Status anxiety

What would happen if Rupert Murdoch owned the BBC?

A new book says the left-liberal bias is so ingrained it would survive any change of ownership

30 April 2016

9:00 AM

30 April 2016

9:00 AM

A new book published today by the Institute of Economic Affairs called In Focus: The Case for Privatising the BBC includes a chapter by the economist Ryan Bourne on the BBC’s left-of-centre bias. As you’d expect, Bourne’s contribution includes plenty of fascinating data, such as the fact that ‘Thought for the Day’ contributors are eight times more likely to offer a negative view of market-based and capitalist activity than a positive view.

However, Bourne doesn’t accuse the Beeb of straightforward left-wing bias. Its partiality is more subtle and complicated than that. He cites an example of the BBC’s coverage of immigration provided by Roger Mosey, a former editorial director. In his recent memoir about working for the broadcaster (Getting Out Alive), Mosey recalls overseeing an evening news report about the impact of immigration in a racially diverse part of Britain. The package featured only one white working-class voice, who said he was ‘perfectly happy’ about current levels. Mosey asked the reporter whether this was representative of the white working-class people he’d interviewed and the reporter admitted it wasn’t. The problem was, all the other vox pops had been ‘fairly rabidly racist’ so couldn’t be used.

Not a representative view, then, but not necessarily a left-wing one. Bourne points out that his own organisation, the IEA, is both pro-capitalist and pro-immigration, as most classical liberals are. Then again, most BBC news editors probably don’t realise that there are pro-immigration voices on the right and they certainly don’t invite them to discuss the issue very often. So their lack of partisan bias on this issue could just be a mistake.

The same ambiguity applies when it comes to the EU. Bourne commissioned a research company called Newswatch to analyse the discussion of the EU on the Today programme between March 2004 and last June. In the monitored sample, 4,275 guests appeared to talk about the EU, of whom just 132 were in favour of British withdrawal. That’s 3.2 per cent of the total, even though opinion polls in the same period put the level of public support for withdrawal at between 33 and 50 per cent. Of those 132, some 95 were members of Ukip and over a third of the pro-Brexit contributions were from one man, Nigel Farage.

Again, that’s not really an example of partisanship because plenty of senior Tory politicians are pro-EU. It’s a bias in favour of the views of the metropolitan elite, both Labour and Conservative, and against those perceived to be unsophisticated and uneducated. And, of course, it’s not conscious. As former Today editor Rod Liddle says: ‘The BBC’s bias was arrived at through a sort of inherent wet liberalism, rather than an actual plot, as such.’ The same observation has been made by Andrew Marr, who acknowledges the Beeb has ‘an innate liberal bias’, but attributes it to the fact that, as a publicly funded urban organisation, it has ‘an abnormally large proportion of younger people, of people in ethnic minorities and almost certainly of gay people’.

What can be done about this? Bourne and his colleagues think the BBC should be privatised but, as he points out, that wouldn’t necessarily solve the problem. Tim Groseclose, an American media analyst, wrote a book on this subject in which he concluded that the vast majority of US national news organisations leaned to the left when benchmarked against the views of the general public. The truth is, the Beeb would probably still suffer from a liberal bias even if it was owned by Rupert Murdoch because of where it draws its workforce from. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the broadcaster’s stellar global brand is partly contingent upon its sophisticated, metropolitan viewpoint being preserved. If it suddenly became more like Fox News, or gave off a less de haut en bas air, it wouldn’t be so revered by opinion leaders around the world, most of whom share the BBC’s liberal biases.

Nevertheless, Bourne thinks the Beeb should be sold off. As a private company, its dominant position in the media market would lead to competition concerns and it would probably be reduced in size. In addition, is it fair to ask the man in the street to fund an organisation that regularly expresses contempt for his views? I’m undecided on the issue, but there’s no doubt that Ryan Bourne has written a thought-provoking essay.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • davidshort10

    The BBC will never be privatised. It will probably never even take advertising. Even Thatcher could not achieve the latter, though she tried when at the height of her powers and influence. (No PM has since had such power and influence – the office has declined). Her wishes were no doubt in favour of the Beeb taking ads, and the advertising community were right behind her – they could reach some of the unreachable. But she watered down the remit of the Peacock Committee, to ‘other ways of financing the BBC’. Peacock did not come up with the goods and so never got a peerage. So single mums continued to be sent to prison for non-payment of fines for non-payment of the ludicrous poll tax called the licence fee (which is now officially a tax). The BBC’s future would be much better assured now, and there’d be less unacceptable political bias, if they’d been able to take advertising in the 1980s.

    • CB

      Irish state broadcaster RTE has a licence fee and adverts and is still left wing. Whether it is more or less so than the BBC I can’t say. Lefties are never not going to use a powerful medium to propagandize.

    • Bill Quango MP

      Agree up to a point.
      But it is not the 1980s anymore. Digital television and online TV has changed entertainment.
      As an example, my daughter who is eleven, has no real idea of the BBC. To her, its simply one channel among hundreds. And not a very good one either.

      The BBC’s hold on the nation is considerably reduced. And the younger the person the less influence the BBC has.

      • davidshort10

        Yes, it is a good point. The Beeb missed out on what would have been a bonanza of money from advertising from the 80s on. The dim argument at the time, and I was involved in submissions to the Peacock Committee, was that there was not enough advertising to go round. Poppycock Committee, in other words. Even so, the Beeb has contributed to the decline in newspaper sales and online subs through its news service. This is a wrong use of the licence fee. Also, I have never understood why the licence fee should go wholly to the BBC. The fee was brought in in the 1920s for radio and when a TV licence fee was introduced the BBC was the only broadcaster, so the rule that the licence was for the ownership of a contraption capable of receiving TV broadcast signals was OK when the BBC had a monopoly. It patently isn’t justifiable that the BBC gets all the revenue and has not been since the introduction of independent television. That the BBC gets away with this daylight robbery still is testament to how wily and greedy its executives are (A. Yentob on his fat, fat salary and pension is the worst offender, having worked for the Beeb since the late 60s).

        • CH

          But it does have advertising on the web outside of the UK.

          • njt55

            and on its tv channels outside the UK

    • MikePage

      And when the next generation simply stops paying for it, what then? The majority of young adults don’t bother with landlines or conventional television, given the choice.

  • jack

    The BBC is the ripe head of a communist boil.

    It grows and grows and keeps it’s people in comfort and keeps the populace ignorant of truths, so that it keeps getting fed -a bit like a smaller, but less mad dog version of North Korea.

    Murdoch is old and too ingrained with the idea of making money to also give the populace the truth, so for now, the BBC will just keep getting bigger and bigger until it becomes our official unelected silent partner ‘government’.

  • Polly Radical

    Simply tax it at the corporation tax rate.
    It’s a corporation, after all.

  • RavenRandom

    The BBC is institutionally left. I agree it’s not a plot. It’s a consequence of recruitment policy. When nearly all the senior staff in the news department are from the Guardian, the impartial position, in their perception, is going to be somewhere left of the actual political centre.
    They believe they are impartial, but how can you be when the entire editorial team basically has the same world view?

  • Jenny Wren

    Discredited right wing organisation slams discredited left wing organisation shocker.

  • Frank

    “sophisticated metropolitan viewpoint” – what? A commercial organisation would presumably hire staff who represented a diversity of views unlike the BBC, which appears to only hire one type of individual, or individuals who are willing to go along with the BBC’s group think. What is interesting at the moment is that if your channel surf between the BBC news, Channel 4 news and Sky news, you find that they are all presenting the same news at pretty much the same time with virtually identical political slants. Anything which broke up this cosy packaging of news would be a great benefit to Britain.

    • TRAV1S

      That’s because of the NUJ. Remember when the NUJ went on stike at the Beeb, the quality of programming improved.

  • TRAV1S

    From what I understand no one owns the BBC, it is a corporation like the City of London or a University, self owned and self governed. The government does not own shares in the BBC, like it did with the coal or steel industry. Therefore the problem is not one of privatisation but funding.

    Why should the BBC be allowed to run an extortion racket on televisions? And if the BBC is so popular why do 200,000 people a year dragged before the courts for non-payment of the Jimmy Savile License? If the BBC is so right on and caring, why does it have disadvantaged single mothers thrown into prison and their children taken into care because of the non payment of the above license?

    I don’t care if the BBC is a Marxist cult. But it should not be allowed to bully the public into funding it. So first the TV license should be decriminalised. No one should live in fear of the BBC. Next abolishment of the TV Licence. The BBC would then be free to be a lefty as it likes and it will end up like the Independent.

    • davidshort10

      I totally agree and have been against the licence fee tax since I was a child and my mother was harassed to pay it even though we, as a working class family, almost 100pc of the time watched ITV. The only times we switched over to the BBC was for Steptoe and Son and Till Death Us Do Part, so it was a lot to pay for an hour of TV a week. But just on a point of detail, it’s usually for the non-payment of fines for not having a TV licence that gets single mothers sent to jail, but it is still a scandal nevertheless. And it takes up a big slice of magistrates’ court time. This should be paid for by the BBC and the cost taken from the salaries of its senior executives.

  • PeterS

    There’s no effective argument against moving the BBC onto subscription – with an annual fee fixed at the current cost of its licence. If the public like the corporation as much as the BBC claim, there will be nothing lost by it becoming a subscription-based service – in fact it would gain, financially, by closing down any ability for licence-fee dodging. The move would also eliminate the current practice of directing large sums of licence-payers money towards the heavy-handed policing of TV apparatus ownership – as members of the public who really found the BBC to be unpalatable would be free to own and use a TV set to receive other live free-to-air or subscription-based services.

    The cherry on the cake in placing the BBC onto subscription – and the reason why the BBC is so vehemently against the move – is that the corporation would have to become responsive to the broad range of British audience tastes… and endeavour to meet them (as once it did) or feel the financial consequences of ignoring those tastes (as currently it does).

  • Temporary ID

    Sky News is privately owned, by Murdoch, and it spouts liberal bilge about everything, be it the Religion of Peace, warble gloaming, the EU, etc etc. But the BBC should still be privatised.

    • Grumpy

      The second biggest shareholder in Newscorp’s Fox is Al-Waleed Bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al Saud who also has a substantial investment in the Newscorp Parent company ($3 biillion) and Newscorp have a shareholding in Waleed’s Saudi business ($175 million)—not that such an arangement would ever affect Sky’s editorial position as it would not affect that of Fox TV–honest!

    • nouveaulite

      SkyNews moved politically with the appointment of that C4 chap. They had to as consumers were rejecting in droves what was on offer prior to that.

  • rolandfleming

    BBC is one of several key bricks in the impressive wall of British ‘soft power’. Respected worldwide like practically no other news organization. Really can’t understand the obsession of some critics.

    • Ralph

      The BBC can to continue to exist just don’t want to have to pay for it and its past misdeeds on pain of legal action and possible time in prison though it does say a lot about our species that we so ‘respect’ a broadcaster that allowed wholesale child abuse to continue for decades on its premises.

    • Grumpy

      The BBC is nowhere near as respected overseas as the BBC believe. Since the arrival of multiple TV satellite news feeds, the BBC is seen as narrowly-based and uninformed. The old days of having a long-serving “local man” have long gone and replaced by poorly-briefed “travelers”. The half a dozen or so big-budget shows that are sold world-wide are a fraction of what is sold internationally, although BBC children’s shows are still popular everywhere–maybe that’s the level they should stick to.

      • lojolondon

        The BBC is correctly seen internationally as a one-sided, libtard propaganda machine. In the UK and in the world, if you want to know what is happening, watch Al Jazeera, RT and Fox news, then make your own mind up.

        • Mary Ann

          Don’t bother with Fox news, that’s Murdoch, the BBC, France 24, Al Jazeera and NHK. Although I do believe the BBC News was better before the presenters were allowed to express emotion.

          • lojolondon

            To be fair, Murdoch is a very successful businessman. In the UK, Sky sprouts left-wing garbage, in the USA, Fox is right-wing, as he attempts to respond to the market as he sees it.

    • norman’s nonsense

      Is it true or did you hear it on the BBC…

      • rolandfleming

        I live abroad and travel a lot. I spend time talking to foreigners in every corner of the planet on a daily basis. My anecdotal experience is that the BBC is one of the most-loved aspects of British culture abroad. It is a useful ‘marketing’ device for UK plc. Worth it IMO. You should see how bad the telly is in many other countries (where they also have to pay license fees).

        • Mary Ann

          French television is rubbish, even the French say so, Adverts and they have to pay.

  • James Chilton

    The BBC is incorrigible. Under the notion of weeding out prejudice, it eradicates honesty.

  • lojolondon

    The main change would be that we could spend another £6 Billion a year on the NHS, and we would not have to listed to the sycophantic left-wing drivel. STOP THE TV TAX.

    • Mary Ann

      If we got rid of the BBC the money wouldn’t go to the NHS, more tax cuts for the rich, and only the right wing media to tell us about it, gee wizz.

  • Mutali

    FREE PALESTINE anymore.

  • Sean L

    Murdoch’s outlets are generally more left wing than the BBC. The Sun newspaper backed the election of Blair. Capitalism or at least capitalists also tend to be left wing for all kinds of reasons. Try reading the FT or Economist. The conservative position is pro free market insofar as that’s consistent with institutions like the nation and family, not pro capitalism as such. Of course capital requires markets. But capitalists are motivated by profit rather than economic ideals, and the operation of a truly free market can often work in favour of their leaner and more productive competitors. Thus the lobbying for various kinds of regulatory measures which only big businesses can afford. It’s one of the things that the free market economist Adam Smith waned about, capitalists conspiring to thwart their competitors, to stymie the free market. Roger Scruton’s Green Philosophy gives some good examples of this, particularly in relation to “Europe”.

  • The BBC is aware that UK PM David Cameron knows of the evidence of British Libraries UK London selling fake archives of newspapers published most of which it has imported from Australia & are largely of the first newspapers Rupert Murdoch ever owned in Adelaide [city] South Australia [state] where he maintains a newspaper publishing state monopoly. News articles published have been erased or altered for the fake ‘archives’ which still include news articles published references to news articles previously published that have been erased from those same ‘archives’. Crimes and corruption of Australian national significance relating to events in Adelaide South Australia are concealed by the fake ‘archives’ of newspapers published. The BBC, UK PM Cameron and Australian MPs of both political parties decline to comment.

  • Mary Ann

    Murdoch an Aussi/American already controls far more of the British Media than is healthy for Britain, we need the British press run by people who pay tax in the UK.

    The BBC would be scraping the bottom of the barrel with Murdoch in charge, it would go from one of the top broadcasters in the world to the lowest common denominator. BTW, the BBC is not left wing, it’s so long that main political parties have been left wing we have forgotten what left wing is.

    • lojolondon

      The BBC is NOT a ‘one of the top broadcasters in the world’. It is only one of several, but distinguished in that it is the most costly and least efficient broadcaster, that delivers the least value. People globally watch Fox, CNN, MSNBC, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, France 24, HoffPo, Breitbart, the DM Website and many other sources, each with their own perspective on any particular subject – that is how we gain information in 2016.

  • Petropolis

    If you sell your media to Rupert Murdoch, you are effectively signing your country away to US foreign policy. I as a citizen of Australia see this first hand, not since the facist dictator Mussolini has there been a man that controls more than 70 percent of a countries media. Murdoch started up the conservative party in America and was the man that helped Reagan become president – You would have to be an idiot to think that Rupert Murdoch doesn’t have a political motive behind controlling most of your country’s media.