This is not neutrality

The BBC is supposed to be unbiased. But its patently biased coverage of the European and local elections of May this year was more like Fox News. It gave a huge and undeserved boost to Nigel Farage, providing a prominent figurehead and rallying-point for his supporters, extending his apparent credibility way beyond what it deserved, and constantly providing a microphone for him to talk up his electoral chances.

First, in the run-up. Over the last few years, Nigel Farage has become the darling of the BBC. He’s been on BBC Question Time more than any other politician. No MEP from another party has ever got a look-in; no other leader of a minor party, even those which do actually have seats in the Commons, has been offered this treatment.

And why? If the argument is that Farage’s popularity warranted it, this is partly mistaking cause and effect. Although it wasn’t the only factor, his exaggerated publicity has greatly reinforced his visibility to the segment of the electorate that’s receptive to his views. It’s not that everyone agrees with him, by any means — it’s rather that he’s become a reference point in a way that others haven’t. The result is that the important debate about Europe has polarised around his views, making it seem like the only choice was UKIP or the rest of the world. This is an egregious misrepresentation of reality, but it was also exactly what Farage himself has always intended.

Imagine that the then-leader of the Green Party, Caroline Lucas, or George Galloway of Respect, had been given that level of exposure. Both of these are in the Commons, unlike Farage. Or, worse still, imagine that the BNP had had that kind of electoral boost. What would the result have been? The debate would have polarised around these extremes, even though a majority rejects them. This is exactly what happened with Farage.

And, of course, this was all compounded by Clegg’s gift to him of two prime-time debates with the Deputy Prime Minister, the second of which was shown on the BBC.

Second, during the actual campaign, the BBC allowed Farage to have what amounted to an extra party political broadcast on the ten o’clock news for three nights in a row in the week of the elections, giving him ample time to make his case in a way not granted to others. At a time when even our most virulently eurosceptic printed media couldn’t ignore the cascade of revelations about UKIP’s unsavoury side, the BBC responded by giving Farage unrivalled and unopposed prime-time coverage — three times — to defend himself.

The attention lavished on Farage was then repeated on Newsnight on the Tuesday before polling day. That same Newsnight, by the way, purported to explain the European Parliament in a piece, introduced by a Paxman sneer, which contained serious factual errors, and was followed by three supposed “experts”, none of whom had any experience of the Parliament they were supposed to be discussing!

Third, the BBC’s coverage of the results of the locals proclaimed a breakthrough by UKIP as the big story. This was an astonishing misrepresentation, since UKIP’s share of the vote was actually down on the previous local elections, while it was Labour who won most seats, had most gains, received the highest share of the vote and took overall control of most councils. Surely, fair reporting would have started by reporting which party had won and then mention the progress of others.

As David Schneider commented:

Looks like the only place where UKIP have managed to take overall control is the BBC.

I’m not surprised that there’s already a 38degrees petition to complain to the BBC, nor that the BBC has received a record number of complaints about its coverage. By exaggerating UKIP’s success, our state broadcaster has hugely boosted its momentum. This is not neutrality.

UPDATE: Unbelievably, just as I published this post, Farage made yet another prime-time BBC appearance — on the Marr Show!

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