The BBC’s contrasting coverage of the party conferences seems to have been at its sharpest with ‘Today’. Here’s why I think that’s the case (at somewhat exhausting length!), concentrating on the Labour Party conference in Liverpool and the Conservative Party conference in Manchester:
The introductions to each edition of the programme were revealing:
Monday 26/9: Opened with James Naughtie saying “The shadow chancellor Ed Balls will commit Labour to new spending rules in an attempt to bolster the party’s economic credentials. We’ll be talking to Mr Balls live in Liverpool.”
Tuesday 27/9: Opened with James Naughtie saying “Ed Miliband is going to tell the Labour Party at its conference that it’s time to reward people who contribute to society and stop the get-rich-quick culture”.
Wednesday 28/9: James Naughtie says “I’ll be talking to Ed Miliband about his break with the Blair/Brown years, producers and predators and the role of the state in our lives.”
Monday 3/10: Begins with Sarah Montague saying, “Plans to extend the freeze on council tax in England are to be announced by the chancellor. We’ll be speaking to George Osborne later in the programme and we’ll be asking whether Europe could yet again divide the Tories.”
Tuesday 4/10: After headlines about Amanda Knox, “senior doctors in England are warning that the government’s overhaul of the NHS in England will cause irreparable harm to patients’ services” and “how much control do we have over the world’s financial markets and how much of it is done by computers and fear?”, Sarah Montague says, “here at the Conservative Party conference, we’ll be asking whether the Conservatives hate the police and at ten past eight I’ll be speaking to the prime minister David Cameron.”
Wednesday 5/10: Begins with Sarah Montague saying, “David Cameron will close the Conservative Party conference with a call for people to pay off their credit card debts. Also this morning we’ll be speaking to the foreign secretary William Hague about how Britain should react to the Eurozone crisis and asking whether the North can ever be persuaded to vote Tory.”
27/9: Blair speechwriter and Labour Party member Phil Collins of the ‘Times’ & Labour supporter Polly Toynbee of the ‘Guardian’ (link)
28/9: Steve Richards, pro-Labour ‘Independent’ journalist & George Parker of the ‘FT’, the only non-Labour supporter out of six (though he’s no Conservative supporter either from what I’ve heard) (link)
Only one of the Conservative Party conference editions (3/10) ended with such a discussion and this featured pro-Conservative Benedict Brogan of the ‘Telegraph’ and non-Tory supporter Allegra Stratton of the ‘Guardian’ (link). The other discussion (5/10) was given over to an assessment of all three party conferences, but was heavy with criticism of the Conservatives and praise for Ed Miliband. The guests were Iain Martin of the ‘Daily Mail’ from the Right, Mary Ann Sieghart of the ‘Independent’ from the Centre (though she’s frequently described as a Blairite) and Kevin Maguire of the ‘Mirror’ from the Left (link).
So the tally would be (by my reckoning) 7 from the pro-Labour Left, 2 from the Centre and 2 from the pro-Conservative Right.
More strong evidence of bias surely?
Last week, James Naughtie conducted the programme from the Labour Party conference as if it were a seminar, partly cosy and partly earnest. It felt like an insider’s perspective. Justin Webb’s coverage of the Lib Dem conference and Sarah Montague’s coverage of the Conservative conference, however, were relatively lightweight, often breezy and occasionally snide, and both felt like outsiders’ perspectives (as they should).
Questions of tone can be dismissed as being in the ear of the beholder, but Naughtie’s interviews with several Labour figures (from Tom Harris to David Miliband) were generally friendly, and his interview with Ed Balls contained such comments as “Indeed, that’s a very interesting answer” and “Well, again, that’s a very interesting answer” (link). Indeed, “interesting” and “intriguing” cropped up again and again in Naughtie’s commentaries, his questions to his colleagues and his interviews. For example, in a discussion with Nick Robinson, he described what he called Ed Miliband’s “straightforwardness” on the issue of the state as “intriguing” (link).
While Sarah Montague asked nothing but pointed questions to the Tories, Naughtie, throughout his Labour conference coverage, kept asking such questions as “What will be the nature of the argument?” or “What will be the character of the conference?” and “How’s the party going to define itself?” (all in the first hour of the 26/9 edition). “Where’s Labour heading?”, he asked Mehdi Hasan. “What direction should Labour take?” and “What culture should Labour seek to create?” he asked David Blunkett (also 26/9 edition). On Tuesday, he was specifically wondering (vaguely) where Ed Miliband wanted to take his party. On and on he went in this vein.
During the discussion with Phil Collins and Polly Toynbee, listen to how many times Jim agrees with Polly and Phil or Polly and Phil agree with Jim (all those ‘That’s true’s) (link). Note also Naughtie wondering aloud about whether Ed Miliband’s moral argument takes things “to a higher plane”. You will hear left-leaning pundits and presenter in full agreement throughout. Very cosy.
On Tuesday’s Labour Conference programme, Naughtie interviewed Labour MP Tom Harris (link). Again, it’s all very friendly. Tom goes “absolutely” to something Jim says. Jim goes “yes, yeah” to something Tom says. Tom goes “Yep absolutely” to something more Jim says, and “I think that’s absolutely spot on” to something else Jim says. Just as cosy.
In contrast, Sarah Montague was prone to inappropriate laughter (inappropriate, that is, for an impartial presenter). During a discussion about Osborne’s council freeze plan (first hour, 3/10) with chief political correspondent Gary O’Donoghue, for example, when GO’D said that it would only save families in England £1.50 a week, she burst out laughing. This inescapably gave the impression that she thought it was a piddling amount, a point GO’D picked up on. Then (and showing a very different tone to that between James Naughtie and Labour’s Tom Harris) during an interview with Conservative MP Sir Peter Bone, also on Monday’s edition (3/10), he was making some strongly conservative proposals for boosting the economy when, having earlier contradicted him, Sarah started laughing and told him (through her laughter) that there’s no chance of any of those things happening. (This interview, bizarrely, is not available to listen again on the ‘Today’ website. Why not? Because the tone was wrong?) Finally, on Wednesday morning’s edition (5/10), when Gary O’Donoghue listed some of the adjectives David Cameron was going to use in his speech today to (in his words) “flatter” the British character – “hard-working, pioneering, independent, creative, adaptable, optimistic, can-do spirit” – Sarah Montague burst out laughing again. GO’D got the giggles too as a result. This showed what they thought of Mr Cameron’s choice of words – and it’s unlikely the prime minister would have felt flattered had he heard them!
There were some striking exceptions to this general rule – oddly enough when you’d least expect them. The biggest interviews – the ones with Ed Miliband (link) and David Cameron (link)- were conducted by both James Naughtie and Sarah Montague in a fairly hands-off manner – especially Sarah Montague, who gave David Cameron a surprising amount of leeway. Naughtie wasn’t much tougher on Ed Miliband, though the ‘weird’ question was quite a shock (especially to Miliband). That was as good as it got for both presenters. [Intriguingly, as James Naughtie might say, Sarah Montague used the word 'weird' in her interview with George Osborne to mock a Tory standpoint.]
Despite the ‘but’…
James Naughtie’s approach is surely a gift to the Labour Party.
Gary O’Donoghue’s previews with ‘Today’ presenters
Gary O’Donoghue has taken over from Norman Smith as Radio 4’s chief political correspondent and, while he can’t touch Smith for sheer naked bias, he’s not entirely beyond criticism over the last couple of weeks. His discussions with James Naughtie at the Labour Party Conference Labour’s were fine, with little editorialising, either one way or the other. His discussions with Sarah Montague at the Conservative Party conference, however, were less praiseworthy. On 3/10, his anticipation of the council tax freeze announcement was almost entirely negative, emphasising the criticism from the Labour Party. (Sarah Montague plugged away here at Andrew Tyrie’s criticisms like a dog with a bone). On 4/10, Theresa May’s proposed tightening of the immigration rules (due to the abuse of Article 8 of the Human Rights Act) was described by Sarah as “crowd-pleasing” and, later, as “the kind of thing the conference here will love” and GO’D dismissed it as “a pretty standard route for a conference like this”. On 5/10 there was the previously-mentioned talk from GO’D of “flattery of the British character” by David Cameron and the laughter at Cameron’s expense. Worse was the editorialising from GO’D over Cameron’s call for those in debt to pay off their credit card and store bills: “I must say when I saw that it stood out a little and jarred a little because there’s a danger with that sort of thing that you can hear David Cameron saying ‘pay off your credit card and store bills’ and people yelling back at the television ‘With what?'” Is that something an impartial BBC reporter should say?
Still, Norman Smith would have been far, far worse.
(a) Presenter reports
(i) 26/9 James Naughtie goes to a Progress Rally to bat about ideas for Labour’s way forward with a few Blairites, chats to David Miliband, and then interviews GMB union leader Paul Kenny, who is still supportive of Ed Miliband (link). Little to trouble the Labour leadership here and no party outsiders.
(b) BBC reporters’ reports
(i) 26/9 Gary O’Donoghue garners advice for the Labour Party from influential Labour figures (link): Lord Prescott, Liam Byrne, Mark Steers of the IPPR, Andrew Harrop of the Fabian Society, Margaret Beckett and Lord Prescott again. Nothing to trouble the Labour leadership here and no outsiders.
(a) Presenter reports
(i) 3/10 Sarah Montague goes ‘Tory Split’-hunting over Europe (link). Europe not on the official agenda “but away from the conference floor many seem desperate to talk about it.” “It was the issue which tore them apart” when they were last in govt. The eurosceptics are “becoming bolder though”. Heather Wheeler MP wants out of Europe and says the country agrees. Sarah counters her point by saying, “As ever though what the public say they want depends on what they’re asked.” Cue Stephan Shakespeare of YouGov, says people “want to be less in Europe but not quite out”, “they want Europe but much less of it,” he continues, “they want to go as far back as you can go without actually leaving the EU”. SM says lots of Conservatives want renegotiation but many are “nervous about reopening old wounds.” George Eustace says “lots of scars from the past”. Sarah says “many of the delegates here sound desperate for a referendum” [that word again]. Some delegates (well two of them) are then heard from, sounding desperate for a referendum. Eustace says times have changed, we need to stay in EU but get powers back, including those over health & safety, employment law, social policy. ConservativeHome found nearly 1/2 of 144 candidates before last election wanted to repatriate powers from Europe, and more than a 1/3 want renegotiation – including rising star Saveej Navid thinks, who we here from…. “So is there a danger that if MPs say they want to overrule European laws on things like maternity and paternity leave they won’t look compassionate? It’s a point I put to George Eustace.” So some agenda-pushing, a bit of negative language about eurosceptics, an outsider countering the eurosceptic point of view and a few things to trouble the Conservative leadership here.
(b) BBC reporters’ reports
(i) 4/10 Gary O’Donoghue wonders whether David Cameron is “a right-wing Tory of the old school or a compassionate Conservative” and goes ‘Tory split’-hunting (link): “Below the surface there’s not always harmony about the party’s direction or indeed about what sort of Conservative David Cameron really is”. Lord Tebbitt thinks one thing but Tim Montgomerie thinks another. “Some elements on the Tory backbenches are becoming a little more restless”. David Davis wants a low tax agenda. This isn’t the only area “where the troops are getting a little uneasy. Europe is always an issue…” Mark Pritchard wants DC to show his true blue colours over it. Some ‘modernisers’, however, are urging DC to resist “ideological enthusiasms”, including Nick Boles. “Most in the party accept”, said GO’D, that in the early days David Cameron had to present a socially liberal, softer kind of conservatism to detoxify the brand, but having failed to win an election on that ground the modernisers are likely to be fighting a rearguard action in the coming years as traditional elements seek to impose a more conventionally conservative agenda on the party.” So more agenda-pushing and quite a few things to trouble the Conservative leadership.
Shaw’s report was astonishingly biased (link).
It opened with a voice saying “This government, to put it bluntly, hate the Police Service.” “Sgt John Gibbley summing up the mood of discontent at the Police Federation Conference this year. One senior officer told me that a considerable body of policing agrees with his view. Others say it’s not hatred that’s driving police reform but revenge for what happened almost 20 years ago.” Paul McKeevor of the Police Federation says it’s a backlash for the police’s opposition to the Sheehy Report of the early 1990s. “But other evidence doesn’t support the ‘Payback for Sheehy’ theory, in particular David Cameron’s role in 1993. The prime minister was at that time a special adviser to the then home secretary Michael Howard who dumped most of the plans. In the 1990s Mr Cameron helped build bridges with the police. He didn’t knock them down.” So, Danny Shaw knocks down one conspiracy theory about revenge only to build up his own: “By 2006, however, that had all changed.” [Clip of Cameron speech calling for fundamental shakeup of policing.] “David Cameron, by then Conservative Party leader, took the view that the police were the last great unreformed public service. He called for directly elected politicians to run forces and modern employment contracts to make it easier to sack bad officers. The arrest of the Conservative MP Damien Green simply strengthened the Tories’ conviction that police wings needed clipping. But in a candid assessment of how relations between the police and the Tories worsened, the shadow police minister between 2007 and 2010, David Ruffley, says some of the problems were self-inflicted.” [Mr Ruffley sharply criticises Chris Grayling for comparing our inner cities to 'The Wire' and says his comments were "extremely unbalanced and frankly wrong". I wonder how long the interview with Mr Ruffley was from which this snippet of sustained criticism of the Conservative leadership was taken. Did he say anything nice about his own party, or criticise the police's role, or Labour's? We'll never know]. [Clip of Theresa May talking of the urgent need for radical reform.] “It was inevitable that Theresa May’s programme of cuts and reforms would widen the rift between ministers and the police but the public affairs expert Peter Bingle, who advised the Police Federation during the Sheehy reforms and has been re-hired now, says something more fundamental has happened. The MacPherson Report, raids on MPs’ offices and phone hacking, says Mr Bingle, have caused the relationship between police, politicians and the public to fracture. The Tories are not hateful of the police but more questioning and less trustful.” You cannot be a Conservative if you hate the Police Service, says Mr Bingle. “But there is a perception among police, certainly,” replies Shaw, “that they do.” Lack of communication at the moment between the Police Service and the government is the reason Mr Bingle gives for that. Shaw’s report ends with his words, “I believe that needs to be addressed very quickly because to have a position where any government is seen to be hating the police service is great news for rioters and anarchists.”
Where were the voices defending the Conservatives? Where were the voices arguing that Labour politicised the police? Where were the arguments that the police themselves might bear some responsibility for their current problems? With the Conservative Party conference going on, why wasn’t a Conservative minister interviewed on this?
An axe-grinding report, suspiciously stitched together, by a typical BBC home affairs correspondent.
Interviews with party figures
26/9 – David Miliband & Paul Kenny (link)
26/9 – Ed Balls (link)
26/9 – David Blunkett (link)
27/9 – Tom Harris (link)
27/9 – Yvette Cooper (link)
28/9 – Len McClusky (with Dr Mike Lynch, an outsider) (link)
28/9 – Lord Kinnock (link)
28/9 – Ed Miliband (link)
3/10 – Sir Peter Bone (unavailable to ‘listen again’)
3/10 – George Osborne (link)
4/10 – Graeme Archer, blogger (with lobbyist Peter Bingle) (link)
4/10 – David Cameron (link)
5/10 – Cllr David Meikle (Glasgow) & Cllr Ian Lindley (Salford) (link)
5/10 – William Hague (link)
How an interview is framed is a key indicator of bias.
The Labour interviews would all have sat well with Labour Party listeners, except perhaps for parts of James Naughtie’s interview with Ed Miliband (the ‘weird’ question being emphasised by the ‘Today’ website) and the interview with Dr Mike Lynch, who liked the idealism in Ed Milibands ‘predators and producers’ speech but thought it impractical, wondering how you could fashion policy out of the distinction and saying it’s “motherhood and apple pie”. (The ‘Today’ website characterises it as one voicing his support for Mr Miliband and the other merely “considering” whether the distinction holds water). Though the David Miliband/Paul Kenny was predicated on the assumption that Labour had lost credibibity with the voters, the Yvette Cooper interview was merely introduced with by James Naughtie with words about new thinking, the Balls interview with talk of what Balls would call for, the Tom Harris interview with the news that Scottish Labour is seeking more autonomy, the Kinnock interview just as a Labour elder statesman’s reaction to Miliband’s speech. (He loved it!)
On the other hand, of the Conservative interviews, the one with Sir Peter Bone was introduced as being with a Tory backbencher who shared Andrew Tyrie’s concerns (Tory splits). Unfortunately (for the ‘Today’ team), Sir Peter refused to play ball and attack the government and stuck to expounding a free-marketeer’s answer to economic growth. The interview with Mr Archer and Mr Bingle was framed, unfavourably, as “Out of more than 10,000 people attending the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, just 4000 are party members.” An only partly good-natured debate on lobbying ensued. The debate between the councillors was framed by the question, “Is the Conservative brand doomed in Scotland or could they learn from colleagues here in the north of England?” The councillors disagreed. (Tory split!). So, interviews which start from the premise (a) that the Tories are split over the economy, (b) that the Conservative Party is under the unhealthy influence of lobbyists and (c) that the Tories might be doomed in Scotland. How many of these premises would have displeased the Conservative leadership? (The interview with William Hague, incidentally, was framed with reference to “Europe being a divisive issue for the Conservative Party”.)
How can this be considered even-handed?
Other ‘unhelpful news’/items
Of course, not being in government Labour will not be on the end of attacks from interested parties anywhere near so much as a party of government like the Conservatives. That said, during the party conference season the BBC should seek to be careful not to be seen as attacking one party far more than another.
There were no such unhelpful items for Labour. Indeed quite the reverse, for on the final day of the Labour Party conference James Naughtie introduced an item on Yvette Cooper’s new policing review. Remarkably, he only interviewed Dr Tim Brain – one of those who will be undertaking Labour’s policing review (link). Given this, Naughtie’s first question, “Do you think this is a good idea, first of all?”, was positively bizarre. Of course Dr Brain was going to reply, “It’s a very good idea.” No opposing voice was heard from.
In contrast, on the final day of the Tory Party conference, Sarah Montague’s introduction to ‘Yesterday in Parliament’ read “A Labour peer and economist has blamed the dire state of the economy on what he called the government’s own stupid policies. Lord Peston was speaking in the Lords as peers debated how to get Britain growing” and a YouGov poll was quoted suggesting that 42% of people would never vote for the party. The day before – the day of Danny Shaw’s ‘Do the Tories hate the police?’ report – focused on an open letter calling for the government’s new Health Bill to be scrapped from “400 public health experts” (people BBC health reporter Adam Brimelow called “senior”, “serious”, “pedigree”, “international renowned”, “respected” and “people who can’t simply be dismissed”). One of them was invited on to attack the government (link). He was put against the government’s studiously impartial health reviewer, who was deeply unwilling to come off the fence due to his role as a non-partisan figure. Why wasn’t a Conservative health minister asked about the issue? There were doubtless a few at the party conference.
On that same day, BBC Europe correspondent Chris Morris gave a couple of Tory ministers (Hague and Osborne) a telling off that better suited a Labour spokesman. Anticipating an EU foreign ministers’ meeting to discuss the Euro crisis, the ‘impartial’ reporter brought up the anti-euro rhetoric at the Tory party conference and told John Humphrys that some European foreign ministers “won’t appreciate” some of Osborne & Hague’s comments. “I think they need to be a bit careful of their tone frankly”, opined Chris Morris. I think Chris Morris needs to be a bit careful about his!
Surely there’s some evidence of bias here?
Other things that can be said in the programme’s favour
Of course, bias is rarely all-pervasive in so many hours of coverage and, in addition to the comparable gentleness of the interviews with the party leaders (even edged in favour of David Cameron), I can find nothing much wrong with (a) the contributions of Nick Robinson and (b) the paper reviews, which offered plenty of contrasting views of the party conferences from a wide range of papers. Even James Naughtie wasn’t his usual ‘Guardian’-and-‘Independent’-orientated self. I also credit Naughtie with bringing up the Independent/Comres poll showing the Tories one point ahead of Labour and, though repeatedly stressing that the margin of error needed to be borne in mind and that not too much should be made of it, he did also repeatedly suggest that it would ruin Ed Miliband’s breakfast! A rare appearance by political correspondent Robin Brandt (on the Saturday edition before the Labour conference) was also creditable. From what little I’ve heard of Robin Brandt in recent months, it confirm my earlier feeling that he might just be a BBC reporter who values careful, balanced reporting. He’s not on very often though, and only a closer inspection will see whether that’s really the case.
A comparison of the ‘Today’ programme’s coverage of the Labour Party and Conservative Party conferences reveals a significant degree of pro-Labour bias. Though only a few items, such as the Danny Shaw report, screamed ‘bias!’, the cumulative effect of the different moods established by the two respective presenters, the severe skewing of the commentariat towards the Labour Party, the unhelpfulness of the reports towards one party in particular, the presence of other unhelpful items towards that party (in contrast to a helpful one towards the other party), the framing of interviews, and the programme’s initial agenda-setting (always followed through), all adds up to coverage that is much more favourable to one party than to another. I have tried to be as fair as fair can be towards the programme here but there is always the possibility that my own biases are blinding me to flaws in my own study. So, though I think I’m correct in all my judgements, please check the links (to whatever is still accessible on the ‘Today’ website) and see if you think I really am!