The Brexit Collection is a selection of 31 programmes and features, originally broadcast on Radio 4, and posted by the BBC on its iPlayer website. It is presumably thus thought by the Corporation to be a balanced representation of its referendum coverage. Analysis by News-watch has now shown that the Collection was, on balance, very strongly anti-Brexit.
News-watch transcribed and rigorously analysed all the items (24 separate programmes, one collection of four brief clips on personal finance, and six news features in the Brexit Street series) that were posted between the launch of The Brexit Collection on July 11 and August 23 – two months after the referendum. In total, this amounted to eleven and half hours of broadcasting.
Overall, there were no attempts in any programme to explore the benefits of leaving the EU, but conversely, Brexit came under sustained negative attack. This was reflected in the balance of contributions and comment contained within the items. Analysis by News-watch shows that only 23% of contributors in the programmes as a whole spoke in favour of Brexit, against 58% in favour of Remain and 19% who gave a neutral or factual commentary.
Nine programmes and six features, amounting to 5 hours 20 minutes of programming, were strongly anti-Brexit, contained unchallenged predictions that civil unrest and rioting were now on the horizon and cast the ‘out’ vote in negative terms, inferring that the result had been a consequence of racism and xenophobia. The balance of programme guests in all of these items was strongly – and sometimes overwhelmingly – pro-Remain.
By contrast, only two programmes, from the series Points of View, were clearly Eurosceptic in tone. They both attacked the EU project as a whole, but did no explore the possibilities presented by Brexit.
A group of six documentaries in the Collection, originally broadcast in 2009 and 2012, looked critically at the EU and examined claims that there were structural faults in the EU project, especially in relation to the euro. However, the vast majority of guests on these programmes were wholly in favour of the EU project, or were EU officials, and as such the issues were observed through a strongly pro-EU lens.
A further eight programmes have been classed as neutral. Many of these, such as the comedy programmes Dead Ringers and The Now Show, contained strong anti-Brexit content, or expressed doubts about it, but did contain some balancing material.
The items that were strongly anti-Brexit were editions of culture series Front Row, The Briefing Room, six editions of the feature Brexit Street on the news programme PM, one edition of A Point of View, How to Make a Brexit (a one-off documentary about Greenland’s exit from the EU), Farming Today, More Less, The Food Programme, The Bottom Line and Call You and Yours.
In some of these, the range of anti-Brexit opinion was astonishing and light years from any definition of ‘impartiality’ and there was no balancing comparable pro-Brexit material. A majority of the country had voted ‘out’ on June 23, but this was not reflected in the space given to each side of the debate, or the thematic emphases of the various programmes.
The Food Programme, for example, contained predictions from ten contributors ranging through civil unrest, substantial food price rises, the demise of food businesses and years of turmoil. Only one contributor (described disparagingly as a ‘former speech writer for Nigel Farage’), thought that Brexit could have positive outcomes.
And in The Bottom Line, presented by Evan Davis, three strong supporters of Remain (one a former Liberal Democrat candidate) feared a drying up of investment, the introduction of tariffs, an increasing complexity of doing business through the need for additional paperwork, price rises, unfair treatment of workers, unwise and impractical restrictions on immigration, a curtailing of the opportunities available to young people, and a rise of xenophobia and racism to the extent there was imminent danger of ‘personal attack’ for those supporting Remain. They were ranged against a contributor from Switzerland, who – although accepting briefly that Brexit could be positive – also warned that the process was very complex.
In all anti-Brexit programmes, presenters worked with the contributors to ensure that the negatives of Brexit were pushed to the maximum extent, and they did not challenge their extreme claims, for example, about civil unrest and racism.
Analysis of the contributions across the series as a whole raises other major issues of imbalance. Of the 59 politicians to appear, 37 were pro-Remain. With academics and lawyers, 11 supported Remain and none favoured Leave, and with businessmen and financial experts, 19 were Remainers and only six wanted ‘out’. Another striking imbalance was that, across the board, 41% of the speakers who supported Leave were ‘ordinary’ contributors (i.e. members of the public with no obvious expertise, for example, in vox pops), compared to only 27% of pro-EU guests. In terms of the number of words spoken, members of the public contributed 34% of the Leave total, compared to only 8% on the Remain side.
Eleven of the 20 ‘ordinary’ speakers who spoke in favour of Brexit were from two locations in Northern England, Thornaby-on-Tees and Wakefield. All of these were from social classes D and E and together they were responsible for 80% of the words spoken by ‘ordinary’ Leave supporters.
News-watch research has shown that such serious imbalances have been a feature of BBC coverage of EU-related issues since 1999.
This raises big questions about how the BBC defines ’impartiality’ in the aftermath of the June 23 vote. During the referendum campaign, there were BBC-wide referendum editorial guidelines which stipulated that the Leave and Remain sides should be treated even-handedly. The evidence presented here suggests these rules have now been set aside and that a version of ‘due impartiality’ is in force which gives much greater precedence to the Remain side.
Whatever the reasons, the evidence presented here shows that the Corporation seems to be on a mission to show that Brexit is a fool’s errand, which elements within the BBC are doing their best to frustrate. There can be no other explanation why this flagship collection of programmes is so deeply biased.
The full report, including full transcripts of the 31 programmes analysed by News-watch is available here: