Bending over backwards: the BBC and the Brexit campaign – EU Referendum Analysis 2016

Bending over backwards: the BBC and the Brexit campaign

BBC journalists, under their Editorial Guidelines, have an obligation to provide balanced coverage, but what precisely does balance mean? The BBC has long accepted that when reporting climate change it does not have to seek a balance between the views of most of the world’s scientists and those who deny climate change. But there was no similar judgement made during the EU referendum campaign resulting in coverage that was, unintentionally, misleading. The problem was that virtually every BBC radio and television news bulletins that I heard or watched contained a format of ‘balanced’ news that was stupefyingly predictable. A claim by the Remain or Leave campaign was automatically contradicted by a rebuttal from the other side. First, it made for tedious listening and viewing, second, it probably left much of the audience confused and third left them vulnerable to simplistic slogans e.g. £350 million going to the EU instead of the NHS.

The problem was that virtually every BBC radio and television news bulletins that I heard or watched contained a format of ‘balanced’ news that was stupefyingly predictable. A claim by the Remain or Leave campaign was automatically contradicted by a rebuttal from the other side. First, it made for tedious listening and viewing, second, it probably left much of the audience confused and third left them vulnerable to simplistic slogans

Let me offer three of the worst (and hence most memorable) examples of this phoney balance. First, just one day before the vote 1,280 business leaders signed a letter to The Times backing UK membership of the EU. Within this very headline the BBC ‘balanced’ the letter with a quote from one – repeat one – entrepreneur, Sir James Dyson, saying he was in favour of Leave. Dyson’s support for Leave had already been broadcast on the 11th June hence his statement on the eve of polling was hardly ‘news’. Nor was there any mention, in the more extensive web report of Dyson opposing The Times signatories of the fact that he had moved his entire business not just out of the UK but out of the EU, to Malaysia, a background fact highly relevant to the overall story.

Similarly when on the 20th June ten noble-prize winning economists warned of the dangers to the British economy of a Brexit the BBC ‘balanced’ this story with a quote from one economist – Patrick Minford, as they had done two days before, with a story of the IMF issuing a similar warning, and again the previous month when an Ipsos Mori poll found that 88% of UK economists were against Brexit. As eminent as Professor Minford might be, didn’t the absence of any other leading economists supporting the Leave campaign ring even the tiniest of alarm bells?

A third example of phoney balance came on the 13th June when the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown entered the debate urging Labour supporters to vote to remain. That story led the morning radio and TV bulletins but by mid-morning the BBC was leading, not on Brown’s speech, but on the Leave campaign’s rebuttal. This rebuttal was followed by a summary of what Brown had to say followed by clip from leading Leave campaigner Liam Fox saying why Labour supporters should reject Mr Brown’s advice. There is always pressure on broadcast journalists to keep finding a new top to a running story but editorial judgement is also required and in this case it was plainly lacking. Roger Mosey, the BBC’s former Editorial Director recently reported on a conversation with a senior BBC presenter who observed: “Balance has too often been taken to mean broadcasting televised press releases … Instead of standing back and assessing arguments, we have been broadcasting he says/she says campaign pieces, which rarely shed any light on anything.”

There was also a problem with campaign visuals. Who can forget the image and slogan on the Leave campaign battle bus? A claim that even Leave campaigners have subsequently said should not be taken too literally.

Rick Bailey, the BBC’s Chief Political Advisor, speaking on Radio 4’s Feedback programme implicitly accepted that the £350 million claim could not be justified. But when asked how TV and Radio news audiences would know this, he referred a Radio 4 programme about statistics – More or Less – that despite its quality, gets a fraction of the audiences for BBC News. So how ‘balanced’ is it to allow political leaders to appear in front of their own slogans, when this involves a palpably untrue statement being shown day-in-day out? If the campaigners were only prepared to make themselves available in front of the bus then surely the correct editorial decision would have been not to broadcast the footage but instead, to summarize what the campaigners were saying that day.

The other aspect of BBC balance that gives concern has been the attempt to ‘balance’ so-called elite opinion with that of the ‘common man or woman’. This has entailed two aspects of coverage worthy of criticism. First, there has been a tedious over-reliance on the ‘vox pop’ – the quick soundbite from a member of the public that gives the appearance of being representative but is probably atypical. And in the edit suite the vox pop of the man or woman denouncing all politicians as “liars” stands a far better chance of being used than more nuanced comments. This is dangerous ground. Roger Mosey refers to how these incidents then become amplified by being the focus of the BBC news reports of the programmes. He gives the example of a student who had criticised the Prime Minister as “waffling” being “elevated to the status of a national seer” and added “segments that discuss policy are ditched in favour of having as many “zingers” as possible in the News at Ten.”

So what’s the answer – one-sided partial coverage? No it’s simpler than that. What I am suggesting is that instead of interpreting balance as meaning “he says, she says”, editorial judgement would be better employed by balancing a positive Remain story, not with a rebuttal from Leave but with a positive Leave story, and vice versa. It might make for more work but it should also ensure a better informed electorate, more interesting viewing and, maybe who knows, even bigger audiences for news.