Bias, balance and public interest: is the BBC suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect?

The BBC has been criticised by several groups for its pro-Government stance during coverage of the run up and implementation of the NHS reforms. Alongside previous accusations of its left wing bias, this debate raises important questions about the institution’s capacity to fulfil its mandate of impartiality. 

John Hully
1 June 2012

First - because it's germane to what follows - please allow me to declare my bias. You can skip this paragraph if you like, but I'll refer back to it occasionally. I am an IT manager who works in the state sector, who has previously overseen governance and processes, and who has become convinced that the tenets of neoliberalism are destructive. As one of these dogmas is the ending in perpetuity of state provision of services, including healthcare, I am particularly sensitive to reportage on and views expressed about changes to the National Health Service.

In 2004, the BBC submitted a paper to the Independent Panel on Charter Review entitled "The BBC's contribution to informed citizenship". The Summary includes these statements:

"We will help to promote the public’s understanding of complex issues, which is fundamental to a functioning democracy. This is a huge undertaking and one that helps sustain the democratic health of the nation. It is the central and most important purpose of the BBC… Our commitment to the independence, impartiality and accuracy of our journalism is vital if we are to fulfil this mission. They are our most important values. They are enduring, not open to compromise and the key to sustaining public trust."

This seems grand, and even laudable. But even at the time of this submission, (2004) the BBC had to mention the "serious criticisms" from The Hutton Report, and promise "renewed focus on these values and our procedures". The long and arduous passage of the Health and Social Care Bill (now Act) was a good opportunity to assess, albeit subjectively, how well the BBC meets these commitments. In brief, the answer (and please refer back to paragraph one at this point) would have to be #epicfail. 

"Renewed focus" should be circled red and rejected from any project or action plan. Because it's so vague, it promises nothing; no matter how "significant" it is. It is an admission that the author doesn't understand the problem, cannot bring themselves to accept there really is a problem, and/or cannot commit to taking effective corrective action.

Take, for example, Section 4.4.14 in the BBC Editorial guidelines, which is part of the implementation of "impartiality and accuracy".

"We should not automatically assume that contributors from other organisations (such as academics, journalists, researchers and representatives of charities) are unbiased and we may need to make it clear to the audience when contributors are associated with a particular viewpoint, if it is not apparent from their contribution or from the context in which their contribution is made." 

Whatever procedures are in place to ensure this guideline is met are simply not working. Casually dipping into BBC Radio 5Live in the last few days I have heard contributions from (and references to) The Taxpayers Alliance, The Adam Smith Institute, The Institute for Fiscal Studies, British Chambers of Commerce, and The Patients Alliance. Not once was there any explanation to "the audience" of the potential bias of these "other organisations". Their views were elicited entirely without background: all were treated as equally disinterested and reliable sources.

The previous section in the guidelines states that "presenters, reporters and correspondents … may provide professional judgments, rooted in evidence, but may not express personal views”. I have a simple test for this one, which is to listen out for the frequent use, by presenters and correspondents, of the phrase "taxpayers' money": a phrase as prejudiced as it is inaccurate. There is no such thing as "taxpayers' money".

If you complain - as I have - about any of this, then you may have a long (possibly infinite) wait before receiving any response. And that response will typically be an excuse.

Even if the procedures were working to maintain standards, the BBC's guidelines themselves are wide open to abuse or at least failure. News must be treated with due impartiality, but on informative programmes, impartiality - "balance"  - can be provided over a series.  

The Health and Social Care Bill was debated in Parliament for well over a year. Members of the medical profession were warning against the dangers of the bill for several months in advance of that, as Green and White papers - and leaks - forewarned what was being planned. Quite simply, there is a real challenge as to whether the BBC is capable of informing the public on a complex set of proposals, the views and reactions to those proposals, and the amendments to legislation over a long period of time. 

To inform about this massive and complex change - possibly the most radical legislation since the creation of the welfare state - the BBC would have had to inform about the history of the NHS and its founding principles, and about the changes implemented since the 1980s (after Thatcher left the NHS alone, if only to decay). It is simply, as an organisation, incapable of doing this education on such a massive scale. 

The result was a strong sense among opponents to the Health and Social Care Bill that the BBC comprehensively failed to report on the Bill and the issues surrounding it; that in particular it failed to inform about the significance of the legislation. That the BBC failed to give voice to the opponents to the Bill and failed to explore, explain, and inform about the history, context, purpose, impact, and risks of the Bill.

One of the reasons the BBC cannot meet its mission statement is - as, to be fair, it recognises - the competition for public attention. But there is also its own fragmentation into national and local news and current affairs; its own practise of hiring presenters under contract and not as employees; its own policy of buying in product from independent production companies. 

Beyond those, there is the BBC's own inadequate interpretation of balance, or impartiality. Having one medical doctor and one homeopath to discuss "complementary medicine" is not balance, because the weight of evidence against such quackery is incontrovertible. Similarly with debates on climate change. And having one member from each of the three main political parties together to discuss anything is not impartiality either (or informative, in many cases). It's just laziness. 

When an opponent of the Health and Social Care Bill was stood down from Newsnight because the Secretary of State for Health withdrew from the programme, it looked less like failure and more like the BBC was following the Government's line. In other words, the BBC reporting was biased in favour of government policy.

My sense is that the BBC - unwilling or unable to respond to criticism and correction, caught in a perpetual present and unable to put story into context, fearful of analysing any government statement or policy because the Daily Mail will accuse it of hatching a Marxist plot - is convinced that it actually is fulfilling its mission. But if this organisation were a person it would be described as delusional.

I would say it is a victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect which occurs when incompetent people not only fail to realise their incompetence, but consider themselves much more competent than everyone else. 

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