Does it matter if newspapers are biased?

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THE answer to the question “Are newspapers biased?” belongs in the same category as the one about the Pope’s religion and the woodland toilet habits of bears.

To no general surprise from this ledge-bound observer, a new YouGov poll across Europe finds that British people are the most likely to say their press is right wing, and also too negative about immigration.

The polling organisation reminds us, in introducing its results, that journalists are often thought to be biased. Such criticism is directed often at the BBC, it points out. During the last election, the Corporation was criticised by Labour for giving too much prominence to fears over a deal with the SNP, and also ticked off by Nigel Farage when the Ukip leader became outraged after being booed on Question Time. A harrumphing Farage declared the audience remarkable “even by the left-wing standards of the BBC”.

I reckon that booing Nigel Farage ought to be as natural to a proud Briton as mumbling the words to the national anthem, but there you go. Since the election, incidentally, supporters of Jeremy Corbyn have spent much time laying into the BBC for being institutionally right-wing.

The BBC was not, however, in the brief for this YouGov survey. The research asked people in seven European countries to assess newspaper bias in five areas. The pollsters concluded: “At most 32% of British people say the media gets the right balance (on crime), falling behind the European average on housing, health, immigration and economics.”

The poll also decreed that on average British people are “more likely than any other country to see the media as skewed towards the right (26 per cent compared to 23 per cent for Finland and 19 per cent for France)”.

The poll then subtracted the percentages for those who thought newspapers were biased to the left, and Britain’s media was still viewed as having a right-wing bias.

I’d say the bias of newspapers moves in an out of focus depending on the election cycle. When an election looms, The Sun, the Mail, the Times and Sunday Times, the Telegraph and the Express will all point their big smoking guns at Labour. Only the Mirror will attack the Conservatives, while the Guardian, the Observer and the Independent titles may offer qualified support to Labour, although that is not guaranteed.

Outside of an election, the bias subsides a little but never evaporates.

An interesting question, not covered by the YouGov poll, is whether any of this matters. There are two areas to be looked at here: reader sophistication, and the internet and social media.

Someone might read The Sun, say, because they like the style of the newspaper and feel it fits the shape of their day – and they might even do that if they usually vote Labour. They will be smart enough to spot when the newspaper is being biased.

Once this mattered more that it does, because once newspapers, TV and radio had the news agenda sewn up. Today opinion spawns online in wild mushrooming profusion. Much online comment is more biased than anything in any newspaper; but at least it is out there, offering a balance of sorts.

Perhaps a bigger question, and one that undoes some of what I’ve just said, is that seeking a balanced view is too much effort for many readers and consumers of news. They prefer to stay where they are comfortable and where their prejudices fit like the contours of an old armchair.

The bias of newspapers is further complicated by the way they are owned, with a mogul such as Rupert Murdoch having a world political view he might wish to ‘share’ with his editors.

As a rule, media moguls tend not to have left-wing opinions. Robert Maxwell did once own the Daily Mirror, but his example is far from shining. According to onetime Mirror editor Roy Greenslade, “Maxwell was impossible to work for, a mercurial man with a monstrous ego.” After his death at sea, Maxwell was also found to have misappropriated the Mirror pension fund.

As for newspaper bias, just remember not to swallow every inky word. Stay sceptical, stay wary – but don’t get obsessed about it.

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