Craig Byers, of Is the BBC Biased, has astutely nailed down that the BBC’s use of ‘hardline’ in the EU debate is deeply slanted.
The adjective, he spotted, was reserved especially for those who the Corporation perceived are most opposed to staying in the European Union. He also noted that its derogatory application was much broader – it boiled down to a catch-all label for the figures on the right whom the Corporation classes as extremists.
Further intensive analysis of the BBC’s application of the word across its entire output using tracking software through all of June and into July as the Chequers Brexit-showdown meeting unfolded, confirms a fascinating picture of selective, targeted usage in what appears to be systematic bias. There were around 700 examples.
The first point to note is that across the six weeks, hardline was almost invariably NOT applied to someone whom the BBC perceives to be progressive or liberal. It is exclusively reserved for those who are deemed to be extremist, fundamentalist, oppressive and on the so-called right.
There was a glaring demonstration of the deliberate polarity involved when one BBC reporter – describing the latest battles in the Brexit talks – said the Brexiteers were ‘hardline’. What were the remainers? The same? No, they were merely ‘stubborn’.
A possible fine tooth-comb exception here was the use of the word in the description of the former regime in Serbia, which was said to be ‘hardline’ communist Stalinist’ (and thus possibly of the ‘left’). However, perhaps even John McDonnell, deputy leader of the Labour party, would find it hard to regard the Serbian government in the land of President Tito as anything but totalitarian and so the exception is not so.
So who else other than Jacob Rees-Mogg and those who want a ‘hard’ (another BBC journalistic distortion) Brexit are classed as hardline?
It’s a fascinating list. The key markers include opposition to uncontrolled immigration wherever it exists (from Mexico to Japan), any opposition to the EU’s prevailing policies and moves towards federalism, religious extremism practised by ‘Islamic’ imams and cultivated in madrassas, the anti-Western government regime in Iran, and the North Korean government.
And who are the people involved? Step forward first, of course, Donald Trump. His are multiple hardline sins: separating illegal immigrants from their children (though Presidents Obama and Clinton’s pursuit of the same approach was not mentioned); wanting to stop illegal immigrants; proposing a new tougher immigration bill; and having policies similar to the Ku Klux Klan. Around 200 of the uses of the ‘hardline’ dog-whistle applied to him for his brazen attempts to prevent illegal immigrants entering the US.
Next were those in the new Italian government of Matteo Salvini, primarily for wanting to stop NGO ‘immigrant’ ships landing in Italy, but also for not honouring the Schengen agreement and worrying generally about volumes of immigration in opposition to the EU; then Sebastian Kurz, the Chancellor of Austria, and all the governments in the EU (including especially Hungary and Slovenia) who are opposing the immigration policies of Angela Merkel; opponents in Germany itself to the immigration policies of Mrs Merkel; the Polish government, for wanting to reform its legal system in opposition to the EU; and last but not least, Shintaro Ishihara, the former Governor of Tokyo for 13 years, for opposing levels of immigration and championing Japanese culture and values.
Is this nit-picking? The BBC, of course – which maintains it gets its journalism right 99.999 per cent of the time – would no doubt say it is. Their defence would probably be (based on long experience!) that ‘hardline’ is a commonly-used word and any linkage with the ‘right’ is coincidental.
But that most definitely does not stack up here. For starters, why are Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn or John McDonnell, who openly advocate Marxist economics, and have demonstrably supported terrorist regimes, not in the ‘hardline’ category? Why are Brexiteers, who want only to leave the EU in accordance with the vote of the EU Referendum, described with the same word as imams who conduct or encourage acts of terrorism? And why is any opposition to illegal immigration and open borders now also bracketed by the BBC with the same language reserved for those ‘Islamist’ terrorists or the repressive regime of President Tito of the former Yugoslavia?
Another important point in this slanted use of language by the BBC is that in the News-watch survey of the Brexit coverage by the Today programme in autumn/winter last year, it was noted that the BBC had started using the word ‘divorce’ routinely to describe the Brexit process.
The report concluded (p3:)
“The main finding is that there was an unjustified heavy bias towards exploring the difficulties and potential difficulties of Brexit. In this context, there is a special investigation of the pervasive and indiscriminate use by this BBC coverage of the word ‘divorce’ – with all its negative overtones – to describe the EU exit process. In academic media analysis, it is held that such value-loaded ‘framing’ of issues by the editorial process . . . negatively influence audiences.”
It boils down to that in this sphere, the BBC has form. It systematically uses negative labels to disparage and undermine the perspectives it opposes.
There have been 1,369 editions of BBC1’s Question Time since its launch under Sir Robin Day in September 1979, and it has an estimated weekly audience of 2.4m in its 10.40pm slot on Thursdays.
David Dimbleby has announced he is leaving the show after 25 years in the chair, following 10 years by Sir Robin Day (1979-89) and four from Peter Sissons (89-93) – so what next?
Already, there is a list of potential successors, ranging from Kirsty Wark to Victoria Derbyshire and Huw Edwards. But almost certainly, it won’t be a man. This is now the era of BBC ‘diversity’/feminism quota box-ticking, outlined here, and no woman has yet been the show’s permanent host – though back in the mid-1980s, Nationwide host Sue Lawley deputised regularly for Sir Sir Robin Day.
Already, despite this, the Conservative Commons equalities committee chair Maria Miller has stepped into the frame, warning the BBC that it must appoint a woman.
Woe betide the BBC, therefore, if it appoints a man. And now that it is in the full grip of the ‘quota’ agenda, can the Corporation risk appointing any more a white woman to the role?
This is an organisation where the head of comedy, Shane Williams, said this week at a programme launch that Monty Python – one of the greatest creative hits in television history – would not now be made by the BBC because it was conceived by and starred white Oxbridge graduates.
On that basis, there must only be a handful of candidates for Question Time. Step forward Today presenter Mishal Husain and Samira Ahmed, who hosts the BBC News Channel’s complaints programme Newswatch, after cutting her television teeth on Channel 4 News. So certain is Ms Ahmed that she is in with a shout that she has self-declared her candidacy on Twitter.
Ms Husain has already occupied the Question Time chair briefly, during the debates leading up to the 2017 General Election. Her debut, as is reported here, did not go well. The audience was ram-full of raucous supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and Ms Husain had great difficulty controlling proceedings. She was also loudly heckled – and almost drowned out – when she asked the Labour leader how he would pay for his (uncosted) child care policies.
The BBC thus has a serious dilemma of its own making in its hands. Quotas are a serious bind and indeed are likely to stifle creativity and excellence in programme-making.
In reality,however, women have been centre stage in the production of Question Time since its inception. The first editor was a formidable feminist, Barbara Maxwell, called by Sir Robin ‘the flame haired temptress’. Her reign at the helm lasted 14 years.
The story of the pressures faced by Sir Robin from Ms Maxwelll is told in Peter Sissons in his autobiography and summarised here. From the outset she worked to ensure that women panellists were a regular part of the show, often irrespective – Sir Robin believed – of whether they had enough experience to be able to deliver under the unique pressures the show generated.
When Peter Sissons – lured to the BBC in 1989 from ITN to be Sir Robin’s successor – took over the show, Ms Maxwell made it clear to him that the female quota system must continue. When Sissons objected, she made his life in the chair as awkward and uncomfortable as possible for him by the choice of sometimes unsuitable and incompetent female panellists.
Sissons says he left the show four years later when the BBC decided Question Time would be put out to independent production. The team appointed was all-female and – Sissons alleged – intensified the pressure on him.
Sue Lawley was then lined up as his successor, but ruled herself out because the BBC insisted that there must be a three-legged audition process involving David Dimbleby, Jeremy Paxman and Ms Lawley. Although she was the clear favourite, Ms Lawley refused to take part because, it is claimed, she thought as an established BBC presenter, it was beneath her, so Dimbleby was appointed.
The point of all this? Despite its long history of female involvement and the encouragement of participation by ‘minorities’, Question Time seems now destined to have a host who will be chosen on the basis of quota-related box-ticking rather than his or her capacity to perform in a particularly tough hot seat.
Another issue here is whether the programme is actually past its sell-by date. The format of voters confronting politicians was innovative in 1989 but almost 40 years on it has become hackneyed and formulaic. As is argued here, it has arguably become a platform for platitudes, a performance vehicle for those who can blather best. Rather than illuminating the political process, it generates mainly obfuscation.
Not only that, as the Institute of Economic Affairs argues here, it has become deeply biased, especially since the EU referendum, with panels heavily weighted towards the Remain side.
The BBC has a programme budget of billions. It is high time it started to use it generate innovative news and current affairs programmes rather than hobbling along with the tired relics of another age.
On 29 March 2018, the Radio 4 broadcast a day of programming under the title ‘Britain at the Crossroads‘ marking a year to Britain’s scheduled departure from the EU. The following is an extract from News-watch’s forthcoming report into the day’s coverage.
Performers from the Radio 4 comedy impressions programme delivered six two-minute sketches broadcast at intervals throughout the day, featuring ‘imagined voicemail messages from key players in the Brexit negotiations.’ Three impressionists – Jon Culshaw, Jan Ravens and Duncan Wiseby – imitated the voices of nine politicians: Theresa May, David Davis, Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbot, Nigel Farage, Michel Barnier, Jean-Claude Juncker, Angela Merkel and Donald Trump. The six editions were as follows:
Sketch One, 9.45am
David Davis leaves a voicemail message for Theresa May, focusing mainly on the implications of Brexit for the Irish border. David Davis was presented as naïve: believing Ireland to be ‘a magical place full of whimsy’, but taken to an ‘abandoned farmhouse’ and electrocuted by men who had placed his feet in a bucket of water and attached bulldog clips to his genitals.
Sketch Two, 1.55pm
Diane Abbot leaves a voicemail message for Jeremy Corbyn. The main target of the sketch was Labour’s inconsistent Brexit policy. Ms Abbot noted that Owen Smith had been sacked for stating that Britain should have a second referendum, despite her having taken a similar position and remained in post. She outlined a convoluted plan for: ‘a Britain both out of the single market and the customs union, whilst inside a customs union and single market. So we are inside the outside, trading freely and not freely, as a member and not a member of the EU’, and noted ‘It’s so simple.’ Towards the end of the sketch there were references to the Anti-Semitism row engulfing the Labour Party.
Sketch Three, 4.57pm
Nigel Farage leaves a message for David Davis, who is ‘unable to come to the phone right now, as Barnier has me in a headlock’. In the first section of the sketch it was revealed that Mr Farage, rather than being in a busy pub, was using a sound-effects CD he had bought ‘from a Russian’, and there were references to the 2016 referendum being won by ‘shadowy billionnaires’ and ‘that Cambridge data whatsit firm’. The second half of Mr Farage’s message focused on the issue of the ‘iconic blue passport’ being made in France, and issues surrounding the Common Fisheries Policy, with Mr Farage suggesting that both issues could be solved simultaneously by replacing the current burgundy passport with fish.
Sketch Four, 6.30pm
A message from the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier to Brexit Secretary David Davis. The premise of the skit was that Mr Barnier’s claims that Brexit was ‘a sad milestone in EU history’ were belied by the sounds of a celebration going on in the background, replete with ‘a conga line passing through’. Mr Barnier flattered the UK for having brought ‘so much to the European project’, with ‘the spirit of generosity and compromise’, only to suggest he was mistaken and actually talking about Finland.
Sketch Five, 8.58pm
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, leaving a voicemail for EU President Jean-Claude Juncker. She noted that the British had humiliated themselves in the negotiations, singling out David Davis as having poor negotiating skills. In contrast with the view from the EU portrayed in previous edition, Mrs Merkel was keen to ‘find a way to make the UK stay’, her reasoning being that ‘hating Britain is the glue that prevents the entire EU project crashing down’, and she expressed her fear that Britain would make a success of Brexit. The sketch ended with her suggesting that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg could ‘fix it’ so that Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable could be swept into power before March 2019.
Sketch Six, 10.43pm
Theresa May leaving a message for US President Donald Trump, to remind him that it’s exactly a year to Brexit and to assert that Britain can rely on the ‘special relationship’ with the US. She explained that she is looking forward to a ‘new era of free trade between our two great nations’, including inedible biscuits, overpriced medicines and chlorinated chicken. Midway through, President Trump picks up the call, at first mistaking Mrs May for Stormy Daniels, and suggesting that Theresa May ‘is such a great porn name’, and notes that he has ‘bigly plans’ for the NHS, which Mrs May agrees to sell to him.
The politicians lampooned by the Dead Ringers team have been excluded from the speaker and word count totals for the survey as whole, given that their input could not be fairly compared to contributions from real-life guests. However, statistics have been compiled separately for each ‘contributor’.
Brexit Secretary David Davis received the most space (419 words), appearing in three of the six sketches, first leaving an extended voicemail for Theresa May, and then, in subsequent editions, acting as recipient of messages from Nigel Farage and Michel Barnier. Despite being awarded so little space elsewhere in the ‘Britain at the Crossroads’ strand (just a short 25 word contribution to The World Tonight), an impression of former UKIP leader Nigel Farage accounted for the second largest amount of space (355 words), indicating that Mr Farage is still seen as a pivotal figure in the Brexit negotiations, despite UKIP receiving a sharp decline in coverage in the mainstream news and current affairs programming monitored by News-watch since the referendum.
Dead Ringers, as with all parody, depends on a level of audience familiarity: its targets are individuals whose voices, mannerisms and opinions are well-known, and the humour is created by exaggerating established perceptions, or playing on well-worn stereotypes. It also relies on familiarity with current ‘big themes’ in news and current affairs – audiences will only understand and appreciate the jokes if they are aware of a particular topic through its coverage in serious news programming.
Studies into the persuasive impact of satire discount the idea of immediate attitude change following exposure to a humorous message, with audiences being likely to dismiss its contents as ‘just a joke’. However, research also provides evidence of a potential ‘sleeper effect’: memorable messages may encourage audiences to think about issues more over time, which can increase the persuasive effect and influence on attitudes.
On Dead Ringers, the jokes tended to fall into a number of distinct categories:
‘Little Englander’ stereotypes
The sketches lampooning David Davis and Nigel Farage were predicated on links between anti-EU sentiment and xenophobia, an association repeated regularly on BBC news and entertainment programmes over the last two decades.
In his Dead Ringers incarnation, David Davis was cast as the ‘Brexit Bulldog’, noting that it was just ‘one year to go till we march up to Johnny Foreigner’, while explaining that he only speaks two languages, ‘English and slightly slower, louder English for when I’m on holidays.’ At one point he referred to an imaginary EU national as ‘Pedro’.
Similarly, the script for Nigel Farage featured the former UKIP leader referring to an EU border guard as ‘Fritz’, stating that he didn’t ‘bloody well care’ about the Irish, and stating that unless the Brexit issue was sorted he would ‘unleash the kind of hell not seen since my local introduced Peroni on tap’ – the inference that he would dislike the Italian beer on account of its nation of origin.
The Dead Ringers sketches also used their characters to ‘say the unsayable’, using mimicry to make strong personal attacks, or, conversely, to make a particular target seem foolish by implying ignorance.
Michel Barnier, for example, referred to David Davis’s ‘stupid, grinning, gappy-toothed face’, adding, ‘But I am being rude and unprofessional, and I really should not – because that is your department’. Similarly, Nigel Farage called David Davis an ‘old snaggletooth, inbred embarrassment’. Mr Farage was later mocked for having adopted a ‘salt of the Earth Englishman’ persona, while relying on Russian billionaires and the services of Cambridge Analytica to secure the Leave vote in the referendum.
Prominent Conservative Brexiteer Jacob Rees Mogg also came under fire, with jokes at his expense bookending the six editions. In the first sketch, Theresa May noted that she was unable to come to the phone ‘as Jacob Rees Mogg has rung for his elevenses’ – presumably a combined reference to his social class and the prime minister’s perceived subservience to the pro-Brexit wing of her party. Nigel Farage complained to David Davis that he had let the EU ruin the fishing industry, noting that ‘soon the only wet fish left in the country will be Jacob Rees-Mogg’. In the final skit, an imagined conversation between Theresa May and President Trump, at the suggestion that selling the NHS to Mr Trump would make her ‘the most hated and reviled politician in Britain’, Mr Trump responded, ‘There would still be Jacob Rees-Mogg’, at which point Mrs May concedes to the deal.
By contrast, there were relatively few jokes aimed at the European Commission or EU leaders, and the quips were less personal in tone. They also tended to simultaneously criticise Britain or its government. For example, Angela Merkel began her message, ‘I’ve had a difficult time recently, but it could be worse, I could be Theresa May,’ and said later, ‘Yes, I know they are belligerent and small-minded, but that is the point: without Britain to hate we’ll all end up squabbling with each other.’
Only two brief sequences were aimed squarely at the EU institutions: first, EU bureaucracy was mocked in the answerphone message of EU President Jean-Claude Juncker, ‘I can’t come to the phone right now, as doing so would directly contravene the EU Directive 8976/456 subsection 923/83 paragraph 7, appendix 2’; second, Angela Merkel revealed that her darkest fear was, ‘what if Britain actually makes a success of Brexit?’.
The Impact of Brexit
The sequence of sketches also included material focusing on the possible material effects of Brexit, and these were unremittingly negative: the hard border in Northern Ireland potentially ushering a return to terrorism; that ‘taking back control’ meaning that Britain would be doing exactly what the EU said for the next two years; that the NHS could be sold to the Americans; that any future trade relationship with the US would lead to a decline in food standards.
The ability of the British negotiating team was criticised frequently. Angela Merkel said, ‘it would have been so easy just to humiliate the British and make them look like idiots, so far better that you allow them to do it for themselves’, and Michel Barnier suggested that he had avoided David Davis’s ‘little traps’ and left him ‘flat-footed every time.’
Theresa May, meanwhile, referred to herself as ‘a strange grey-haired lady’, and was positioned by the narrative as being so ineffectual that she was forced to remind President Trump who she actually was. The notion of a trade deal with the US was pilloried, ‘Of course, there are those claiming you won’t give us a good trade deal, based on nothing, as far as I can see, but every single decision you’ve made as President’.
It is difficult to deconstruct jokes semantically in the same way one might analyse news and current affairs. Mimicry as a comedic genre is multi-layered: audiences may focus on of the skills of the imitators, gain pleasure from assessing the impressions for accuracy, or simply enjoy suspending their disbelief and hearing familiar voices articulating points that their real-life counterparts would never (or could never) make.
In addition to the impressions themselves, Dead Ringers also depends on the topical: audiences recognise issues and themes made salient by ‘serious’ news and current affairs. There is a symbiotic relationship – for audiences to be ‘in’ on a particular joke, it must reflect news themes that have gained traction elsewhere. So, for example, the impressions of Nigel Farage and Angela Merkel referenced the alleged influences of Cambridge Analytica, ‘Russian billionaires’ and Facebook on the 2016 EU Referendum and US Election. Dead Ringers could, alternatively, have satirised Remain having spent significantly more than Leave on its campaign, or mocked the BBC for carrying anti-Brexit advertisements on its overseas website, but because these issues have been downplayed or ignored by mainstream news programmes it would be difficult for them to resonate as readily with the Radio 4 audience.
Similarly, the David Davis sketch focused on the potential of a return to sectarian troubles in Northern Ireland. A paper for the Policy Exchange has argued that the Irish border issue has ‘disproportionately dominated discussion over the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU’ and that, ‘arch-Remainers have used it to scaremonger about the threat to the Good Friday Agreement and peace in Northern Ireland.’ But Dead Ringers acted in concert with its ‘serious’ counterparts to echo and amplify a strong anti-Brexit message.
There were further textual imbal
A year prior to the current survey, News-watch monitored the Today programme in the week that Article 50 was triggered. On 4 April 2017, Today carried a report on The Craft of Comedy, an annual conference held in Llandudno. Correspondent David Silitoe reported that, in a room containing approximately one hundred comedy writers and performers, only one person admitted to having voted Leave – writer James Cary. Mr Cary said that being pro-Brexit ‘is not a widely-held view within the comedy community,’ and when asked by Mr Silitoe if this was a good or bad thing, he replied:
I think in a sense it’s a bad thing, because you would hope that there would be a range of views, within those people who are writing comedy and aspiring to write comedy. I think it’s because Brexit is associated with conservatism and patriotism and nationalism, which are all things which comedians generally find distasteful. I think what some comedians are realising is that if you are very much a London based . . . that England and London are two very, very separate places. People in London should be a little bit careful about seeing England as, as backward and nationalistic or patriotic or racist.
Certainly Dead Ringers made these precise associations, particularly in the stereotypes used in the portrayal of David Davis and Nigel Farage. If the straw poll taken at the conference in Llandudno is representative of views within the comedy industry more widely, then Dead Ringers’ inclusion as part of the ‘Britain at the Crossroads’ strand was not editorially neutral. Rather, it was a decision guaranteed to produce sketches dwelling on the negatives of Brexit and presenting audiences with an almost entirely pessimistic view of both the ongoing negotiations and the personalities involved in delivering Britain’s future outside the EU.
 In the last News-watch survey of Radio 4’s Today programme, undertaken in October-November 2017, of the 183 speakers on EU matters, there was only one appearance from UKIP, a short 76-word soundbite from leader Suzanne Evans, equating to 0.2% of the words spoken on the EU during the survey. http://news-watch.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/News-watch-Winter-2017-Survey.pdf
 Nabi, R., Moyer-Gusé, E. and Byrne, S. (2007). All Joking Aside: A Serious Investigation into the Persuasive Effect of Funny Social Issue Messages. Communication Monographs, 74(1), p.41
 Ibid. p.49
 See, for example, News-watch’s reports on the BBC’s ‘How Euro are You?’ (October 2005) in which Andrew Marr and Dara O’ Briain invited audiences to undertake a quiz to ascertain their level of support for the EU. The programme used blunt cultural stereotypes throughout, with the most Eurosceptic category referred to as ‘Little Islanders’. http://news-watch.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/How-Euro-Are-You-Newswatch-Analysis.pdf
 During the referendum campaign, the BBC ran advertisements from Britain Stronger in Europe focused on George Osborne’s claim that Brexit would cost each household £4300 on its international websites, visible to up to 2 million British ex-patriots living on the continent. See: http://news-watch.co.uk/bbc-passes-the-buck-over-pro-eu-website-ads/
 BBC Radio 4, Today, 4 April 2017, ‘The Craft of Comedy’ Conference, 7.42am
In BBC Radio 4’s Feedback on Friday, host Roger Bolton introduced a classic edition of Corporation Complaints Stonewalling.
The subject? Primarily coverage of Brexit. The message? As always, the BBC is getting it right.
The full transcript is below.
Element one, carefully orchestrated by Bolton, was to convey that the BBC was receiving complaints that its Brexit coverage was biased from both ‘sides’, those who supported Brexit and those who opposed it. Because of this, it was risibly suggested, complaints of editorial imbalance must be unfounded.
Element two was that two BBC bigwigs – Gavin Allen, controller of daily news programmes, and Ric Bailey, chief political adviser – confirmed why, in their view, the BBC’s coverage was completely impartial and met Charter requirements.
Element three was that Today presenter Nick Robinson – now seemingly firmly ensconced as the Corporation’s defender-in-chief – was wheeled out to defend the relentless tide of anti-Brexit negativity.
None of the three men produced a shred of credible, verifiable evidence to support their claims. Their approach boiled down to that they know what they are doing; anyone who disagrees is simply deluded.
In other words, with more than 20 tedious minutes devoted to Brexit, Feedback was yet another edition of the favourite BBC refrain in response to the tens of thousands of complaints it receives: ‘Move along there, nothing to see!’
Reading the programme transcript confirms that these BBC luminaries truly believe this, and have constructed elaborate, self-justifying arguments to support their stance. Allen, for example, argued that the BBC’s only fault in this domain is actually that it doesn’t explain enough its internal processes. If listeners and viewers only knew how hard he and Corporation editors think about bias, they wouldn’t complain.
Poppycock! What actually seems to be the case is rather that Bolton, Allen, Bailey and Robinson – and seemingly all of the BBC’s battalions of journalists – are locked in a bubble of their own making and can’t see the acres of bias they churn out each week. This is confirmation bias.
Exhibit A, based on the BBC output being broadcast as the four men were congratulating themselves on their journalistic brilliance and rectitude, is an analysis conducted last week by Craig Byers of the website Is the BBC Biased? Using a monitoring service called TV Eyes, Craig painstakingly tracked every mention on BBC programmes of the word ‘Brexit’ between Monday and Friday last week (April 16-20).
What he found was a deluge of Brexit negativity. Craig’s blog needs to be read in full to appreciate the sheer scale. It permeated every element of its news output and even percolated down to BBC1’s The One Show and EastEnders, which had a pointed reference to these ‘tough Brexit times’. In the BBC’s world, Brexit was a threat to EU immigrants (in the context of the Windrush developments), to farmers, to interest rates, to airlines, to personal privacy (via Cambridge Analytica), to house prices, to security in Northern Ireland, and more.
Among all these sustained mentions of the problems, the positive words about Brexit could be counted virtually on the fingers of one hand.
Exhibit B was mentioned by Ric Bailey on Feedback in an attempt to show that Brexit coverage was balanced. It did no such thing. He instanced that during a special day about Brexit on Radio 4 on March 29, the corporation had broadcast a half-hour programme called The Brexit Lab about the opportunities of Brexit. It suggested, for example, that environmental controls could be tougher and that British Rail could be re-nationalised once the UK was freed from the EU’s regulatory shackles.
What Bailey did not say, however, was that the remainder of this special programming – including an edition of Today, sequences on The World at One and The World Tonight, plus two much longer programmes, one about the historical relationship between Britain and ‘Europe’ (45 minutes), the other about reaction in EU countries to Brexit and their views about the future of the EU (60 minutes) – was heavily dominated by Remain themes and Remain speakers.
The suspicion must be that The Brexit Lab had been devised and broadcast as a figleaf. Within days, it was being used by one of the corporation’s most senior editorial figures as ‘proof’ that its Brexit output is balanced. The reality is vastly different. Craig’s analysis above, plus News-watch reports that can be seen here, provide voluminous evidence that since the EU Referendum, the BBC has been engaged in an all-out war to undermine Brexit.
And even concerning March 29, which the BBC trumpeted as evidence of its ‘balance’, senior executives seem totally and even comically unaware that the reverse is true. The Brexit Lab was totally swamped by other negative programming. Whatever the reason, the pro-EU, anti-Brexit propaganda spews forth regardless.
Transcript of BBC Radio 4, Feedback, 20 April 2018, 4.30pm
ROGER BOLTON: Hello is the BBC the (montage of voices) Brexit, Brexit, Brexit, Brexit (montage ends) Broadcasting Corporation? We’re devoting most of this last programme of the present run to your criticisms of the BBC’s Brexit coverage. And respond to them we have a veritable galaxy of the Corporation’s frontline journalists and executives.
NICK ROBINSON: I’m Nick Robinson presenter of the Today programme and formerly political editor of the BBC.
GAVIN ALLEN: I’m Gavin Allen, controller of daily news programmes.
RIC BAILEY: I’m Ric Bailey, the BBC’s chief political adviser.
RB: And arguably the most talked about BBC Radio programme of the year.
ACTOR PLAYING ENOCH POWELL?: It’s like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.
UNNAMED SPEAKER: When I read that actually they were going to play the whole speech, I was flabbergasted.
ROGER BOLTON: Rivers of Blood. We hear from the man who commissioned that controversial documentary about Enoch Powell’s infamous speech. But we begin with Brexit. Almost two years ago, just under 52% of those who voted in the referendum said they wanted to leave the European Union. 48.1% voted to remain. The Kingdom is still bitterly divided. Time was when the vast majority of complaints to Feedback of Corporation bias came from the Leave side; in recent months though, in part due to a concerted online campaign, we have been receiving many more from Remainers who routinely refer to the BBC as the Brexit Broadcasting Corporation, accusing it of tamely towing the government line. Here’s a sample of some of those comments from both sides of the Brexit divide.
SUE KING: I’m Sue King, and I’m from Herefordshire. I’m dissatisfied with and disillusioned by the BBC’s coverage of Brexit. In news and current affairs programmes I’m frequently aware of a pro-Brexit bias in subtle ways, particularly in the Today programme. Interviewers let misleading statements by Brexiteers go unchallenged.
ANDY FRANKLIN: My name is Andy Franklin and I live in Suffolk. The problem as I see it now is that the BBC can deny biased against Brexit until it’s blue in the face, but just about everyone I’ve ever met who voted Leave has come to that conclusion in droves. Even on the morning after the vote, the very first interview broadcast was some University Professor declaring that all the intelligentsia had voted Remain and all the thickos had voted Leave, a bias the BBC has been peddling ever since.
JONATHAN MILES: I’m Jonathan Miles, and I’m from Woking. Given just how important this issue, the BBC really has done little to educate the public on important aspects of how the EU works and hence what are the likely or possible consequences of leaving.
MARGARET O’CONNELL: Margaret O’Connell. In a democracy you accept the result and move on, it is over.
JULIAN GREEN: Julian Green: ‘Why does the BBC always refer to ‘when’ the UK leaves the EU, when properly, it should be ‘if’ – the BBC are promoting a falsehood.
ROGER BOLTON: Listening to those critical comments are Ric Bailey, the BBC’s chief political adviser, Gavin Allen, controller of BBC daily news programmes, and the Corporation’s former political editor, now Today presenter, Nick Robinson. Could I start with you, Ric Bailey, and that point Margaret O’Connell makes, she says ‘It’s over, move on,’ and yet you also heard Julian Green say, ‘You’re talking about when we leave, it should be ‘if’.’ Should it be ‘if’?
RIC BAILEY: I think you’ve got to look at the context of what you’re talking about. There’s been a referendum, one side has one, both major parties have gone into a general election saying that they will put that referendum result into effect. And, of course, it’s possible that all that may be reversed and the political reality may change, and so both ‘if’ and ‘when’, in different contexts might be entirely appropriate. It’s not for me to send out pieces of advice to individual journalists like Nick, telling them individual words they should and shouldn’t use.
ROGER BOLTON: Alright Nick, would you use ‘when’ or ‘if’.
NR: I’d use both. And I would use both. The truth is, a decision was taken in the referendum. The government is committed to the decision, the Labour Party is committed to that decision, there’s an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons who say that they voted for it, they voted for Article 50. But it is occasionally worth reminding people this could be overturned, if the public changes their mind, if there was a different vote in Parliament, but let’s not treat it as if . . . no one thinks that we’re going to leave in March 2019, that’s the overwhelming likelihood, but people who want something else to happen want is to try and say that.
ROGER BOLTON: And Gavin Allen, when people use the expression, ‘The country has decided’, don’t you feel like saying, ‘Well has it?’ I mean, Scotland has decided they’d like to remain, Northern Ireland say it would like remain, Wales, yes, and England decided that they would like to leave, but to what extent can you say ‘the country has decided’?
GA: I think you have to, you know, it was a UK-wide referendum, and it was 52-48 and we have to reflect that. So, I think that . . . that’s not to say that we won’t hear views in Scotland, he views in Northern Ireland, across the English regions and Wales that are very different to the outcome of that referendum, but it’s no good pretending that, well, hold on, Peterborough voted this way, so you should reflect that in . . . so it wasn’t the country after all.
ROGER BOLTON: Could I ask you Nick, do you think that there is a campaign against the BBC at the moment? Now, we’ve heard Lord Adonis talk about the Brexit Broadcasting Corporation, a number of people have used that phrase, we do seem to be receiving quite a number of emails that appear to be written for people, shall I put it in that way, is there a real active campaign going on to stop Britain getting out?
NR: I don’t think there’s a campaign, there is a campaign, it’s clear there is. The very use of the hashtag #BrexitBroadcastingCorporation on social media is evidence of a campaign. Now, people are entitled to campaign, we get campaigns all the time, only the . . . about a year ago, there was a campaign by Leavers to say that the BBC was biased, there was a complaint about my questioning. We get campaigns all the time, but let’s not be in any doubt that when people start using the same words and the same critique, they’re trying to put pressure on us. Now, it doesn’t mean that the things we heard in your introduction from listeners aren’t genuine, a lot of people feel really, really angry about this, they hope that the country will change its mind, and they’re entitled to do that, but we’re also entitled to . . . to say, as I have in number of recent articles, we know what’s going on here, there’s an attempt to try to shift us.
GA: But it’s important as well, it doesn’t mean that we dismiss – and I know Nick’s not saying this either – we don’t dismiss the campaign, so the fact that it is a campaign, the fact that we can recognise it as such, doesn’t mean there won’t be sometimes perfectly legitimate points they raise that make us stop and think, well, actually . . . we do need to tweak our coverage on that element, or do need to give a bit more to this, that we’ve underplayed.
ROGER BOLTON: Can I just finish this section, Nick, by asking you, if you’re optimistic, you see the opportunities that the Brexit gives us, if you’re pessimistic, you see all the problems that exist in trying to change our arrangements. Of course, it’s easier for journalists to look at the pessimistic side. When you’re trying to deal with the opportunities, that’s more difficult to construct a discussion about, do you think that’s a problem that you have?
NR: Well, it’s undoubtedly a challenge, I think that’s absolutely right, and the key therefore is to hear from people who can, as it were, see it optimistically. That’s why you will occasionally get a Dyson on, for example, James Dyson who’s in favour of leave, or the boss of Wetherspoon’s, we will have him on because he is able to say, ‘This is how I see it’, now the difficulty for listeners who are Remainers then they go, ‘Well why is he saying that, why isn’t he challenged?’ Well, we have them on in order precisely to say that there is another way of looking at this to the way that you do . . .
RIC BAILEY: But there was an entire programme . . .
NR: The problem with predictions, Roger, there is in truth, you can’t prove a fact . . .
ROGER BOLTON: It’s not factual, it’s not factual.
NR: . . . about someone’s vision of the future. You can’t do it. It’s not that the BBC isn’t robust enough to do it, you can’t.
ROGER BOLTON: Ric?
RIC BAILEY: And incidentally, there was an entire half-hour programme which Iain Martin did on Radio 4 a couple of weeks ago, precisely on that point about the opportunities Brexit, so they are there, and we are, you know, it’s an active part of our journalism.
ROGER BOLTON: Ric Bailey, Nick Robinson and Gavin Allen, thanks for the moment. A little later will be digging deep into the whole issue of balance and due impartiality.
Moves on to discuss Enoch Powell programme.
ROGER BOLTON: And now back to . . .
MONTAGE OF VOICES: Brexit, Brexit, Brexit, Brexit, Brexit.
ROGER BOLTON: Still with me in the studio is Ric Bailey, the BBC’s chief political adviser, Gavin Allen, controller of BBC daily news programs, and the Corporation’s former political editor, now Today presenter, Nick Robinson. Now, we’ve already touched on issues of impartiality with respect to the BBC’s coverage of Brexit. Although it might sound like a contradiction in terms, if Feedback listeners are anything to go by, balance and impartiality are in the eye of the beholder.
JOHN NEWSON: John Newson. I do hear BBC Radio 4 broadcasting as the voice of Remain, giving others a daily diet of scary stories about how Brexit will harm Britain. This doesn’t seem very factually based, because Brexit has not happened yet.
FERN HANSON: This is Fern Hanson from Woking. The audience would be much better informed of the facts around Brexit if the BBC moved away from a political balance towards facts balance. In pursuit of a fact balance it should be noted that there is a huge consensus amongst professional economists regarding the negative economic effect of Brexit. I have never witnessed the BBC demonstrate this disparity in analysis. Each side get equal prominence and time programmes.
ROGER BOLTON: Well, let me take up Fern Hanson’s point, with Ric Bailey. Should you move towards a facts balance, rather than a political balance? Is that possible?
RIC BAILEY: Well, facts are just there to be reported, you don’t balance facts, you have fax and you say what they are. One of the issues with Brexit is that a lot of this is looking forward, it’s about trying to work out what is going to happen, which, by definition is often speculative or it’s something where different people have different views, they are in the end judgements. So you’re not balancing facts as such. Balance is something which, during the referendum there was a binary choice, between Remain and Leave, and we were very careful to make sure that we heard from both sides, not necessarily equally, but we did represent facts in the sense of saying, ‘Look, the balance of opinion amongst big business is this – but there are other voices’, since then, that binary choice has gone away, because we now have impartiality in the sense of trying to make sure that all those different perspectives . . . is Theresa May now a Remainer or is a Leaver, of course, she is the person who is actually putting into effect that choice. So that idea that there is now a simple choice between Remain and Leave is no longer there.
ROGER BOLTON: But haven’t you put it too simply yourself, because the people voted to Leave, they didn’t vote on the destination, and there is an argument, which one keeps hearing, ‘Why wasn’t the BBC exploring the destinations,’ because people voted, if you like, to jump, but not know what we were going to jump to?
RIC BAILEY: I think it would be hard to say that we haven’t been doing that. We’ve been giving a huge amount of coverage to Brexit and to the negotiations and to all the different possibilities. I think we are doing that, Roger, actually.
GA: We’ve also talked, we’ve also talked about Canada+++ as an option, or Norway the model, or the Swiss model, I think we are looking at lots of different ranges of outcomes for this. And also just . . . I think one of the dangers as well, of balance of facts, as if, if only everyone had the core facts they would make the ‘correct’, in inverted commas, decision and we would all agree on it, it does ignore the fact that in the referendum, in any election, there is visceral emotion as well, there are things that are not to do with facts, or that you don’t even hear the facts that you disagree with, it’s a blend of these things.
ROGER BOLTON: Nick, can I bring up an article you wrote for the New Statesman recently, stressing the importance of impartiality, in part in response to an earlier article by the LBC and, at one time, occasional Newsnight presenter, James O’Brien, where he was arguing that media impartiality is a problem, when ignorance is given the same weight as expertise.
NR: The assertion made by your listener is that if only people knew the facts, we’d know, the assertion made by James O’Brien is that, you know, look, don’t put on someone who is ignorant. Who decides this? Who is this person who drops down from the skies and says, ‘This is true, and this is not’ . . .
ROGER BOLTON: Well . . .
NR: Now, in certain cases it can be, Roger . . .
ROGER BOLTON: Well it can be known about climate change . . .
RB: . . . and for example we see a case reported last week, where Ofcom said that one of your fellow presenters didn’t actually do what he should have done which is to say Nigel Lawson was factually wrong about something he claims. So, people also want to know are you prepared to do that and, actually, are you prepared to do that about Brexit?
NR: (speaking over) Goodness, yes. And, and . . . yeah.
RB: (speaking over) And are you sufficiently well informed, do you think?
NR: Not only, not only do we want to do that, but the BBC apologised for not doing that in that particular case. Here’s the point though, it won’t often apply to things that passionate Remainers and passionate Leavers see in their own minds as a fact, but in fact are a judgement or a prediction, or an instinct or an emotion. The BBC’s job is to hear from people who have unfashionable views, and where possible we should always challenge them and if we don’t get it right, and of course we won’t always get it right, you know, I’m here, I got up at 3:30 in the morning, I’ve done about 10 subjects already, occasionally you will make mistakes, then we explain why we didn’t get it right. But it’s not a conspiracy.
ROGER BOLTON: Well, I’ll just, if I may, wrap up this discussion by asking you to stand back a little bit and just reflect on what you’ve learned over the past 2 to 3 years. And one of the things that’s struck me very much is the amount of anger out there, and people irritated, fearing that you, all of us around this table are out of touch and have ignored them. Nick Robinson, does any of that, across to you?
NR: Oh yeah, you can’t help but listen to the views that we’ve heard on this programme and think, there are people deeply, deeply frustrated and anger . . . angry about it. And I . . . what I take away from this, why I wanted to appear, I could keep my head down and just do my normal interviews is, we think about this, we agonise about it, we debate much more than people often think, and why do I know this is true? Not because I’m virtuous about it, anybody who comes to the BBC from papers, anybody who comes from commercial telly, where I’ve worked, goes, ‘Boy, you spend a lot of time worrying about this’. I would urge listeners one thing though: we do it with the best of intentions. Not that we get it right, we don’t always get it right, we sometimes get it wrong but if you complain with some sense that there is a conspiracy, people will tend to put their fingers in their ears, and go, ‘You know what, we know there isn’t.’ If you say, ‘We just don’t think you’re getting this quite right, you’re not reflecting us’, you will be listened to.
ROGER BOLTON: Gavin Allen, have you changed anything as a result of the last 2 or 3 years, in the way you approach the programs and what you’ve told your producers and your reporters?
GA: Well actually, funnily enough, one thing, sort of picks up on what Nick’s just said, which is behind-the-scenes, we have all these discussions, endless debates, and one of the things I do think the BBC is probably quite bad at showing our workings. I think we can’t plead that we are really battling this every day, we’re having long debates, editorial policy discussions, really self-analysing everything we do, and then not come onto a program like this. I think there’s also, the other thing I’ve learnt I guess, it’s not that we don’t do this, there is a bit of a default in journalism, not just the BBC, in journalism of ‘where’s it gone wrong, who can we get?’ rather than actually people are desperate for an explanation of just what is happening, just explain it to us. And I do think that we could do more on that as well, as well as the politics of what’s going wrong, on both sides.
ROGER BOLTON: And Ric Bailey, final word from you? A BBC boss in the past once said, ‘When the country is divided, the BBC is on the rack’, are you actually enjoying being on the rack?
GA: (laughs) We’re enjoying Rick being on the rack.
RIC BAILEY: ‘Enjoy’ is probably not the word I’d pick out. Erm, but I think it’s true that when you have something as polarised as a referendum, that it does divide opinion in a way which is different from other sorts of elections, I think people understand what impartiality means when they’re talking about normal politics, and the Conservatives and Labour and government and opposition. I think what happens in a referendum when you are literally given the choice between X and Y, is that people find it really difficult not just to understand that other people have a different view, but they are entitled to put it, the BBC should be there to do it, and the BBC should scrutinise that very clearly. And I suppose the last point about that is, accepting completely what Gavin says about we should concede when we get it wrong, and Nick has said that as well, and we should be analysing this and making sure we’re getting it right. We also sometimes need to be really robust against that sort of political pressure, and by that I don’t just mean the parties or the government, but I mean campaigns who are trying to influence us because they know that on the whole, people trust BBC, that’s why they want us to change what we’re saying.
ROGER BOLTON: Well, I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got time for, my thanks to Rick Bailey, the BBC’s chief political adviser, Nick Robinson from the today programme who’s been up since 3.30, and Gavin Allen, controller of BBC daily news programmes.
The third series of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Brexit: A Guide for the Perplexed’ was broadcast on five consecutive days between 19 February and 23 February, 2018. Each programme was 12 minutes long and was presented by the BBC’s EU ‘Reality Check’ reporter, Chris Morris.
Each edition dealt with the projected impact of Brexit and there were five separate themes: the UK pharmaceuticals sector, food and agriculture, the future of British Overseas Territories (the featured ones were Gibraltar and Anguilla), the regions of the UK outside London, and the so-called ‘transitional phase’ after March 2019.
It was projected as an objective examination of the issues of Brexit, but it was not. Instead, Chris Morris and the programme team assembled and edited a range of contributions which were overwhelmingly biased against Brexit and pro-EU in their outlook.
There were 46 speakers in total but 22 made very short contributions, often as part of montage sequences, amounting to 285 words in total, and equating to just 3 per cent of the overall programme airtime.
The ‘meat’ of the programme was delivered by the 24 main interviewees who provided longer contributions. This group accounted for 48 per cent of the total airtime. 18 of the 24 were pro-EU/anti-Brexit; only three were anti-EU/pro-Brexit; two contributors made points both for and against; and one was neutral. The imbalance was startling. The 18 who made negative points on Brexit delivered 3,824 words (76 percent of words spoken by guests in this category), those speaking positively 352 words (seven per cent), and mixed/neutral speakers 838 words (17 per cent). The anti-Brexit to pro-Brexit word count ratio was thus almost 11 to one. The ratio of pro-EU to anti-EU speakers in this category was 6:1.
Bias in broadcasting, of course, is not measured by metrics alone, but such calculations are held in academic methodology to be a reliable pointer to its existence. Transcript analysis confirms that the negativity from these contributors against Brexit was very strong. At a headline level, it included predictions of serious problems in the regulatory regime governing the pharmaceuticals sector and huge delays in Britain being able to use pioneering medical drugs; the danger of food price rises of up to 46 per cent; the sovereignty of Gibraltar and the economic well-being of both Gibraltar and Anguilla coming under unprecedented attack; the West Midlands, as the chosen main example of a region of the UK, facing serious threats to its prosperity; and a transition period likened to walking the plank, with the likelihood of a UK ruled by the EU without any say.
The pessimism was heavily compounded by the comments and opinions of Chris Morris, who spoke 49 per cent of the words across the five programmes. His positive points are detailed in Part Two and were a very minor part of the programmes. Mostly, Mr Morris amplified the negativity of those gloomy about the impact of Brexit, and he strongly challenged or cut short those who made positive points. His primary intent seemed to echo the ‘walking the plank’ metaphor introduced in the final programme.
Mr Morris did not tell listeners in his introductions and commentary that some of the key contributors who were negative about Brexit had clear pro-EU views and had been campaigners for Remain since before the EU Referendum. One, Professor of Law Catherine Barnard, held the Jean Monnet chair at Cambridge, and was thus at least partly paid for by the EU.
This boils down to that BBC ‘Reality Checking’ is a complete misnomer. In this series, the BBC seemed intent to cram into 60 minutes as many potential problems about Brexit as it could, with only a fig-leaf acknowledgement of the belief that it presents the UK with vibrant new opportunities.
The full report is available here:
Roger Bolton: Hello. It’s nice to be back. Nothing much has happened at the BBC since we’ve been off-air, just a little local difficulty about gender equality and presenters pay and the usual accusations of leftie-liberal bias. Oh, and the BBC is now the prime target in the age-old political game of ‘Shoot the Messenger’. The reason? This:
BBC newsreader: Senior ministers will meet tomorrow to discuss what the government wants from the final Brexit deal.
Roger Bolton: Yes, Brexit.
(Go on, have a guess!)
First, what is the point of trying to make a balanced and impartial programme about Brexit? The country is so divided that members of the same families aren’t speaking to one another, and the generations and the nations are split down the middle. Facts are scarce and always contested, and fears are omnipresent. So I admire the courage and ambition of Chris Morris who, this week on Radio 4, began a third series of Brexit: A Guide for the Perplexed. Subjects covered include: medicines, potatoes and Gibraltar. As with Brexit itself listeners, were deeply divided in their responses…
The next sentence is hyperbole.
The third is loaded.
The fourth (beginning “So I admire the courage and ambition of Chris Morris…”) is another blatant signal of where the ‘impartial’ presenter stands.
The fifth sentence is descriptive.
The sixth is a variant of our old ‘complaints from both sides’ friend…
Roger Bolton: Well, I’m now joined by Chris Morris, presenter of Brexit: A Guide for the Perplexed. Chris, why are doing the programme? Because Alan Giles says, “It’s just all based on supposition”.
Chris Morris: I think that began with the desire to get away from some of the political maelstrom, the daily mud-slinging, as you heard from one of the contributors there. A lot of the coverage in the media is about the politics of Brexit. To begin with – it’s changing a bit now – but there was less about the practicalities of Brexit. And when we were asked to do this programme – essentially 15-minute bite-size chunks (not just for Radio 4 but of importance for a podcast audience as well) l said, well, I’m happy to do so long as it as doesn’t sound like 15 minutes of the Today programme because there’s plenty of coverage of the politics of Brexit elsewhere on Radio 4.
Roger Bolton: But that’s not a surprise because this is essentially about judgment about the future, isn’t it, and, going back to Alan Giles’s point, it’s supposition. So where are the facts that you can, if you like, you know, bring out?
Chris Morris: Well, there are plenty of facts in there. I agree that what is difficult is the debate around economic forecasting, because by its nature that is something which is essentially trying to predict the future. Now, maybe it’s done by people who have expertise in economics, but it’s still a prediction of the future. But let me give you one example: a programme we did this week about medicines. There are thousands of medicines which are currently registered in the UK, and if we leave the European Medicines Agency pharmaceutical companies will have to move the registration of those medicines to elsewhere in the EU to continue to be able to sell them. That’s a fact. They’ve told us that, and they’re going to do that fairly soon. Similarly with the nuclear medicines, we heard Alan complaining that it’s just about supposition, Well, the people we were talking to – with the chairman of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, a representative of the British Nuclear Medicines Agency – these are people who I don’t think have axes to grind. They are experts in their field…
Roger Bolton: But Alan’s point would be: Well, this is the worst case scenario. And, of course, you’ve got to trust our governments. They’re not going to do anything suicidal like this. They’re obviously….you are right to point out it’s a problem but he would say the assumption is it’s an insuperable problem. ‘Be more optimistic!’ That’s what he’d say.
Chris Morris: In some cases it is the worst case scenario, but I think that shows that we’re taking Brexit seriously. We’re assuming it’s going to happen and I think it is without doubt the biggest change this country is facing in decades and, so, I think we have a responsibility to road-test it. And by road-testing we can say, well, we go to the people in various sectors – whether it be medicines or the nuclear industry or potatoes – and say ‘What are your concerns?’ and ‘What are your worries?’ and then we explore them.
Roger Bolton: Now, there’s a lot of criticism about balance, in it’s simplified form, because some people would say, ‘You’ve got 19 economists saying this is potentially disastrous, and you’ve got one non-economist saying ‘No, it won’t be’ and the BBC will have one person representing the 19 and another person representing… what? In other words, you are simply going tit-for-tat and the public is no wiser. Is that a problem with what you’re doing, this almost artificial sense of balance?
Chris Morris: It can be. And I think when it comes to our coverage of…One of the reasons why we wanted to avoid politicians is that we didn’t want to have a say, well, if we’re talking to that person from this party we have to talk to somebody from another party. So we have gone to what we believe are experts in the field. Now everyone has an opinion. I understand that. That’s natural. But I think, as a journalist, you do have to make a judgment whether you think the opinion that somebody brings to the table is valid, and that’s what we’re trying to do.
Roger Bolton: So you’re not impartial between right and wrong? If somebody says to you ‘2+5=4’ and the other says ‘2+2=5’ you say ‘One’s wrong; the first one’s right’? You have due impartiality -where it’s, as it says, it’s due. That is very, very tricky in such a toxic political atmosphere.
Chris Morris: It is very tricky but we’re not, in this series, trying to say ‘Brexit is good’ or ‘Brexit is bad’. We are trying to test what Brexit might mean.
Roger Bolton: How much pressure are you under? You’re obviously under pressure from those, as it were, outside the BBC who have passionate views about this, and the various campaigning groups. What about within the BBC itself?
Chris Morris: You know, we have what I would say are robust editorial discussion all time. As we should, I mean, I’d be disappointed if I didn’t have editors who say, ‘Are you sure you want to say that?’. That’s part of the process of journalism. In some ways, because you’ve got people saying ‘Are you sure this is correct? Are you sure you’re comfortable saying this?’, it sharpens the editorial process. I mean, I was based in Brussels – two different postings for eight years. We had that all the time in coverage of the European Union. And my argument about the EU has always been: I don’t really care whether you love it or hate it you but you should take it seriously.
Roger Bolton: Well, let’s look at the way you presented the programme because Rosalind Fox talks about ‘gimmickiness’. She thinks you’ve gone too far. When you listen to some of the things you’ve done, including some of those puns – ‘cheesy’ would describe one or two of them! – do you think you did go too far?
Chris Morris: No, I think it’s been deliberate. I think it’s sort of knowingly cheesy, if you like. I’ve done hundreds of hours of very serious, very sober broadcasting on the EU and on Brexit. If you look at a lot of the audience research we get , it’s (a) that people are a bit bored of the political mud-slinging. Some people get turned off by the ‘He said. She said’. And this is an attempt just to present it in a different way. I accept that some people won’t like it. That’s fine. It’s their right to have that opinion. But I think it’s not patronising the audience – which I think was the suggestion from one of the callers. I think which would be patronising the audience would be playing fast and loose with the facts. We are as scrupulous as we can be that we get the facts right, that we try and have a bit of fun with the way we present them. I think we should always be looking at different ways to present things because we know there’s a big audience out there that we don’t tap into yet, and we want to do that.
Roger Bolton: Chris Morris, the presenter of Radio Four’s Brexit: A Guide for the Perplexed. I hope he’s getting well paid for it.
The morning after being ‘caught up in a scuffle’ at the University of the West of England (a scene that BBC Somerset’s James Craig described as ‘very aggressive and unexpected’), found Jacob Rees-Mogg being interviewed on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme.
The purpose of the interview was not, though, the previous night’s headline-making attack on him, which was sufficiently intimidating to draw condemnation from both Labour’s Shadow Education spokesman Angela Rayner and the Lib Dems’ Jo Swinson.
It was not this at the front of presenter Nick Robinson’s mind. He neither bothered to inquire what had happened (which would have given him an account from the horse’s mouth), nor asked after his interviewee’s wellbeing, or even what Mr Rees-Mogg made of this assault on free speech.
His intent was quite otherwise.
It was to force an apology from Mr Rees-Mogg – the politician who undoubtedly is the biggest threat to the BBC’s pro-EU ‘remainer’ stance.
Jacob Rees-Mogg had, Mr Robinson said in his introduction, ‘claimed in the House of Commons . . . that Treasury officials had fixed their economic forecasts in order to show that all options other than staying in the EU customs union were bad’.
What a terrible slander on the oh-so-neutral Treasury. It had to be rectified, to be sure. Enlisted in this project was the Head of the Centre for European Reform, Charles Grant, ‘the man who he claimed had said all this’.
The interview that followed was a BBC classic of its kind – based on a false premise, staggeringly imbalanced questioning and finally laying a flaky claim to the moral high ground.
The full transcript can be found here.
Suffice it to say the item was not premised on the possibility that Treasury officials were again flouting the nation’s will (true to their ‘Project Fear’ form) by fiddling the figures, this time to keep us in the customs union, aka the EU. No, it rested on the false premise that leaving the customs union, though implicit in the Referendum vote to leave and underlined by Mrs May’s decision to create a department to negotiate independent trade deals under Liam Fox, was newly up for discussion and the latest reason for reviewing the ‘leave’ decision.
As for the way the interview was conducted, it was what we have come to expect – interruptions and harassment of the few pro-Brexit interviewees that the BBC deigns to invite to undergo a predictable drubbing.
Indeed, it was a masterclass. Nick Robinson’s non-stop interrupting and talking over Jacob Rees-Mogg was possibly a record – by my count 18 times to just once for his other interviewee, Mr Grant.
Robinson not only gave JRM the much tougher time but allowed Charles Grant to get away with outrageous claims about the impact of a changed tariff regime.
On one level, you could say, it was par for the course, just more evidence that Brexit is challenged massively on the BBC; that no stone is to be left unturned when it comes to demolishing the case for Brexit, whereas Remain perspectives will always be projected as much more attractive and credible.
So it is absolutely to Mr Rees-Mogg’s credit that he gave an admirably clear account of his own position and stood his ground even in face of Robinson’s final (in full stern-headmaster moral-high-ground mode) questioning of his character:
‘A last word to you, Jacob Rees-Mogg, let me ask you this if I may, because this is why, in a sense, this row matters. There are some people who’ve presented you in the past as a sort of amusing backbench eccentric. You’re now, you’re a leading figure in terms of backbench Brexiteers, and many ministers say you are a likely candidate to be our next Prime Minister. Do you not accept that to accuse civil servants of rigging official forecasts is not the behaviour of a man who wishes to lead this country?’
Despite the insulting nature of the question, reprobate Rees-Mogg floored him with his reply. Following the Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro school of thought, he walked towards the fire and repeated, yes sir, the Treasury had fiddled the figures. He refused to be bullied.
Which is why this interview will not be the end of it. Jacob Rees-Mogg must know he can expect little sympathy from the BBC on any count – whether he be beaten up or prevented from speaking – and that they will trash his character if they can. It will be personal now.
For it is deep in the BBC’s DNA to ridicule or smear any advocate of conservatism or politician really prepared to challenge the Left, which is what JRM does. It has proved an effective way of demoralising the Tory Right. If the BBC’s previous form is anything to go by they will be out for his blood.
And the BBC has the resources. Look at what they were able to throw at the Cliff Richard story, discarding any decent journalistic principle in the process.
Clever, clear-thinking and calm, the hated by the Left Jacob Rees-Mogg poses the most significant political challenge to the BBC’s Leftist pro-EU orthodoxies in years. So will he be the subject of BBC special investigations? Will BBC favourite Anna Soubry, featured again this morning trashing the Brexiteers, be enlisted to help? Will we see his country house from BBC helicopters circling above, or BBC journalists set to the task (metaphorically speaking) of investigating his dustbins? It is not beyond the realms of imagination.
Readers of this site will need little persuading that the BBC’s coverage of Brexit is biased. The Corporation vehemently denies it of course, but since the referendum vote, they have been seemingly on an all-out mission to find every reason why leaving the EU is disastrous for the UK – and to avoid reporting the benefits.
Hillary Clinton, on a book plugging visit to London, claims the Brexit result was based on a ‘big lie’? Immediately it’s a BBC headline. Wages aren’t rising in pace with the cost of living? Another ‘hold the front page’ moment ‘because of Brexit uncertainty’.
What is surprising, however, is the sheer scale of the Corporation’s failure to meet its Charter requirement of impartiality. A paper by News-watch published today (January 26) by Civitas, based on a collation of research conducted into the BBC’s EU coverage over the past 18 years, chronicles the immense problems for the first time.
The report, The Brussels Broadcasting Corporation? – How pro-Brexit views have been marginalised in the BBC’s news coverage, can be read in full here: http://www.civitas.org.uk/content/files/brusselsbroadcastingcorporation.pdf
The paper also demonstrates that the Corporation’s complaints process is not for purpose. It is a self-serving mechanism for kicking impartiality issues into touch rather than dealing with them honestly, independently and robustly. The only remedy, it is argued, may be a judicial review or a public inquiry.
News-watch has been monitoring BBC output since the European Parliamentary elections in 1999. This work is based on rigorous academic principles followed by university media schools around the world. There are 38 reports covering hundreds of hours of EU output and 8,000 programme transcripts, and it is believed to be the largest systematic study of the media ever undertaken.
The key findings, which show that supporters of withdrawal from across the political spectrum have been severely under-presented, include:
- Of 4,275 survey-period guests talking about the EU on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme between 2005 and 2015, only 132 (3.2 per cent) were supporters of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
- In 274 hours of monitored BBC EU coverage between 2002 and 2017, only 14 speakers (0.2 per cent of the total) were left-wing advocates for leaving the EU, and they spoke only 1,680 words.
- In the same period, Tory pro-EU grandees Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine made between them 28 appearances, with contributions totalling 11,208 words – over nine times the amount of airtime allocated to all left-wing supporters of Brexit.
- In Today’s business news covering the six months after the EU referendum, only 10 (2.9 per cent) of 366 speaker contributions were from supporters of withdrawal from the EU. http://news-watch.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/News-watch-Business-News-Survey-.pdf
- More recently, in October-November last year, of 68 non politically allied speakers in the Brexit-related coverage on on Today, 52 were anti-Brexit or pro-EU, and only 16 were pro-Brexit or anti-EU, an imbalance of worse than 3:1 – despite the Leave vote.
Of course, measuring bias is not solely about numbers. They are one factor among many in News-watch assessment methodology. http://news-watch.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/News-watch-Methodology.pdf
The News-watch reports also include detailed textual analysis which confirms that these blatant numerical imbalances are indicators of across-the-board bias against EU withdrawal.
Equally as disturbing is the BBC’s attitude towards this work. Over most of the 18 years, successive figures from the senior hierarchy have refused point blank to even consider the News-watch work. The one exception, in 2007, was a travesty http://news-watch.co.uk/today-programme-survey-and-response-to-bbc-independent-advisors-findings-winter-2007/
The Corporation’s stone-wall excuse boils to that they are the wrong kind of complaint because the internal BBC process deals only with issues arising from single programme editions.
The most recent dismissal of a News-watch report – about coverage of the EU and Brexit issues in last year’s General Election http://news-watch.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/News-watch-2017-General-Election-Report-1.pdf – was derisory. Without providing any evidence, the BBC press office claimed that it ‘would not pass basic academic scrutiny’. The speed and content of their response suggested that they could not have properly read it http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/10/22/bbc-invited-third-pro-eu-eurosceptic-speakers-appear-election/.
Another key point in the equation is what the BBC have not covered in the Brexit terrain. The News-watch work has been championed in Parliament by a cross-party group of MPs which includes Kate Hoey and Kelvin Hopkins from Labour, Philip Davies and Philip Hollobone from the Conservatives and Ian Paisley from the DUP.
Sir David Clementi, the BBC Chairman and his predecessors, and Lord Hall, the Director General of the BBC, have refused to meet the group to discuss the bias issues – and have been unable to supply to it a single BBC programme since the referendum which has examined the opportunities of Brexit.
News-watch has been scouring the schedules to spot one – but in vain.
Guest post from BBC Watch, originally published on their website
On December 31st the BBC News website published an article titled “How fake news plagued 2017” which provides readers with the following definition under the sub-heading “What is fake news?”.
- Completely false information, photos or videos purposefully created and spread to confuse or misinform
- Information, photos or videos manipulated to deceive – or old photographs shared as new
- Satire or parody which means no harm but can fool people
Unsurprisingly, the BBC’s article about ‘fake news’ in 2017 does not include any of its own content – which would not fall under the definition it has chosen to promote.
However, BBC Watch has recorded numerous examples of misinformation promoted by the BBC throughout the past year. Among the inaccurate claims made by the BBC to which we have managed to secure corrections are the following:
1) The claim that most Gulf Arab countries “now accept the existence of the Jewish state”:
2) The claim that Jerusalem as a whole is “occupied”:
3) The claim that nine people murdered in a terror attack in 2002 were “Jewish settlers”:
4) The claim that an attack in Syria was carried out by Israel:
5) The claim that Tel Aviv is “the Israeli capital”:
6) The claim that Jews rioted in Manchester in the 1940s:
7) The claim that Israel was “carved out of land which had belonged to the Palestinians”:
8) The claim that Mt Scopus and the Hebrew University are “Israeli settlements”:
9) The claim that the Battle of Beersheba “led to” the Balfour Declaration:
10) The claim that “most Jewish organisations” rejected the 1947 Partition Plan:
11) The claim that a convicted soldier held the rank of sergeant:
12) The claim that attacks on Israeli communities were carried out using “mortars”:
The BBC’s narrow definition of ‘fake news’ is of particular interest given that just last month the corporation announced that it was “launching a new scheme to help young people identify real news and filter out fake or false information”.
“James Harding, the director of BBC News, said: “This is an attempt to go into schools to speak to young people and give them the equipment they need to distinguish between what’s true and what’s false.” […]
“I think that people are getting the news all over the place – there’s more information than ever before,” said Harding.
“But, as we know, some of it is old news, some of it is half truths. Some of it is just downright lies. And it’s harder than ever when you look at those information feeds to discern what’s true and what’s not.”
Given the above examples (as well as countless others) of misinformation promoted by the BBC – along with its notoriously slow complaints procedure and inadequate corrections mechanism which does not even include a dedicated corrections page on the BBC News website – one might well conclude that the physician first needs to heal himself.
BBC Watch would like to thank all the many readers who contacted us during 2017 to bring problematic BBC content to our attention. Please continue to write in – your tips are an invaluable contribution to our work of identifying content that breaches BBC editorial guidelines and trying to secure corrections to claims that mislead and misinform BBC audiences in a manner no less pernicious than the type of ‘fake news’ that the BBC does recognise.
A central part of the New BBC Charter is that appeals about complaints are now handled not by the BBC itself, but Ofcom, the independent sector media regulator.
This change – recommended in a report to the former culture secretary John Whittingdale by Sir David Clementi, who has since become BBC chairman – was trumpeted as a way of ensuring independence of outlook and greater fairness in the complaints process.
So how is this panning out? Well, it has taken nine months for what seems to be the first BBC-based complaint to find its way through to the Ofcom Content Board.
The complaint was submitted by Gavin Hunt, an avid viewer of BBC1’s Question Time, who tracked the 25 editions of the programme in the series running from January 2017, and found that 22 had panels which contained a majority of EU Remainers. This, he claimed, showed significant bias against the Leave case.
The Ofcom response is contained in a five-page letter which can be read here.
They based their findings on only two of the editions of the programme. This was because the Content Board thought it would not be ‘proportionate’ to examine all 25. Instead they picked the two programmes which had five Remainers and no supporters of Leave.
One of these, the Board decided, was irrelevant to the complaint because it was broadcast from Salford soon after the Manchester Arena bombing, and there was no EU-related content.
Thus their inquiry was into the edition – from Oxford – broadcast on April 27, the panel on which was Damian Green (then Work and Pensions Secretary), Clive Lewis, the shadow Defence Secretary, Jo Swinson, the former Liberal Democrat MP, Stephen Gethins of the SNP, and Camilla Cavendish, a non-affiliated peer who was an adviser of David Cameron.
Two questions posed during the edition were deemed by Ofcom to be relevant to the complaint:
Has the General Election been called for the benefit of the Conservative Party and not the country?
Is tactical voting undemocratic or a way to prevent Hard Brexit?
The conclusion? A key passage of the Ofcom letter relating to panel composition said:
…we considered that there were also views expressed which could be described as supporting Brexit in some form, or otherwise challenging the Remain position. For example, Damian Green disagreed with various statements that were supportive of a Remain position. He said most people had not changed their mind since voting in the 2016 EU Referendum (“the referendum”), and although he was part of the referendum campaign for Remain, he respected democracy and the referendum outcome. He also: rebuked Tim Farron for saying the Liberal Democrats would frustrate the Parliamentary process for introducing Brexit; stated a strong and stable government would get a good Brexit deal; the referendum outcome ruled out membership of the Single Market and being subject to the European Court of Justice; and argued that Brexit had to mean more control over immigration and our budget. We considered that these were views that could be reasonably described as supporting what may be termed a form of “Hard Brexit”.
The second key element of the Ofcom finding related to David Dimbleby’s handling of balance issues, The Content Board letter said:
There are a range of editorial techniques that broadcasters can use to preserve due impartiality. In the case of Question Time, the role of the presenter, David Dimbleby, is crucial. In our view, and as evidenced in the Oxford and Salford programmes, Mr Dimbleby consistently provides critical challenge to panellists’ stated positions, summarises with due objectivity and, where necessary, offers alternative viewpoints. Panellists themselves also challenge viewpoints put forward by their fellow panellists. Alternative viewpoints are also expressed by audience members, who are given the opportunity to challenge statements made by panellists.
In essence, therefore, they turned the complaint down, basically on the ground that first, Damian Green expressed the Hard Brexit perspective, and also because, in Ofcom’s judgment, host David Dimbleby ensured that debate was marshalled fairly and impartially.
Was this ruling robust, independent and fair? Eyebrows might be raised by that Ofcom only looked in detail at one of 25 programmes, and considered that Damian Green’s remarks added up to an expression of support for a ‘Hard Brexit’ perspective, especially as Mr Green is on record as not supporting it. Some would also wonder how on the basis of only two programmes out of 25 – one of which contained nothing of EU coverage, the subject of the complaint – the Content Board were sure that David Dimbleby’s handling of his ringmaster’s role was always as balanced as they decided.
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