On March 29 last year, one year before non-Brexit day, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a day-long series of programmes called Britain at the Crossroads which the Corporation’s PR hype said was designed to examine the steps towards Brexit.
At its heart was the first of a multi-part series presented by Mark Mardell called Brexit: A Love Story? which purported to give a history of the love-hate relationship between the UK and the EU.
Predictably, it proved very one-sided. There was a deluge of pro-EU/EEC comment, – from both the presenter and contributors – but much less from those who were anti-EEC/EU. The News-watch survey into the programme, and of Britain at the Crossroads series can be accessed here.
A complaint against the blatantly biased approach was duly submitted by News-watch. Richard Hutt, the Director of the BBC Complaints Unit, finally responded, appropriately, perhaps, on April 1.
Mr Hutt relied for his defence on overarching ‘due impartiality’. This allowed him at a stroke to rule out the main findings of the News-watch report. Under this rubbery concept, of course, the BBC is allowed huge flexibility. They argue that most topics are not ‘binary’ but discussed from multiple viewpoints, and it is thus up to BBC editors to decide the degree to which the various perspectives are included.
It’s an all-purpose ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card, allowing the BBC to decide what it likes.
On this basis, Mr Hutt declared in his letter that it was perfectly acceptable for Brexit: A Love Story? to contain a predominance of pre-EU views (in a ratio of 9:4) – indeed that it was ‘inevitable’ – because the programme team had decided that the relationship would be examined through the lens of successive governments. Well, of course.
It did not seem to occur to him at all that on day of programming about Brexit, such an approach was grossly partisan. As most people in Britain voted for Brexit, why was the chosen programme angle (as an example of an alternative) not instead about how Parliament had for 50 years flouted British public opinion against the EU/EEC and continued to do so?
Put another way, why were the main contributors legions of fawning civil servants, along with Tony Blair and Nick Clegg, rather than figures such as Nigel Farage – who spoke a mere 134 words, most of which were taken up by him explaining the correct spelling of his name – or veteran eurosceptic Sir Bill Cash (who did not appear at all)?
Mr Hutt also argued that the low number of eurosceptic contributions was defensible, because those who were included were of a high quality and their comments were edited in a way that skilfully and succinctly conveyed their core arguments. He claimed that this was an acceptable ‘editorial technique’; their contributions might have been small in volume, but they were punching above their weight and ‘fairly represented’.
This, too, is a highly dubious defence. The supposed expert selection of such contributions meant that the most prominent included Enoch Powell, Tony Benn, Jimmy Goldsmith and Kelvin Mackenzie. Of course, all these were ‘eurosceptic’ in their outlook. But were they typical of such opinion? Hardly. This was further evidence of the BBC ’bubble’ – those opposed to the EU were at every stage (and are) immoderate or extreme.
Mr Hutt, it also emerged, does not believe that academic techniques of content analysis of the type used by News-watch can be used to assess bias. It boils down to that, to him, that 9:4 imbalance was totally irrelevant because any attempt at ‘simple quantification’ of BBC content is not helpful. He argues that views about the EU/EEC are not generally ‘binary’ and that in any case, someone who might be classed as ‘pro-EU’ might actually have been making an impartial contribution.
This has now become a standard and fossilised BBC defence. Chief political advisor Ric Bailey made exactly the same stone-wall point on the BBC’s Newswatch programme which discussed the recent blatant imbalance against pro-Brexit panellists on BBC1 Question Time.
Lord Wilson of Dinton, the former cabinet secretary, conducted an inquiry into the BBC’s coverage of the EU in 2004/5 when a referendum about the proposed EU Constitution was being considered. He observed (p.5 of the report):
‘Senior managers appear insufficiently self-critical about standards of impartiality. . . This attitude appears to have filtered through to producers, reporters and presenters in the front line. There is no evidence of any systematic monitoring to ensure that all shades of significant opinion are fairly represented and there is a resistance to accepting external evidence. Leaving decisions to individual programme editors means that if there is bias in the coverage overall, no-one in the BBC would know about it.’
Almost 15 years on, Mr Hutt’s letter is clear evidence that nothing has changed.