Three-D Issue 27: The BBC, the Referendum and “Post-truth Politics”

In its referendum coverage, the BBC stood widely accused of misinterpreting its statutory requirement to treat news and current affairs with “due impartiality” as an obligation to be “balanced”. As a result, as David Cox puts it, “viewers and listeners seeking information were instead bombarded with contradictory and impenetrable claims and counter-claims” and so were inadequately informed of the crucial issues involved. Significantly such criticisms were voiced even by broadcasters themselves, such as Today presenter Justin Webb, and the senior presenter quoted by Roger Mosey, himself a former Today editor and Head of BBC Television News, who complained that “instead of standing back and assessing arguments, we have been broadcasting he says/she says campaign pieces, which rarely shed any light on anything”. Similarly, researchers at Cardiff University concluded that “our analysis of Referendum coverage suggests that, while broadcasters may have been even-handed in terms of giving both sides equal time, they could have more independently scrutinised, challenged or contextualised many of the facts and figures that were used repeatedly by both sides”. This is surely putting it pretty judiciously.

Of course, it needs to be stressed that once the referendum was announced, the BBC was put on notice by the usual bias bloodhounds that its coverage would be scrutinised even more doggedly than usual. Thus in June 2015, during the committee stage of the EU Referendum Bill, amendments were introduced by the UKIP peer Lord Pearson of Rannoch, and also by a group of MPs including Sir William Cash and Jacob Rees-Mogg, which called for the appointment of a “referendum broadcasting adjudicator” which would “draw up and publish guidance applicable to the referendum to ensure the impartiality of broadcasters during the referendum period, notwithstanding any relevant guidance currently in force or in draft”.

The culture secretary, John Whittingdale, in letters to Patricia Hodgson and Sharon White at Ofcom and Rona Fairhead at the BBC Trust, which were copied to the Chief Executives of ITV, C4, C5 and Sky, made it clear that although the government would resist the amendment, “the coverage of this referendum by our broadcasters must be beyond reproach”, and consequently “I would encourage Ofcom and the BBC Trust as the responsible regulators to consider whether your respective processes for redress for complaints which are upheld are as efficient and timely as possible” . This warning was publicly amplified in a Telegraph interview with Whittingdale on 19 June, which quotes him as saying:

There needs to be a very robust system in place for dealing with it [impartiality]. Whether or not the present governance is the right way of dealing with it – the fact that questions of impartiality are judged by the BBC Trust – that is an area which I want to think about because all the other broadcasters have an external regulator looking at the impartiality question. 

The interview ranged over various issues, but, significantly, the staunchly anti-BBC Telegraph chose to head it: “BBC Trust could be stripped of power to rule over allegations of bias, Culture Secretary says”, with the strapline: “In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, the new Culture Secretary hinted that an external regulator could be brought in to deal with issues of impartiality”.

Whether or not the BBC succumbed to government and newspaper pressure in its coverage of the referendum is impossible to ascertain, but the very fact that it appeared so timorous and over-cautious is a matter of considerable concern. Thus the first lesson to draw from the Corporation’s referendum coverage is the absolutely pressing need to defend the BBC’s independence from government, particularly in the light of the White Paper’s proposal that up to six members of the Corporation’s new unitary board should be appointed by government.

The second lesson is that the BBC must do its utmost to prevent the news agenda being set by the dominant political voices of the day. That this is exactly what happens is amply confirmed by the 2012 Cardiff University study, A BBC Trust Review of the Breadth of Opinion Reflected in the BBC’s Output, although the BBC has done its best to present its findings in a different light, as I point out in some detail out in my contribution to the edited collection Is the BBC in Crisis? (2014), which can also be read here . This was most certainly the case during the referendum, in which, as has been widely noted, a multi-facetted and highly complex issue of fundamental importance to the future of the whole of the UK was increasingly presented by the media, not least the BBC, as a parochial, blue-on-blue squabble. And this in spite of the fact that the BBC’s own Referendum Guidelines stated that:

Due impartiality is not necessarily achieved by the application of a simple mathematical formula or a stopwatch, but the objective – in a referendum with two alternatives – must be to achieve a proper balance between the two sides.  This will be irrespective of indications of relative levels of support.  However, referendums are seldom fought purely on the basis of just two opposing standpoints – on each side, where there is a range of views or perspectives, that should be reflected appropriately during the campaign. 

That the BBC signally failed to abide by these guidelines is amply confirmed by the findings of research undertaken by Loughborough University into BBC TV coverage of the referendum. Here the Conservatives (both Brexit and Remain) appeared most frequently (29.3%), Labour (mainly Remain) 10%, UKIP (Brexit) 4.2%, SNP (Remain) 0.7%, Lib-Dems (Remain) 0.7%, and other parties, including the Greens (Remain) 0.8%. Similarly, the most prominent issues in the BBC TV coverage were referendum conduct (28.9%), the economy/business (18.8%), immigration (15.6%), whilst other key issues were entirely marginalised or indeed ignored entirely: employment (3.4%), health (1.7%), housing (0.8%), devolution (1.5%), education (0.2%), the environment (0%). No wonder, then, that many people are only now beginning to become aware of the possible impact of Brexit on their daily lives.

The third lesson concerns how the BBC deals with controversial subjects in general. The fundamental question here for the BBC revolves around the range of views to which it should be giving voice. In his 2007 report for the BBC Trust, From See-Saw to Wagonwheel: Safeguarding Impartiality in the 21st Century, John Bridcut argued that

There are many issues where to hear “both sides of the case” is not enough: there are many more shades of opinion to consider … parliament can no longer expect to define the parameters of national debate: it can sometimes instigate it, but more often it has to respond to currents of opinion already flowing freely on the internet and in the media. The world no longer waits on parliamentary utterance, and parliamentary consensus should never stifle the debate of topical issues on the BBC – because it does not always correspond with the different strands of public opinion.

However, the BBC seems largely to have ignored Bridcut’s recommendations, or rather to have interpreted them as an argument for repeatedly inviting Nigel Farage onto Question Time and giving voice to “angry white men” in general. As Andy Johnson has shown in a fascinating article in The New European, 9 December, Farage has now appeared no less than 31 times on Question Time. Only ten other people have appeared more frequently. These include Paddy Ashdown, Kenneth Clarke and Shirley Williams, and between them the top ten account for 302 years spent as MPs. By contrast, Farage has never been an MP, and indeed has failed seven times to become one. A defensive e-mail from Question Time producer Michael Hunter has revealed that in 2015, Tories were on the panel 40 times, Labour 40, the Lib Dems 17, UKIP 15 and the SNP 12. So UKIP, with its one MP, appeared almost as much as one of the two coalition partners, and more than a party which had just won a landslide in Scotland, giving them 56 of the 59 seats available. UKIP were on the panel of 10 of the England-based 2016 editions of Question Time before the referendum – that is, 66% of the programmes. 12 of the 16 subsequent editions were held in towns and cities that voted Leave.

Of course, this is by no means an argument for having the Question Time panel composed of only MPs from the major parties, as judged by their presence at Westminster. But it is most certainly to argue that if UKIP members are to appear regularly on the panel, then other political parties with very low levels of representation at Westminster, should be treated accordingly, and that the Greens in particular should appear far more frequently than they do. Of course, the BBC might respond that UKIP received 12.7% of votes in the last general election, whereas the Greens received only 3.8%. But by this measure, the Lib Dems, with 7.9% of the vote, and the SNP, with 4.7%, would be distinctly over-represented.

One could argue ad infinitum about the criteria which should determine which parties appear on Question Time, and with what frequency. However, far more important are the criteria that are actually used at present. But as the BBC has never engaged in any meaningful public discussion on this matter, nor published anything remotely resembling a specific policy on it, one is left to guess at the nature of those criteria simply on the basis of the changes which the composition of the panels has undoubtedly undergone in recent years. And if the BBC disagrees with the charge, put with increasing frequency, that the political fulcrum of the panels has shifted resoundingly to the right, it has only itself to blame for not being more open and accountable about how the programme is edited and produced.

But if one agrees that the BBC should be giving space to a wider range of views, the question still remains: which views? And just informed views, or ill-informed ones which are held by significant numbers of people and amplified daily by populist, circulation-hungry newspapers? In this respect it should be noted that, in response to Professor Steve Jones’ assessment of the accuracy and impartiality of BBC science coverage, the BBC Trust in 2011agreed that “programme makers must make a distinction between well-established fact and opinion in science coverage and ensure the distinction is clear to the audience” and that “there should be no attempt to give equal weight to opinion and to evidence”. Or as Jones himself put it:

Equality of voice calls for a match of scientists not with politicians or activists, but with those qualified to take a knowledgeable, albeit perhaps divergent, view of research. Attempts to give a place to anyone, however unqualified, who claims interest can make for false balance: to free publicity to marginal opinions and not to impartiality, but its opposite. 

There is surely every reason to apply such an approach to any other topic in which the actual facts of the case contradict mere opinion, or in which the majority of informed opinion significantly outweighs marginal opinion.

The alternative, as Professor Simon-Wren Lewis has repeatedly argued in his Mainly Macro blog, is that we end up with arguments along the lines of: “Shape of the earth: views differ”. This is the sure and certain way to what has been called “post-truth politics”, and the BBC should be resisting this with every fibre of its corporate being, not succumbing to its blandishments. As Martin Baron, the editor of the Boston Globe at the time that it unearthed the scandal of child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in the city, has put it: 

We are living in a time when people can choose where they get their information. Choice is good. Yet people are turning to media outlets that are cynically propagating falsehoods to advance an ideological agenda. To an astonishing degree, people believe these falsehoods. They are drawn to them because they reinforce their pre-existing worldview. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan liked to say, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts”. There was a time, not long ago, when we would differ on the interpretation of the facts. We would differ on the analysis. We would differ on prescriptions for our problems. But fundamentally we agreed on the facts. That was then. Today, many feel entitled to their own facts when, in actuality, they are lies. What has taken hold is an alternate reality, a virtual reality, where lies are accepted as truth and where conspiracy theories take root in the fertile soil of falsehoods. 

The media outlets to which Baron is referring are the Internet and social media, but in the UK the situation is further exacerbated by a national press which has for the most part entirely abandoned the proper functions of journalism and turned itself into a rabid and mendacious propaganda machine. Its truly execrable performance during the referendum was fully worthy of Joseph Goebbels and has already been the subject of considerable comment (see, for example here). This has also (very belatedly, in my view) helped to crystallise more general concerns about the possible effects on the broadcast agenda of a press agenda so heavily skewed not simply to the Tories but the Tory Right on virtually every major issue of the day.

One immediate and obvious solution here is to halt the practice of presenters reading out newspaper headlines on programmes such as Today and Newsnight, thus broadcasting their propagandist messages to a far wider audience than just the self-selecting readers of those papers. That this practice blithely continued during the referendum campaign quite simply beggars belief, given the nature of the headlines in the Sun, Express and Mail in particular, which were nothing less than a national and journalistic scandal, and left foreign journalists covering the referendum completely aghast that newspapers could behave in such a fashion. A second step should be to insist that BBC news staff rely far less on newspapers as sources for stories. Anybody who has ever entered a BBC newsroom will surely have been struck by the vast amount of newsprint lying about and being pored over. Obviously BBC journalists have in recent years suffered significant cuts in numbers, but, even so, the Corporation is still a huge news-gathering organisation by any standards, and should be far less dependent on other media sources. The usual pat BBC answer to this complaint is that its journalists don’t treat those stories in the same biased fashion as do the newspapers from which they come, but this is simply to ignore the surely elementary point that many stories which appear in right-wing papers are stories only by the ideological standards of those papers. In other words, the papers’ ideology has dictated not only the treatment of the story but its very selection in the first place: the “Euromyths” which have populated so many British paper for years, courtesy originally of Boris Johnson, providing a particularly clear example of this process at work.

The deeply worrying picture which emerges from the BBC’s coverage of the referendum is one of profound loss: in particular loss of independence and loss of nerve, adding up to a general loss of agency, one which cannot be explained simply by the haemorrhaging of journalistic talent in recent years. Something far deeper is at work here, and it needs urgently to be addressed in the course of the Charter renewal process.

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