For many, BBC bias is straightforward. It is about government supporters running the organisation, and others being scared of the financial implications of upsetting the government. While both are undoubtedly important, on their own they would imply that other broadcasters, like ITV for example, should behave very differently. So when both the BBC and ITV fail to hold the government to account over a key mistake, where thousands of lives were at stake, we need to look at other sources of pro-government bias.
We should all remember how the government decided, in the crucial initial stages of the pandemic, that herd immunity was the right approach. Everybody was going to get Covid, so the argument went, so all the government should do is try and manage when people became ill to avoid over stretching the NHS. It was an incredibly stupid strategy , and an immensely harmful one, but that wasn’t obvious to most people, including myself, in the beginning of March.
In my case that was and wasn't surprising. Was because I had helped write a paper about a flu endemic ten years earlier, so I was familiar with the key variables that would govern how serious a pandemic would be. Wasn't because the flu pandemic we modelled as a base case was not serious enough to depart from herd immunity. In addition I think I put too much trust in the way medical advice was being channelled into government , and there was no real debate about strategy in the media. So I wrote something in early March about what my paper was about - the economic effects of a flu pandemic - without really realising what was and wasn’t relevant for the pandemic we were entering.
Yet by mid-March I wrote a second post on the pandemic, with the title “Coronavirus and the consequences of a compliant media”. The government’s strategy was coming apart, and I was looking for the reasons why I hadn’t spotted that it would earlier. I had seen, for example, what Irish media were saying about what the UK was doing, thanks to this tweet from James Meadway. It was one of those moments when you see a really simple argument put forward, and think why didn’t I see that, and then why didn’t the government see that. My post was in essence an elaboration of James’s reminder of Amartya Sen's point that more press freedom means fewer deaths in famines, because well-informed citizens can monitor their government better & make demands of it. My post argued the same might be true in pandemics, and our media had failed to allow UK citizens to be well informed.
That is a very personal view, and there is always the possibility that my impressions of what the broadcast media was doing in the UK was unfair. Some recent academic research suggests it was not. A study by Greg Philo and Mike Berry in the British Journal of Sociology looked at ITV and BBC coverage before the first lockdown on 23rd March 2020. Here is an extract from their conclusions:
“the scientific critics of government policy were sparsely featured. They occasionally appear in isolated, free floating comments but their views are not developed into an alternative perspective on policy. In contrast, broadcasters devoted substantial coverage to explaining and endorsing the government's approach to the pandemic. Little of the coverage on international responses focused on countries which have suppressed the virus and their successful containment measures appear as discrete fragments that are not unpacked or contrasted with the British approach.”
The study shows that the BBC and ITV were very similar in this respect, so we are not talking about a specific BBC problem here.
People often complain about contrarian views not being given adequate exposure when issues are contested, but in this case we know the government’s herd immunity strategy was a huge mistake, that costtens of thousands of lives. So it is very important to know why the media chose to spend so little time discussing alternative strategies, including the one the government eventually adopted.
The first possible reason for the uncritical attitude in most of the broadcast media is the idea that the media should become more of a government mouthpiece in a ‘national emergency’. Governments always have a fear of mass panic, and see broadcasters as a means of preventing that happening. Broadcasters normally accept they should play this role to some extent at least. Yet ironically in early March reassurance was completely the wrong advice to give people. More importantly, while uncritical coverage might make some sense when there is little disagreement about what the government was doing, in this case there was substantial disagreement among UK experts, with many believing the government was taking the wrong course. Indeed, alarm bells should have been ringing when it became clear that the UK was almost an international outlier in its initial Covid policy. Just as in a famine, the media becoming a mouthpiece for official policy in a pandemic increases the number of lives lost.
The second reason for this media failure, and I think in this case much more important, is that most of the reporting on the pandemic was done by Westminster based political correspondents. To again quote from the paper:
“Much reporting, as our analysis demonstrated, came from Lobby journalists—particularly the political editors at both channels—who were key framers of the government's policy responses. As noted earlier, this immersion within the ‘Westminster bubble’, and the need to maintain access and cordial relations with government sources, may mitigate against critical journalism.”
This is a point I have increasingly made about poor economics reporting, and it is also clear from reading the recent report on the BBC’s coverage of fiscal policy issues. The major broadcasters  seem to think that all the headline stories that have a political dimension should be covered by their front-line political reporters, and this ensures two things. First, that the reporters will almost certainly know very little about the issue they are reporting on, and second that they are the reporters that are most subject to government pressure (but not command) because they need to maintain access (and the BBC’s case because of external and internal pressure).
While it is tempting to think about this in political terms, I think it is equally about skewed journalistic values. Why do Westminster's political journalists crave access to government thinking? I suspect there are two reasons. The first is the excessive importance journalists give to the ‘scoop’, or ‘exclusive’. I say this is excessive, because in today’s age news travels so fast that no one outside journalism cares very much about which broadcaster is the first to reveal some government policy or announcement. The scoops people remember don’t come from government spin doctors but from elsewhere.
The second is the idea of the political journalist being an insider in the political horse race. We hear constantly about policy in terms of how one side thinks it will affect their political chances, rather than the actual impact that policy will have on citizens. This is something that may benefit the journalists involved (as some move to become party spin doctors), but it is actually harmful for viewers. It is not a problem unique to the UK. Abolishing the Lobby will not change it. Political journalists don't have the incentives to change it. The only people who can change it are those in charge of news at the major broadcasters. 
When I saw how the media were happy to push macroeconomic ignorance during the first austerity period I initially looked for reasons that were peculiar to economics (such as the role played by City economists). However the media failure during the pandemic was at least as bad (after the end of herd immunity, they pushed the flawed health vs economy message), and I suspect medical experts felt just as frustrated by the media’s failure to distinguish between knowledge and spin as experts on macroeconomics had a few years earlier.
But those are just two examples among many. I will never forget the BBC news report after Johnson secured a Brexit deal with the EU. Laura Kuenssberg repeated what must have been the government’s spin that Johnson had achieved what few thought possible, while their Brussels correspondent Katya Adler in the same bulletin pointed out that Johnson had essentially just accepted the first proposal put forward by Brussels over a year earlier. Yet Kuenssberg began and ended the bulletin, so it was the spin rather than the reality that most viewers would have remembered.
This idea that broadcasting repeatedly fails to explain, and instead focuses far too much on Westminster politicking, is far from new. As long as broadcasters give prominence to political journalists, at the expense of journalists with subject knowledge derived in part through contacts with experts, then politicians will continue to exert undue influence on what is reported, and broadcasters will fail to alert their viewers to major mistakes the government is making, even though those mistakes are obvious to most experts.
 In a pandemic where the infection is new, there has to be a good chance that either a vaccine will be developed, or that knowledge about how to mitigate its effects will quickly improve, or both. For this reason, once it was clear how dangerous Covid was, herd immunity was a terrible strategy.
 If I'm being self critical I should have known better. Government's can all too easily set the terms of reference for expert committees that narrow options, sometimes without participants being fully aware of what is happening until too late.
 This problem was perhaps less acute with C4 News, where I have the impression they give more space and prominence to subject editors. (I have less personal knowledge of Sky News.) Jackie Long was one of the better reporters during the pandemic.
 A related aspect of seeing everything in a party political frame is that the two-sided debate becomes the default format. This format is so misleading when the scientific consensus is on one side. For various reasons, including money, you will always find contrarian scientists prepared to oppose the consensus, but it is completely misleading for the media to use this fact to suggest to viewers there is division when there is almost none.