The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) is the world’s oldest national broadcaster and the largest by number of employees. It has published award-winning documentaries, broadcasts in 28 different languages, and offers comprehensive radio, TV, and online services. It is no surprise that such a large footprint and storied history faces some criticism. To explore BBC’s reputation, The Factual asked two questions: how Factual is BBC and how biased is it?
How Factual Is BBC?
The Factual analyzed 785,000 news articles from 32 major news sources between January 1, 2020 and May 18, 2021. All news sources in the dataset published at least 5,000 articles over the time period. This breaks down to at least 10 articles per day.
BBC scored an average Factual Grade of 65.70% across 14,242 articles. This is above the 62.0% average for articles across the entire dataset, placing BBC in the 50th percentile. BBC’s high journalistic standards and unique funding model explain these reliable scores. Moreover, BBC’s larger than average workforce allows it to dedicate journalists to specific topics, leading to high author expertise.
As rated by The Factual’s credibility algorithm, article scores for each news source vary significantly. This demonstrates how measurements of author expertise, writing tone, and provided evidence change vary both by publisher and article. For instance, some articles from BBC scored 90% or above, while others scored below 50%.
A high grade means an article is informative, relatively objective, and written by a topical expert. A low grade means many of these elements were not present or could not be verified. Such articles may still have merit, but readers should know to treat them with greater scrutiny. (To learn more, visit our How It Works page.)
How Biased Is BBC?
Based on assessments from media bias organizations, The Factual assigns BBC a “Moderate Left” bias. These provided ratings are relevant specifically to BBC’s online published content, not its television programming. However, we do examine bias may be relevant throughout the organization.
AllSides gives BBC a “Center,” rating although it notes the site sometimes displays a “Lean Left” bias. This is based on an editorial review, community feedback (55,345 ratings), a blind survey, and independent third-party analysis and research. While liberal bias is intermittently present, there is “no predictable pattern to publishing material that may favor either end of the political spectrum — conservative or liberal.” An August 2020 community survey found that “people from across the political spectrum on average view BBC’s content as on the borderline of a Lean Left and Center bias,” but the AllSides editorial team agreed that BBC has some left-leaning bias, mostly shown by bias by omission or bias by placement.
An editorial review by Allsides highlighted some examples of these biases. A team member with a conservative bias stated BBC is Lean Left “because of its story choice around summer of 2020 protests and riots in major U.S cities [which] featured attacks on reporters but did not focus on widespread arson, looting, violence.” Conversely, another team member with a liberal bias stated that they sometimes noticed sensationalism in BBC’s writing, but “it is not used in a highly partisan context—for example, ‘Obama and Trump rip into each other’s record.’”
MediaBiasFactCheck (MBFC) also rates BBC as “Left-Center”, based on “story selection that slightly favors the left.” It also receives a “High” score for factual reporting and uses a diverse range of sources. Though it has failed a fact-check, it promptly issued a correction and it “always sources its information.” Moreover, BBC uses “minimal loaded words” for its headlines, such as “Cautious welcome for US-China climate agreement.” As a result, it is widely viewed as impartial by its readers and partner organizations.
Looking more broadly, BBC receives criticism at times, such as for its coverage of certain British politicians. During a popular Newsnight intro, a monologue on Dominic Cummings appeared to criticize his role as Chief Political Strategist to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Brexit. After this incident, in an effort to assuage fears of buas, the BBC hired a third-party fact-checker to ensure its social media account was impartial. Furthermore, they created a complaint system to help address the British public’s concerns of bias.
These changes come amid an environment of uncertainty at the BBC. The corporation faces challenges as it cuts funding, tries to retain its viewership, and innovates in a new media environment. Many younger viewers eschew conventional news media for other commercial platforms, and some of BBC’s most popular shows have been canceled, leaving it cash-strapped. BBC’s leadership may be considering removing the “license fee” in favor of more commercialized contracts, which are viewed as toxic for its journalistic obligation by many in its newsrooms.
Who Owns BBC?
A Royal Charter established the BBC in 1922. Initially a private business, it transformed into a public broadcasting corporation in 1926. A significant majority of its funding comes from a public tax called a licence fee. The British Parliament can change this through legislation at any time. In 2019, BBC generated a total income of £4.9 billion ($6.3 billion), of which £3.5 billion ($4.5 billion) came from the licence fee. This fee has increasingly faced criticism as British viewership has decreased by 30% over the past decade. Its leadership consists of 13 members with broad experience across business, non-profits, and government.
How to Mitigate Bias
Of course, having an overall Moderate Left bias does not disqualify BBC from producing factual news. Most news articles have some bias because all authors have some frame of reference within which they describe a story. Political bias ratings are useful in understanding this framing. However, it can be more useful to know how factual an article is based on the cited evidence and whether the tone of writing is objective or opinionated. This is what the Factual Grade ascertains. Reading several highly rated articles across the political spectrum, from highly credible liberal and conservative sources, helps counter the framing bias of any news source or story. Bias is a part of the human condition and any journalism ethics class teaches students to be mindful of this in every interaction and article.