London Mayoral Elections: Detecting BBC Bias through Google?

I don’t foray into politics on this blog, but nonetheless you can find some interesting stats using Google around the issue.

The BBC’s charter instructs it to maintain a fair balance in political reporting through the news – giving a proportional share of editorial space and coverage to all interested parties. Famously, the BNP’s performance during the late 2000s led to appearances on Question Time for Nick Griffin as part of this remit to even-handedness.

But lingering suspicions about the corporation’s bias remain. Rare is a week that passes without some politician or other averring that the BBC shows bias against his or her side of a debate. But thanks to Google, it’s possible to do some high-level stats to test the notion of balance. A good example is the election for London Mayor* – now just days away.

Current polls for the London Mayoral elections are quite revealing. The major parties – Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems are naturally standing candidates – as  well as The Green Party, UKIP, BNP and a number of independents and small parties.

Firstly, bear in mind that by current polling figures, UKIP is expected to poll around 3% of the vote  –  around exactly that of the Greens.

So you’d expect that the BBC would be giving coverage to these parties more or less equally, right? I did some snuffling around using Google and found the following facts.

Of the main candidates, the results are more evenly split but still indicate some imbalances

As the incumbent, it is difficult to separate election-related stories for Boris Johnson from stories that involve him in his role as mayor – Google treats “mayor” and “mayoral” as equivalents. It is likely that the number of mentions he has received in the specific context of the election is actually fairly similar to that of Livingstone, but filtering signal from noise isn’t easily done.

Despite this, some interesting facts leap out.

  • Brian Paddick receives 66% of the number of mentions of Ken Livingstone does, despite only 8% of polled Londoners declaring their intention to vote for the Lib Dem compared to 41% for Livingstone.
  • Jenny Jones is given almost as much coverage as as Paddick, despite only 3% of voters saying they will vote Green.
  • Siobhan Benita receives fewer mentions than Jones, despite being at least equal to her in the polls
  • The BNP received more coverage than UKIP despite only polling at only 1% in contrast to 3% for UKIP
  • UKIP receive the least coverage of the ‘major’ parties (and by some margin) despite polling more highly than either the Greens, Independents or BNP.

Of course, this is all just fun and games but I think it’s possible to construct a view of how the BBC is covering the London Mayoral elections and it’s not one that the BBC should be proud of. The Liberal Democrats receive far more coverage than their likely share of the vote would suggest they should- and the paucity of coverage given to UKIP is pretty damning. That is nothing compared the favour shown to the Greens, who receive almost as much coverage as the Liberal Democrats, despite their even smaller share of the vote.

It must be allowed that the BBC disproportionately favours the Greens and the Liberal Democrats and almost ignores UKIP altogether, despite the backdrop of falling interest in green issues and increasing concern over the future of the EU.

*As I’m not a Londoner, and won’t be voting, none of this matters to me except in the abstract matter of how the election is being covered.


2011: Still Old Media Doesn’t Get it

“Both Google and Facebook offer their services to users apparently for free. But the services are not of course free. Both companies sell the information that users provide – in search data, or personal profiles.

Apparently, these companies mostly sell their (your) information to advertisers who mine the data in order to target consumers more effectively. But, despite fervent declarations about transparency, in fact, it’s very hard to find out exactly to whom they sell the data or what the “data miners” do with it. McDonald’s or the CIA? We’re not told, even though it is information about us that they are trading.”

So sayeth the Guardian. Given their political stance, it’s little wonder that they immediately leap from ‘advertisers’ in the generic to “McDonald’s or the CIA” in the specific. In the gothic imaginings of the left, The CIA and McDonald’s are handy ciphers for Government and Capitalist evil respectively – which pretty much informs the tone of the whole post.

In fact, neither Facebook nor Google sell your information to anyone. Instead, they allow advertisers to target you through information freely offered by you. And it’s all done at an aggregated level. In, well, the same way that the Guardian itself operates.

“We also ask some further, voluntary questions so we can gain a clearer understanding of our users. Your responses help us to sell appropriate advertising space and so keep the site free. They also enable us to personalise services for our users. We do not share this information with third parties unless you have specifically consented to this.”

No-one at Glaxo Smithkline is sitting there reading specifically about me. Or you. Or anyone. They have, however, instructed Facebook to show an ad for washing powder to any male between 30 and 45 who talks about trousers. Just as Google sells search slots based on, well, searches.

But hey – if you’d rather do it the old way and just get blanketed with formless, unpersonalised mailshots – don’t use Google or Facebook!

My Contempt for the Press

The press, we are told, is the exposer of hypocrisies, purveyor of the truth, defender of liberty and champion of justice. Rarely does a day go by when the media won’t claim victory for itself in the personal or professional ruination of Person X or Person Y, who has been found wanting in the cold stare of press indignation.

How hollow and shabby do those claims ring in 2011?

Well this week, we see that The Sun and The Mirror are charged with contempt of court for portraying an innocent man as “lewd” and “creepy” during the investigation of the disappearance of Joanna Yeates. He had been arrested for questioning at the time of the investigation but the courts found that the coverage of his arrest was so prejudicial as to potentially render a fair trial impossible. They were not alone: The Telegraph still carries a page rife with innuendo:

“However, another former pupil of Mr Jefferies, David Gawain, said: “He had a tendency of wanting to get his own way. If you had not done your prep or other things like learning poems, he used to shout at you. I went to his flat with my English class once and he began shouting at us because we were not behaving ourselves.”

We also now know that The News of the World were prepared to sanction the ‘hacking’ (although the phrase – popularised in the media – is also inaccurate) of the phone of missing Milly Dowler.

In the same case, 6 newspapers now face charges of contempt of court by their coverage of the case. which caused the collapse of a second prosecution of Levi Bellfield: again for the prejudicial nature of their coverage

Less seriously, but no less tellingly, the press rushed to cover the “beautiful people Shrek virus” story which was, of course, nothing more than a got-up piece of PR puff which they swallowed gladly and regurgitated over their front pages while the EU balances over the edge of a continuing economic precipice which could yet bring ruination to us all.

The ‘quality’ end of the press also finds its nose rubbed in its own do-do this week. Johann Hari has been exposed as a plagiarist. He might dance on the head of a pin with his explanations but outside the media circle, all we say was another liar exposed at the heart of our media.

So far from purveyors of the truth, the media stands exposed as peddlars of lies, corrupters of justice, destroyers of lives.

The press think that you are simple, manipulable and often vile. Sometimes, the expression of their contempt for you is very direct. Andrew Marr, now revealed to be a hypocrite of the first water, spoke publicly about bloggers last year:

“ citizen journalism is the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night. It is fantastic at times but it is not going to replace journalism. A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother’s basements and ranting “

Even if not expressed so directly, the likes of The Sun, championing such constructs as ‘white van man’ is nothing more than contempt with another face. The people who write for the Sun are highly educated, highly trained and work in an intense, technological field. The very notion that they share anything in background and outlook with the man on the Clapham omnibus is laughable.

Need we even talk about the likes of Jan Moir or Richard Littlejohn?

The charge sheet lengthens daily.

Contra Marr, we see bloggers holding journalism to account. From all parts of the political spectrum, bloggers  daily show up the media for what it is, exposing its lies and perversions. While no doubt personal ego plays a part, these people seek no power. They do not presume to be influencing policy or leading the country by the nose. It is they who are the truth seekers. They who fact check the media. They who act to express the discontent of people of all political persuasions.

I know and have known journalists. As individuals they are no more incorruptible or abnormal than you or I. They include good, honourable people as well as thieves and liars. Taken together, the form a terrifying cabal of untrammelled power and unwarranted influence.

We need a media with the power and the moral authority to speak truth to power and to question mercilessly the motivations of politicians and business in our interest.

In 2011, we don’t have one.



RIP Old Media

No one in their right mind would pay for the vast majority of newspaper content. Your choice has been reduced to:

  • Tits (n: mammary glands) and press releases
  • Tits (n: shrill newspaper columnists) and press releases

While each are entertaining in their own ways the world is hardly short of tits and opinion. And as these things are largely interchangeable they are effectively free and selling them is therefore almost impossible. Murdoch’s foolhardy attempt to put his content behind a paywall is half laudable, half mad.

But the flipside of the competition for your interest is a precipitous decline in serious reporting in the mainstream media.

Listening to Radio 4 while driving home recently, there was a report on progress at Fukushima. Having hauled in an expert from the IEAE the interviewer quickly got down to the most pressing issue: the “mood of the workers” knowing that the “whole world is willing them on”.

While I’m sure that makes for a moderately distracting human interest story, this is one of the flagship current affairs programs on the what is generally regarded as a beacon of journalistic quality. Fukushima has many dimensions to it that will strongly affect the future not just of the workers at the plant, but possibly of the world: European countries are pulling back from nuclear power in the wake of the event – including Germany – the industrial powerhouse of the entire European economy.

That’s a huge deal, and there is a very interesting story to explore there. Why a ‘disaster’ that has so far led to no directly attributable deaths can cause a kneejerk abandonment of a critical piece of energy infrastructure in a major economy, while almost simultaneously a localised health drama that has killed 35 people has been relegated to the “oh – is that still happening?” pile.

And of course almost all of the media also fell for a press release/linkbait.

Dear media: get real.

Whilst people on Twitter were calling on the scam almost immediately, the damage to media credibility was already done. The BBC might have surreptitiously gone back and re-edited the story to look at the PR angle, but they still link to the site. And on other sites as mighty as The Telegraph and The Guardian, the story still sits there, generated a higher profile for the company and passing valuable link equity.

And these are the sites which, in themselves, Google is happy to call ‘authoritative’.

The claims made for journalism – that it is fair, researched, driven by truth and independent of distortion by power and money are yet again show to be hollow. News coverage is now a commodity: name  the price you put on that coverage, and it’s yours for the taking.