Thursday 11 April 2013

The Mail, the BBC and Thatcher 'bias'

As sure as night follows day, so the death of Margaret Thatcher was always going to be followed by the Daily Mail complaining about 'anti-Thatcher bias' in the BBC's coverage.

On 9 April, this was published on MailOnline:

Note the use of 'public anger' to describe a reaction they support. When the Mail and Richard Littlejohn were criticised recently over their coverage of Lucy Meadows, which led to a protest outside the Mail's offices, the paper described it not as 'public anger' but an 'orchestrated Twitterstorm'.

The Mail's journalists had searched Twitter and comments left on their own website to find people criticising the BBC for being anti-Thatcher. There is nothing wrong with that per se, but the problem is that it only tells half the story - the half the Mail wants its readers to believe. It was equally easy to find tweets and comments criticising the BBC for being too pro-Thatcher in its coverage but these were completely ignored by the Mail. The Media Blog listed a handful of examples (there were many, many more), where tweeters accused the BBC of broadcasting 'pro-Thatcher toadying', 'pro-Thatcher propaganda' and a 'pro-Thatcher diatribe'. Another said: 'Shame on you BBC...Your pro-Thatcher bias is quite disgusting.'

But readers of the Mail's article only got this:

The BBC was accused of 'disgraceful' bias yesterday over its coverage of Baroness Thatcher's death.

Angry viewers complained its news bulletins gave too great an emphasis to her critics and to controversies such as the poll tax and the miners' strike.

Twitter users accused the BBC of 'shameless' bias against the former Prime Minister. The broadcaster also faced criticism because newsreaders did not wear black ties following the announcement of her death.

The one-sidedness of the Mail's coverage was emphasised when the Guardian revealed the number of complaints the BBC had received about its coverage:

the BBC said on Wednesday it had received 268 complaints that its coverage was biased in favour of Thatcher, and 227 who said it was biased against her.

A further 271 people complained that the BBC had devoted too much airtime to the former Tory leader's death.

Arguably, the fact the BBC received similar numbers of complaints from both sides suggests its coverage might have actually got it about right.

But it is clear that more people had complained to the BBC about a 'pro-Thatcher' bias in their coverage than had complained about an 'anti-Thatcher bias'. Would Mail readers have got that impression? Not at all.

And this is not an accident. In another article today about 'anti-Thatcher bias' at the BBC (which refers to 'readers' fury' but three of the four quotes it uses come from comments on the Guido Fawkes blog) the Mail's Alasdair Glennie says:

So far, the corporation has received 766 complaints over its coverage of Lady Thatcher’s death.

But that's it - he provides no breakdown of the figures. This is deliberately partial and dishonest - to give the actual breakdown would suggest there was more 'public anger' (to use the Mail's term) about a pro-Thatcher bias in the BBC's coverage. As that does not fit the pre-determined narrative of the Mail, it's quietly ignored.

So where's the real bias here?

The Mail also got upset about BBC news presenters not wearing black ties. To illustrate their article, they used of photo of Huw Edwards wearing a bright pink tie - and also a poppy - above a caption which said: 'Huw Edwards was among those who did not wear a black tie while reporting the news for the BBC'. As James Cridland pointed out, Edwards was actually wearing a dark blue tie when reporting on Thatcher's death. As the Media Blog uncovered, the photo of him wearing the pink tie and poppy (the poppy being a bit of a clue that it wasn't a photo from this week) was actually a photo from the Mail archives...and from November 2006. The photo has since been removed, but it's worth considering why they used it in the first place.

(Cridland had a tweet of his quoted by the Mail as one of the 'critical' members of the public - Cridland said in response: 'I wasn’t outraged, just interested'.)

It's also worth noting that the Allen and Glennie article states:

other users noted that BBC presenter Mark Mardell was wearing a black tie, whereas Sky's Adam Boulton was not.

So where are the Mail articles about Sky's (in the Mail's words) lack of 'sufficient respect'?

The Mail was also up in arms that the BBC dared give airtime to speakers who were not willing to sing Thatcher's praises, and were outraged that these guests were allowed to say what they believed:

One of Thatcher's arch critics – former Labour MP Tony Benn – was one of the first invited to speak on BBC 5 Live and BBC World Service and was given free rein to criticise Lady Thatcher.

It is, of course, entirely legitimate that all views were allowed to be heard and it seems curious that the Mail seems to suggest otherwise.

Mail columnist Stephen Glover wrote that although the BBC coverage 'pleasantly surprised' him at first, as the day went on, 'the case for the prosecution was subtly gathering force'. Given he wrote a column in 2007 about the BBC 'hating' Thatcher, this conclusion may not have been a complete surprise to his readers:

Again and again we were shown the same footage of 1990 poll tax riots, and familiar pictures of police grappling with miners during the 1984-85 miners’ strike. The clear message was: This is how it was under Thatcherism. Words such as ‘divisive’, ‘polarised’ and ‘out of touch’ began to be bandied about freely by BBC journalists describing the events of the 1980s.

It seems odd to suggest that Thatcher's time in office could be fairly and honestly reported without giving significant time to the miners' strike or the poll tax riots. Glover seems to have missed that such footage also appeared on Sky News. A comment on the Media Blog from Matt said:

When the news broke, I was in the unusual position of being able to watch BBC News and Sky News simultaneously (I was in the gym). Sky ran non-stop footage of the police beating up miners and poll tax protesters, while the Beeb ran interviews with politicians and sombre-looking newscasters talking to camera.

Glover also criticises BBC journalists for 'freely bandying about' words such as 'divisive', but later in his column he writes:

I don’t deny she was a ‘divisive’ figure


You may say Margaret Thatcher was unusual in being so divisive, and so is bound to be dealt with in an unusual way.

And who was it who argued:

Her divisiveness was a mark of her boldness for which we should all be grateful.

Not a BBC journalist, not Glover, but Andrew Alexander - one of Glover's fellow Mail columnists.

So, it seems, Mail journalists are allowed to say Thatcher was 'divisive' - and indeed praise her for it - but BBC ones aren't.

It is not surprising that the Mail wishes to celebrate Thatcher's life and achievements. But to report 'public anger' with the BBC over anti-Thatcher bias without reporting on the pro-Thatcher bias complaints? To accuse the BBC of bias for not getting out black ties, when many journalists from other outlets did not either? To accuse the BBC of bias for covering the miners' strike and poll tax riots, and for giving airtime to Thatcher's political opponents, when other news outlets have done the same?

Where's the real bias here?


  1. Were you guys involved in the Leveson Enquiry? If you weren't, you should have been.

  2. It would have been odd not to mention the poll tax, because it was that policy that led some of her colleagues to think that she had lost the plot and to decide to force her out.


  3. Another sad little leftie with nothing better to do in life other than run a pointless little blog about the right wing press because the left wing media including the BBC hasn't yet destroyed all free speech. Scrap the bloody licence fee then the BBC can be as pinko, left, green or whatever flavour it wants.

    1. This blog isn't about the right wing press. It's about dishonest press. You do know that left wing publications have featured on here too, right? It just happens that the Mail seems to be pretty much the most dishonest newspaper there is - hence it's regular appearance on here.

      Or do you WANT the right wing media to lie to you?

    2. What a great challenge to the arguments and evidence presented in the blog post.

      Projecting much?

    3. 15:21
      Urgh. Stains on free speech exercise mat.

    4. Another sad little right winger with nothing better to do in life than troll blogs about the press?

      Seriously, did you read the article? More people complained about pro-Thatcher bias than anti. That would suggest that if anything the beeb were biased to the right or they were being balanced.

      Anyone who writes for the Mail should try to remember why they got into journalism. I'm sure most of them used to have dreams of exposing corruption and are deep down disappointed that they spend their days recycling press releases and writing whatever the owners want.

    5. very good article

  4. I'm willing to bet that the IP address from the 'Anonymous' commenter above me comes straight from the most Daily Mailesque gutters of Kensington

  5. Interesting figures, but hardly surprising. The Daily Mail is right wing so has an agenda. The Guardian is left wing. It too has an agenda. Newspapers are not state controlled - yet. So they are free to spout ever rubbish they want to.

    1. They will always try to spout rubbish - even with the strictest of state controls. Doesn't mean we can't point out their dishonesty though.

    2. The Guardian is more "wet liberal" than "left wing". The U.K. has no "left wing" narrative in the national press.

  6. It terrifies me to think what counts as a balanced view in the minds of people who think that the BBC is an ultra-leftist organisation intent on destroying free speech.

    You know, the organisation that still makes pro-Christian programmes like Songs of Praise in an increasingly secular nation, still reports on every banal paranoid complaint about itself by whatever crackpot cares to make one and exposed its own cover-up in the Saville scandal.

    Truly a terrifying, leftist enemy of free speech.

  7. From what I've seen its been nothing but a BBC pro Thatcher week since she died, they have done nothing but put pro Thatcher person after pro Thatcher person on, its been a very right wing peice not left wing at all.

  8. I am amazed by the unbalanced reporting by both the BBC and Sky News regarding the legacy and Prime Ministership of Margaret Thatcher. I lived through the Thatcher years and remember clearly how the Trades Unions brought Britain to its knees. It was Thatcher who crushed them and put the country on a wealth footing and put Great Britain back on the map and a major player on the world stage. Of course she was not always right but her third election was bigger than the previous two - a testament in itself that the Lady was one of the most popular Prime Ministers. In the words of Lord Ashdown, "she was without doubt the commanding politician and the greatest Prime Minister of our age"

    1. "Of course she was not always right"... understating it a bit.

    2. At 42% of the public vote, you could argue that this isn't really that great of a feat. She did end up more popular than Blair when he won his third term but like Blair she decreased in popularity slightly.

      She didn't manage to command over 50% of the vote like a lot of electoral winners so to me this suggests that she didn't command that much influence or popularity. Perhaps the most popular in the last 45 years, yes, but it doesn't look too great when stacked up against the rest and seeing what her percentage was. Also, voting can only tell us part of the story. It is a vote for the politician in question but it doesn't tell us how much the person is behind them when there are those who vote on one issue, those who tactically vote for the best of a bad bunch or those who may like quite a bit of their policies but hate large sections. It gets them in power and counts as a vote but whether it can truly be viewed as a testament to popularity is something I feel skeptical about personally.

  9. The use of Twitter quotes to back up the media's own prejudices has got to be one of the most depressing aspects of modern journalism. It's no different from quoting "Tony from down the pub" or "Betty standing at the bus stop". It's utterly meaningless.

  10. Really? I lived through the Thatcher years too, and recall Trades Unions demonised and emasculated, social progress rolled back, naked greed encouraged, the poor victimised and harrassed, wars fought for self-glorification, and entire communities destroyed. One pundit interviewed on BBC radio said "Before Thatcher, you had to wait *months* for a telephone!" as if she had anything to do with changes in the telecoms industry. It went unchallenged. The popular vote on Thatcher is not in favour. Oh, you spelled "grate" wrong.

  11. Stonyground:
    Fred, do you also recall just how totally in the toilet the British economy was in 1979? Do you honestly imagine that the mess could be sorted out without any economic hardship? The unions were emasculated by laws forcing them to ballot their members before calling strikes. This was a good thing. If it could have been done sooner, the miners strike would probably not have happened and quite a few mines would probably have stayed open longer as a result.

    1. So, hardship under the Thatcher is good, even though the source of that hardship, the failed policy of monetarism, was abandoned by Thatcher in 1983? What other looney right-wing crap are we going to hear next? How about Thatcher's government was quite right to reduce the Royal Navy, conduct secret talks to hand over sovereignty of the Falklands, and withdraw from the islanders Full British Citizenship, as it untimately provoked a war that ended in the restoration of democracy for Argentina? Or how about, Thatcher's destruction of British industry and financial deregulation that lead directly to the 2008 banking crisis, was justified as it made New Labour look even stupider for following her policies? If you can believe six impossible things before breakfast, then clearly you're a thatcherite.

    2. I agree with your analysis. Quite how on Earth the right wing say that Thatcherism saved the British economy is beyond me. The British economy couldn't be in a more dire state that it has been since WW2! Its no good just blaming New Labour (though they have something to answer for too) but it was Thatcher and her entourage which started this headlong dive into personal debt, let alone the greed she also gave credence to. It was her very words "There is no such thing as society" which pretty well puts pay to any possible integrity she has and why the society which is Britain should not pay for her funeral nor honour it.

  12. The Chair of BBC Trustees: former Thatcher minister Chris Patten. BBC Chief Political Editor: former chair of Oxford Conservatives Nick Robinson. BBC chief political presenter: former Murdoch editor and openly Conservative supporting Andrew Neil. It is not a matter of sad Lefties moaning, anyone who values democracy must see there is a real impartiality problem at the BBC. My Tribune cartoon BBC (Better Be Conservative)

  13. The Mail Online, working fast, reported on Mrs Thatcher's funeral service. They were generally fairly respectful, but had a real go at the Bishop of London Richard Chartres' sermon. It seems the Mail had heard a Churchman mention 'there's no such thing as society' and jumped to a conclusion, completely misunderstood the point he was making. It was only when the other right wing newspapers wrote glowingly about the sermon, the article mysteriously disappeared.


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