An in-depth survey by News-watch of the recently-launched television news channel GB News has found that its coverage of sensitive immigration issues was more balanced, detailed and wide-ranging than that of the BBC’s news programmes and BBC News 24. The BBC coverage was weighted very strongly towards those opposed to stricter controls on immigration. By comparison, GB News incorporated that perspective (with more coverage than that on the BBC), but also included the opinions of those who are demanding stricter controls in line with the government’s Immigration Bill.
This is the report’s executive summary:
GB News launched on June 13, 2021, with a specific aim stated its editorial charter to present high quality balanced news and to ensure that all opinions were reflected and respected, including those from members of the public, in its output.
This survey was conducted to examine whether the news channel is meeting these editorial ambitions, and also to compare the quality and range of its news coverage with that of the BBC. In this connection the BBC’s Charter stipulates that the news it provides must meet the highest editorial standards and provide ‘a range and depth of analysis and content not widely available from other United Kingdom news providers’. In other words, better than its rivals.
The survey covered all the output of GB News and selected BBC news programmes from 6am to midnight on July 6, 2021, a day chosen at random. The treatment of one of the day’s biggest news items – the government’s Nationality and Borders Bill (details of which were announced on that day) – was the focus of analysis.
All relevant programme items were fully transcribed and 24 themes related to coverage were isolated, including factual descriptions of the bill, the perspectives of the government and campaigners, statistics on the numbers making the crossing, possible solutions to the crisis, and opinions from members of the general public.
Significant differences in the quality and quantity of coverage emerged. GB News covered the bill and its ramifications, together with opinion for and against, in much more detail. The BBC devoted 3.3% of its available airtime in the monitored programmes, compared to 12.4% of total airtime by GB News.
The BBC’s relevant content was skewed heavily towards that the new bill would deter genuine asylum seekers entering the UK. That of GB News also incorporated similar negative views of the bill, but contained a wider spectrum of views in its favour and unlike the BBC, included substantial input from members of the public on a matter of huge public concern.
The BBC output in the survey – from 11 flagship news programmes plus the content of the News Channel – devoted just 54 minutes of airtime to the story, half of which was repetitive short items on the News Channel. Six of the main news programmes (such as BBC2 Newsnight and the BBC1 News at Ten) ignored the story, and the biggest chunk of original coverage (approximately 12 minutes) was a discussion on BBC2 Politics Live.
GB News, by contrast, devoted a total of 134 minutes to coverage , and it featured prominently in all seven of the monitored programmes.
As is shown in the full report (p.3) In 18 of the 24 identified themes, the GB News coverage was more detailed than the BBC’s. The biggest differences were in the following categories:
- Opinions from the Public – GB News 3,185 words, nothing from the BBC;
- People Smuggling Gangs and Illegality – 2,546 words on GB News against only 542 from the BBC;
- Were those crossing the Channel genuine asylum seekers or economic migrants? – coverage on GB News was 2,348 words, with only 53 words from the BBC.
Four themes were covered by GB News but not at all by the BBC:
- Opinions from the public;
- Criticisms from the UKIP/Brexit Party perspective about the potential effectiveness of the bill (672 words – an interview with Nigel Farage);
- That the incomers could be dangerous because many were adults posing as children and not genuine asylum seekers (339 words);
- The asylum system potentially being at breaking point (223 words).
Only two themes of the BBC coverage (amounting to less than two minutes) were not covered by GB News:
- UK cutting its international aid budget (131 words);
- Criticism of the general media coverage of asylum issues (118 words)
Substantial differences between the BBC and GB News also emerged from the interview sequences. The BBC interviewed six contributors about the bill compared with seven on GB News, but the word count discrepancy was much greater: 3,029 words (BBC) against 5,259. Thus GB News devoted significantly more airtime to exploration of a range of opinion about the story.
On the BBC, most space was devoted to figures who opposed the bill because they believed it made it tougher for genuine asylum seekers to enter the UK, and who were deeply critical of the UK’s record of the treatment of genuine refugees. The main interview sequence on BBC2 Politics Live (representing 25 per cent of the airtime devoted to the bill) featured a government minister ranged against three spokespeople who for a range of political, economic and human rights reasons, strongly opposed the bill.
GB News interviews included almost as much pro-asylum seeker opinion against the bill as on the BBC (1,484 against 1,567 words), but also contained views from a range of perspectives which welcomed the bill, including the government, a think-tank worried about overall immigration levels and border control officials who wanted to stop people-smuggling.
The BBC’s first public purpose in its Charter, covering news provision, states:
The BBC should provide duly accurate and impartial news, current affairs and factual programming to build people’s understanding of all parts of the United Kingdom and of the wider world. Its content should be provided to the highest editorial standards. It should offer a range and depth of analysis and content not widely available from other United Kingdom news providers, using the highest calibre presenters and journalists, and championing freedom of expression, so that all audiences can engage fully with major local, regional, national, United Kingdom and global issues and participate in the democratic process, at all levels, as active and informed citizens.
It contains a specific requirement that the corporation provides a news service better than other news providers. This findings are that only shows that only three weeks after its launch GB News covered a major national story in greater depth and at a much higher quality than the BBC, not least because it better achieved ‘due impartiality’ in providing a range of views about the bill, including public opinion.
It is arguable that the BBC’s coverage did not meet its public purpose obligations because it was both clearly biased and failed ‘to provide a range and depth of analysis not available from other UK news providers.’ In sharp contrast, GB News clearly met the requirements of its own Editorial Charter.
BBC Director General Tim Davie, appearing before the House of Commons DCMS Select Committee meeting of September 21, 2021, said that he was worried about what he described ‘BBC groupthink’ and was on a mission to ensure that an appropriate variety of opinion was featured in corporation output. On the evidence of this paper, he has a very long way to go.
 This was also despite that the total amount of monitored BBC programming added up to more than 27 hours, compared with 18 hours of the GB News output.
The full News-watch report is available here.