Statistics are the best. Generally speaking, they take large quantities of data and simplify them into a easily quotable and simple to explain number. This is done through the application of a range of tried and tested techniques – from the humble %, to more complex analytical techniques that can bring huge mainframe computers to their knees.
The choice of which technique to use and the prose surrounding the presentation of these results however falls much closer to an art form. While statistical analysis can often be employed to back up existing and valid conclusions, it can also be deployed as a shroud to hide off-putting details. Indeed, the prevalence of this practice is the basis of Dr Ben Goldacre’s fame, with his excellent books and blogs highlighting and exposing cherry-picked statistical conclusions in the pharmaceutical industry. And as a thinly-veiled attempt to throw my own hat into the ring, I feel obliged to have a dig at one of my favourite British institutions – the BBC.
A recent report, published and dissected widely disputed the frequently heard claim of left-leaning BBC bias (unsurprisingly, a claim more frequently emerging from right-wing politicians and press). The report states that a detailed statistical analysis shows that Conservative politicians receive more air time on BBC news and current affairs programs, even when corrected for the bias that always favours those in power. On two other big issues raised, the BBC showed a favourable appearance bias towards sources representing big business and Euroscepticism – both viewpoints correlating with traditional Conservative values. The report concludes that these three points indicate that if anything, right-wing views are prevalent in BBC current affairs output.
In my eyes, there are two major flaws to this analysis. Firstly, the report simply assessed the quantity of air-time granted to a political party. A valid statistical technique, but unfortunately, not one that differentiates politicians proclaiming policy from behind a podium, and those that are subjected to a grilling. Given the number of clips of politicians becoming flustered when subjected to a verbal battering that can be found on YouTube, I don’t know if they quite give off the positive PR implied by a straightforward count.
My other issue comes with the limit to the scope of the report. “The BBC” as it is often criticised is made up of much more than simply current affairs programming. I don’t know if it’s entirely fair to exclude the rest of the corporation’s output, particularly given that some of it comes with opinions too. Comedy in particular is well represented, and is traditionally an industry for those with left-leaning views of varying intensity. As an art form, comedy can pick a target in any direction, however satire will always punch upwards and so will always feel like it’s picking on those in privileged positions – both politically and from the upper echelons of society where the visible majority of politicians are often seen to be emanating from.
Should the BBC be hiring and airing material from right-wing comedians? I don’t think that’s really practical – right-wing comedy is a dangerous area, notoriously difficult to pitch without causing offence, and you’ll run into a very limited field of people to work with as well. I’d like to argue that we just need to accept an uneven playing field when outside the world of current affairs. That would be unpalatable to some, but maybe conservative bias in current affairs and liberal in satire might balance to an acceptable degree.