A report on political bias at the BBC compiled by Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies (JOMEC) has received heavy criticism from the think tank, CIVITAS.
The Prebble Report, compiled by staff from JOMEC, which aimed to provide an independent assessment of political bias at the BBC, was accused by CIVITAS of being ‘seriously flawed.’
The Prebble Report claimed to have found a right-wing bias in BBC reports, concerning the issues of EU, immigration and religion. CIVITAS claims that this conclusion however, is ‘not supported by their data’ calling the entire report into question.
These claims were strongly rebutted, with Professor Justin Lewis saying that ‘the accusations are poorly researched, display little understanding of media content analysis and come from a clearly partisan organisation with an axe to grind.’
Following claims that there was a left-wing bias at the BBC, the Prebble Report was commissioned by the BBC Trust in August 2012 to provide ‘independent verification that the BBC’s coverage of the EU, immigration and religion was impartial, and contained a wide range of views from across the political spectrum and thus met the terms of the BBC’s Charter and Guidelines.’ The Report, published in July 2013, concluded that the concerned BBC reporting was not impartial and was in fact heavily biased against Europhiles and those on the left-wing of the political spectrum.
However, the CIVITAS analysis states that the Prebble Report ‘demonstrates how Cardiff’s methodology does not meet basic standards of academic inquiry (and that) the Cardiff researchers made biased assumptions about their data which meant that a serious skew in sampling techniques was amplified.’
In a particularly critical passage, the CIVITAS report states that ‘conclusions about the amount of coverage of those favouring withdrawal from the EU were drawn from samples so small as to be almost meaningless
‘Cumulatively, these basic errors mean that the EU part of the report was not independent and not worth the paper it was written on.’
The CIVITAS report dedicates an entire section to Professor Stuart Prebble who ‘appeared to accept without question that the Cardiff research was properly conducted and therefore provided independent evidence that the BBC’s EU coverage was satisfactory.’
The allegations are particularly severe because in the period following the publication of the Prebble report, academics linked to JOMEC School began to make direct political points about the BBC’s output. The staff seemed to use the Prebble Report research to support claims that there was a bias to the right in BBC reporting.
A blog from August 2013 by Cardiff journalism lecturer Mike Berry, claimed that his department had empirical evidence showing right-wing bias at the BBC which was picked up and reprinted by the New Statesman just hours later.
In February 2014, The Independent newspaper published an article by Professor Justin Lewis, entitled ‘How the BBC leans to the right’. CIVITAS claims that the article revealed that, once again, Cardiff had seemingly isolated specific parts of the Prebble dataset to reach wider conclusions on BBC impartiality.
Professor Lewis also contributed a chapter in a recent book edited by Richard Tait entitled ‘Is the BBC In Crisis?’. In it he used the study conducted by his colleagues to argue polemically that the research provided evidence that the BBC is seriously biased against the left in much of its coverage and based his conclusions on what CIVITAS calls ‘inaccurate extrapolations from the data.’
In the extract printed in The Independent in February 2014, Professor Lewis in fact used only two statistics taken from his department’s research to substantiate a sweeping contention that there had been a rightwards shift in the BBC’s output between 2007 and 2012. CIVITAS takes this as an example of Lewis ‘cherry-picking the most dramatic figures.’
In March 2014, political commentator Owen Jones, writing in the Guardian, used the statistical claims originally made by Mike Berry to substantiate his argument that the BBC’s right wing bias was ‘a threat to democracy.’
The CIVITAS report states that ‘this raises questions about whether those from the Cardiff School of Journalism understand the need for rigour in the broadcast research process.’ It also suggests that the BBC trustees who commissioned the Prebble Report in the first place ‘have not exercised proper scrutiny in reaching their conclusion that the EU output was properly balanced,’ and that ‘this raises serious questions about their own impartiality – and competence.’
The CIVITAS report concludes with: ‘These are charges of the utmost gravity, given that the BBC has relied on this Cardiff department to provide ‘impartial’ analyses of its news and current affairs output over a number of years, and Cardiff’s work has been central to its processes of internal review’
When asked for a comment on the allegations, a spokesperson for Cardiff University said: ‘Cardiff University stands by the methods and conclusions of its analysis conducted for the BBC Trust, which was published last year.
‘The terms of the analysis were set by the BBC Trust to examine whether there had been a significant change in the BBC’s approach to reporting three subjects over a five year period.
‘The methodology used in the analysis is academically robust – the academics who conducted the analysis are highly experienced and unequivocally impartial.
‘It is public knowledge that Cardiff University has employed former senior BBC news executives. The Civitas report does not indicate how or where this might have influenced the analysis.
‘We note that Newswatch has a long track record of criticising BBC news coverage from a Euro-sceptical viewpoint.’
Since the publication of the report, the JOMEC department and the staff involved have released their own response to the accusations. They claimed that ‘the Civitas report is so full of inaccuracies, as well as basic misunderstandings of the research process, that we feel compelled to respond.’
Their full response they hope serves ‘to illustrate the problems academics can face when researching areas of political controversy.’
They take further issue with the accusation that staff ‘recycled old research and employed a convenience sampling methodology’ which JOMEC state is a ‘completely inaccurate claim and hard to fathom.’
‘As the report makes very clear, the sample used was completely original…(and) we didn’t employ ‘convenience sampling’, but a purposeful sampling approach that focused on a range of high profile BBC outlets.’
The staff also combated serious allegations that they ‘discarded 30% of our EU data’ thereby skewing statistics, branding it ‘simply inaccurate.
‘The decision to focus on the UK’s relationship with the EU was the brief that was agreed with the BBC. We explained our coding methodology in detail both in the appendixes and in the main body of the report.’
JOMEC’s Professor Justin Lewis responds to the accusations:
Do you think that the criticisms raised by CIVITAS are valid?
I don’t. To be frank, the accusations are poorly researched, display little understanding of media content analysis and come from a clearly partisan organisation with an axe to grind.
Would you be willing to publicallyt defend against the claims that your colleagues’ and your own academic integrity has been compromised as the CIVITAS analysis states it has?
Absolutely. We are above reproach and are well known for our world-leading and independent research.
Why do think CIVITAS have drawn these conclusions?
We are being criticised because they didn’t like the results. Climate scientists have been getting this kind of flak for some time.