect: most people, busy with their own lives and personal concerns, do not have the time or inclination to parse the news. But if you really want to know what’s going on you must try to unpick every carefully constructed narrative to find the underlying reasons for what is being reported. Because there’s always a reason and there is always a political agenda that lies, often heavily disguised, behind the headlines.

Some years ago, when one of my daughters was doing her English “A” level, I was invited by her teacher to give a talk about news and journalism. At the time I was working as a reporter on the Today programme,(1) and I set them a task which I hoped would give them some insight into the news business. I had collected, on a particular day, wire copy on a wide selection of stories both national and international. I selected stories on many different topics – politics, the environment, human interest, showbiz, etc.; everything under the sun, in fact. I then distributed details of all these stories, in precis form, to each girl and asked them to imagine themselves as the editor of the Ten O’Clock News (2) and to draw up a running order.

Sigrid Hjertén, Homework

The result was illuminating. There was no clear majority view about which was the most important story, and no two girls had the exact same running order. Then I revealed the actual Ten O’Clock News running order from the day in question: none of the girls had put the stories in the same order as had actually appeared. All of which I hoped would go to show that our own view of what is important is a highly subjective thing. In that classroom exercise I was dealing with a group of intelligent sixteen- and seventeen- year-olds. At that age, most young people have a relatively unsophisticated understanding of journalism and the wider world, and most will not have a clear and fixed political stance. Their selections were driven by their own, unalloyed, priorities probably guided by emotion and their own ethical sense.

I have never repeated the exercise but, supposing I could gather together that same group of now adult women and ask them to do it all over again, my guess is that the result would be very different. I suspect that, in the intervening twenty years, they would have “learned” what news to think of as important. I suspect the result today would show much more uniformity of selection – and that itself is a reflection of how our exposure to the “news agenda” as constructed by professional journalists “educates” us about what is important and what is not. And there are many important lessons to be drawn from this simple exercise, not least about how an entire society can be groomed by the mainstream media into re-ordering its priorities.

Francis Luis Mora, Subway Riders in NYC

I should enter a proviso at this point: occasionally, news events really do dictate the headlines in a way that it is difficult to disagree with; 9/11 would be a classic example. No Western journalist, on that fateful day, was ever going to give anything but top billing to the destruction of the Twin Towers. But that was the exception; most days are not like that; most days the men and women in the newsroom are confronted by a cascade of information which can touch on every kind of human activity; love, war, business, religion, sport, etc., – there will be stories about all these things and many others besides. It is the job of professional journalists to “curate” this avalanche into digestible form for the audience. And this is where the fix goes in.

Take the BBC – the news organisation I know best – as an example. It bills itself as “the world’s most trusted broadcaster” and promises its audience news “which is impartial, balanced, fair and honest.” However, what is striking about the BBC’s news coverage is how scrupulously selective it is; when you examine its output in detail (something I have done over many years) it becomes very clear that the BBC has a well-defined news agenda from which many voices and many viewpoints are wholly excluded. As a result the BBC has become one of the primary carriers of a political ideology which styles itself as liberal and tolerant but which is, in reality, neither of those things.

The mechanics of the thing are easy to explain; on any given day, in any given BBC newsroom, the journalists will be picking up a pre-existing news agenda; that is to say, there will be “meta-narratives” –  overarching stories which might have been running for days, weeks, months or years. So the journalists are not facing a tabula rasa; rather they are picking up from where the previous day’s news left off. Once stories become established in this way, they can run on almost indefinitely – sometimes to the infinite boredom and irritation of the audience! The key question is why some stories achieve this prominence and longevity whilst others don’t figure at all.

Niklaus Manuel Güdel, 9/11

All journalism is a matter, finally, of selection. This starts at editor level; the editor decides which story he/she wants to cover and then, further down the food chain, news editors and reporters will decide how to fulfil the editors’ wishes. At each stage of this process there will be crucial selections to be made. Which interviews do we need? Which part of which interviews will we use? And what “line” are we taking; whose side are we on?  Set out in this way it becomes clear just how carefully “constructed” news is.

A news bulletin is not a random thing; it is deliberated and carefully fashioned and it will faithfully reflect the passions and prejudices of the journalists who make it. Which is why, in this context, “impartiality” is such a bogus concept; in a BBC bulletin there will certainly be some effort made to adhere to the creed of “balance.” This will mean that, almost always, there will be one speaker for and one against and this is seen as fulfilling the duty to be “fair.” But those subjects not chosen for inclusion, those voices not given a platform – these are things which cannot be “balanced” as they have already been excluded. Stories which achieve prominence are ones which accord with the BBC’s own internal political culture; a culture which  is liberal, secular and driven by the fashionable concerns of its staff.

Pascal Fiechter, Arch Balance

As an example, take abortion. The BBC’s approach to this issue has been dictated by doctrinaire social liberalism; it always reports, in tones tinged with disapproval, any attempts to restrict or limit access to abortion anywhere in the world. In doing so it has nailed its colours to the mast and any protestations that the BBC is “impartial” in the matter should be treated with disdain; it is not impartial but, rather, a campaigning partisan with massive clout and influence.

There is, though, a problem with alleging “bias” against the BBC – or any other news organisation for that matter. The rejoinder to anyone who makes the allegation is “well that’s just your opinion” – and it’s true: “bias” is very much in the eye of the beholder, it is a subjective thing. It is very difficult to amass objective data on the subject because the only way of doing so is to monitor (i.e., listen, read or watch) a media organisation’s output over a sustained period and then, using objective criteria, analyse it. This is time-consuming and expensive so is rarely done. However, the BBC’s output on one subject – Brexit – has been subject to exactly this type of scrutiny.

A group of rich, highly motivated supporters of Brexit, fed up with what they perceived as BBC bias against them, commissioned a monitoring exercise which has now been running for nearly twenty years. This subjected BBC output on the European issue, at key times during the debate, to minute scrutiny; typically this was done in the run-up to a general election or elections to the European Parliament. The results were both revealing, and for the BBC, highly embarrassing. The monitoring demonstrated a clear and consistent bias, over many years, towards the pro-EU position and against the Eurosceptics. There are now reams of statistics on this subject (3) but one will perhaps suffice to show the strength of the bias; in the decade between 2005 and 2015, of 4,275 guests invited on to a selection of important BBC news programmes to talk about the EU, only 132 (that’s 3.1%) supported leaving the union. Statistics like this are hard to argue with: they are not “subjective” but hard evidence of partisanship.

Pascal Fiechter, Pure Balance

The mainstream electronic media – basically TV and radio – presents itself as a neutral facilitator of democratic debate but the more closely you look the less convincing that claim becomes. Our media is no mere conduit; it is, in truth, a powerful and opinionated participant. Though I have written here about the BBC, what I say applies equally to all the other mainstream British media outlets like Channel 4 or ITV; they all broadly subscribe to the same values. Under the Broadcasting Acts, the broadcasters are supposed to be politically neutral; for anyone who wants to see the country return to traditional, Christian moral values it is essential to understand that they are not. Social conservatives must know their enemy if they are to stand any chance of turning the tide.

1. Flagship current affairs programme on BBC Radio 4. Required listening by government ministers et al.

2. Evening TV news slot on BBC 1.