Monday can be seen in referendum terms as the day that the Remain side produced what it believed was an Exocet.
Chancellor George Osborne released what he projected – to the point of pro-EU fanaticism – as a killer economic document which, on the basis of complex, algebra-led economic analysis, suggested that if the UK left the EU, every domestic household would be £4,000 worse off by 2030 and that income tax would rise by 8p in the pound.
How did the BBC do in covering this? That’s a tough question to answer because a News-watch transcript document covering everything that was reported and said about the Chancellor’s predictions on the mainstream news programme – starting with Today on Radio 4 and Breakfast on BBC1, and finishing with a 45-minute special edition of BBC2 Newsnight dealing with the economy in the event of a British exit – amounts to a boggling 36,000 words.
That, at an average speaking speed of 150 wpm is 240 minutes, or four solid hours of coverage. The issue in analysing this blizzard of coverage is where to begin?
One immediate point is that the BBC’s news judgment was that this was definitely a headline development in the campaign. They assigned immediate huge importance to the Chancellor’s report and freely suggested that it could be a defining moment in the campaign. From Today onwards, the Osborne document led the bulletins, and Today was crammed with references to it, for example in in the newspaper reviews and in the in business news. This was the BBC news machine in overdrive with all their big guns deployed.
In that sense, the Chancellor’s document was given huge credence. But was it properly scrutinised? The devil can often be in the detail. Early signs were not good. On Today’s business news, for example, Peter Spencer, chief economic advisor of the EY Club, and David Cumming of Standard Life Investments, were both asked what were said to be ‘quick questions’ about the report.
Their verdict? Spencer said that ‘it was not difficult to come out with figures like the Treasury have’ – suggesting the findings were credible – and Cumming, asked the loaded question if the referendum itself was ‘already an economic drag’ replied that consumer spending was already being hit. He concluded:
‘I can see where the Treasury is coming from because the prospects for growth investment and profits would be poorer if we left the EU.’
There were no balancing comments, and these early verdicts thus stand out. So too, does the Today programme’s editorial decision to allocate 20 minutes at 8.10am to George Osborne’s advocacy of the report, against only around five minutes at 7.10am to John Redwood’s rebuttal. There is no doubt that Nick Robinson was robustly adversarial in the Osborne interview, but so too, was Sarah Montague in the exchange with Redwood.
Further question marks in Today’s coverage are raised by assistant political editor Norman Smith’s analysis at 6.35 am. He stated that the Osborne document was meant as the ‘Government’s big killer argument, that we will be poorer permanently if we leave the EU’. The bulk of his analysis focused on the key points of the report, and then, when asked about the likely repose from the Leave side, said that its reliance on attacking the reliability of past Treasury forecasts, for example, in supporting the euro, had ‘something slightly cobwebby’ about them. He contended that the problem they had was ‘being able to come up with a factual response’, then asserted:
‘And the reason they struggle there is because there’s nothing they can look at there’s nothing they can model it on, because no one has done this before. So they are in the realms of asserting that Britain would be more self-confident, we’d be more buccaneering, we’d be more entrepreneurial, we’d be more go-getting, but they have nothing to actually build a factual case.’
Almost 12 hours later – when the mighty BBC news machine had chance to analyse the report more fully, to talk in depth to the Leave side about the actual content of the report (the document was not released until 11am), Norman Smith’s boss, political editor Laura Kuenssberg was equally as attacking of the Leave case. On the flagship 6 pm Radio 4 bulletin (clearly projected as the overview of the day’s events). Her conclusion?
‘….the weight of the establishment is moving more and more openly in favour of Remain, leaving the politicians arguing for exit seem like rebels with a cause.’
In 24 hours, it’s impossible to come up with a definitive verdict on whether 36,000 words of coverage were genuinely impartial. But here, on what was a crucial day in the referendum coverage, there were, some very loud flashing lights indicating significant cause for concern. Yes, the BBC are putting on Brexit voices. Yes, they are exploring the arguments of both sides. But Kuenssberg and Norman Smith are key figures in the BBC’s interpretative voice. And here – in the close analysis of the detail of their coverage – is clear prima facie evidence that they believe the ‘Remain’ arguments are stronger.