From the archive: Are right-wing think tanks really victims of bias – or unduly privileged?

Michael Harris /   January 9, 2013 at 8:36 PM 12,050 views

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A couple of weeks ago the Thatcherite Centre for Policy Studies published a report complaining that the BBC exhibits its supposed liberal bias in the way it describes think tanks from different parts of the political spectrum. But the real bias exhibited by the BBC and other media is the one that favours political class insiders over other voices.

The CPS’s report, Bias at the Beeb? by Dr Oliver Latham of Cambridge University, is certainly a strange one. It’s not unusual for think tanks to criticise how stories are covered in the media and how their particular perspective on an issue has been overlooked, but the CPS report is one long complaint about the coverage they do receive.

The CPS seems to believe it has uncovered part of the ‘secret code’ of BBC bias: that right-wing think tanks are described as being ‘right-wing’ more often than centre-left think tanks are described as being ‘centre-left’. Further, the BBC’s news agenda is seemingly determined by reading the Guardian rather than the Telegraph, thus ‘confirming’ the right’s view of the BBC as dominated by a ‘liberal metropolitan elite’.

The CPS’s lack of confidence in their argument, despite its “compelling evidence”, is perhaps betrayed by the question mark at the end of the report’s title. The methodological flaws are fairly obvious, such as: why focus only on the BBC (and just online at that) rather than other media outlets; why is describing the (often self-declared) political allegiance of a think tank a meaningful indicator of institutional bias (as opposed to say criticising or even ignoring reports or issues); and perhaps most damningly, could it be that viewed as objectively as possible, the CPS’s work just isn’t as credible as that from some other think tanks (hence the reason its reports might be ignored by some media outlets, and require a ‘health warning’ as to its political affiliations by others)?

Certainly the latter explanation is supported by the following: according to what is in effect a test of Dr Latham’s methodology, Demos is the most left-leaning think tank in its list of 40 and Chatham House is the second most left-wing, the Institute of Economic Affairs is more left-wing than both the Social Market Foundation and CentreForum (the clue’s surely in the name), ResPublica is apparently on the left, the RSA and the Nuffield Trust are hotbeds of radicalism, and IPPR is extremely right-wing.

As Dr Latham drily acknowledges “…such idiosyncrasies are not ideal”. The report’s thesis is also holed below the waterline by the fact that the think tank referred to by the BBC as being ‘independent’ far more than any other is the Centre for Social Justice, which even the CPS recognises as being right-wing.

Further, we can also ask:

  • How legitimate is it for one highly partial organisation to criticise another organisation for its alleged lack of impartiality (or as the CPS puts it delicately, ‘slant’)?
  • Would it better if the CPS and other conservative think tanks weren’t described for viewers according to their obvious political biases (can they really claim to be ‘independent’)?
  • Do right-wing think tanks complain about the bias of other news outlets they also get covered in, most obviously (but not limited to) right-wing newspapers?
  • And why, most curiously, aren’t the CPS and their ilk proud of being conservative?

On the last point, it’s an interesting contrast with the US that American conservatives wouldn’t blanche at being described as such – indeed, their political strategy over the past 40 years has included trying to make the term ‘conservative’ a universal positive – whereas their UK counterparts seem much more embarrassed, at least in public. The CPS’s founders Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph would surely call for more conservative backbone in this regard.

And if we’re talking about describing think tanks accurately for audiences, shouldn’t their funders also be identified, so that viewers or readers can come to a fuller understanding of potential influences on their work?

Unfortunately, even if this were practical in the space of short news items, it wouldn’t be possible in the case of the Centre for Policy Studies (or most other right-wing think tanks), since we know so little about who funds them.

One practical suggestion for news outlets might be never to grant coverage to any organisation unless we know who is paying their bills – would the CPS agree, in the name of transparency?

None of these questions however point to the real problem with the CPS’s report – that it’s a particularly churlish piece of analysis because it overlooks the privileged position that think tanks such as the CPS are granted by right, often undeservingly so.

The quality of think tanks’ research varies greatly, from rigorous to downright ropey. Think tanks such as the CPS often receive coverage because they are a convenient way for the media to provoke debates, and because of their supposed political connections (i.e. they are presumed to indicate currents in party thinking), rather than because of the credibility of their work (in contrast to say the much more evidence-based Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Resolution Foundation or the Kings Fund).

Few correspondents have the time, or frankly the understanding, to interrogate whether a report is methodologically sound in research terms. That’s especially fortunate for the think tanks for which ‘relevance’ regularly trumps rigour. So the real question raised by the CPS report isn’t why a think tank established by conservatives should be described as such – it’s why the CPS should receive coverage at all. Why are they so special, amongst the hundreds if not thousands of campaign groups, charities, researchers and commentators? Why do they have some special legitimacy? Indeed, what grants them legitimacy at all?

After all, think tanks don’t really represent anyone expect themselves. Their proposals aren’t popularly supported, as opposed to say a campaign formulated through online platforms such as 38 Degrees or Change.org. Their ideas aren’t necessarily representative of public opinion; indeed, the reason that think tanks such as the CPS and the Adam Smith Institute were founded was because their ideas were marginal and required new institutions to promote them. So, why are we listening to them at all?

The more legitimate debate is not who gets described as what (especially when its true), but which issues get covered and whose voices are included. Take the debate over welfare. Recently we’ve seen a rash of programmes (some on the BBC) about the welfare state and whether it is ‘too generous’ – never whether it is sufficiently ‘generous’ in its support for people to survive. But rarely, beyond the occasional soundbite, are the voices of ordinary people or even public service workers given much time to explain their perspective on policy as it affects them. This reinforces the assumption that policy is only a matter for the political class (and we wonder why there’s mass disengagement from politics – people have got the message).

The CPS report refers to an “extensive literature” on ‘BBC bias’ – but only manages to cite reports from Policy Exchange, the New Culture Forum (which campaigns against the “triumph of cultural relativism and political correctness”), and the CPS itself. Dr Latham’s Friday afternoon googling apparently failed to uncover amongst others the highly-respected work of Greg Philo and colleagues at the Glasgow Media Group, Cardiff University’s work on how the BBC gives far more airtime to Conservatives than Labour, or even the recent judgement by the BBC Trust that the John Humphrey-fronted lament about the welfare state was inaccurate and misleading.

If one of Dr Latham’s student turned in such a weak review of the existing literature, they’d be sent down from Cambridge. With the BBC under new leadership, the CPS is right to prompt a debate about what could be improved about its reporting, but its conclusions are partial and self-serving. As indicated by the BBC’s incoming head of news James Harding (former editor of the Times no less), the issue with the Corporation’s news output is that it too-often follows debates (initiated by political class insiders such as newspapers and think tanks), rather than creating its own agenda through investigations into neglected issues.

The message for the Centre for Policy Studies and other think tanks is: stop complaining, you don’t know how lucky you are.

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