The BBC’s visceral negativity towards Brexit was displayed on Monday in an extraordinary attempted ambush by Today presenter John Humphrys and the BBC’s ‘reality check’ correspondent Chris Morris.
The intended victim of this double onslaught was Peter Lilley, now Lord Lilley, and the subject was a report he had written suggesting that life outside the EU could be prosperous and free.
In the BBC’s world that, of course, is a thought crime. So Lilley was subjected first to a Humphrys grilling of the type reserved for those in the Corporation’s rogues’ gallery. But for the editorial team that was not enough. Next came a spot of BBC-style reality checking from Morris who claimed, in essence, that the Lilley report was pie in the sky fantasy.
A lesser man than Lord Lilley would have been banjaxed by such a bare-knuckle assault. As it was, he gave at least as good as he got. But the BBC tactics show that their efforts to discredit the possibility of a clean exit from the EU have reached new heights. They now believe that the elevated expression of their own biased judgments are a totally legitimate part of their so-called journalism.
The BBC’s so-called ‘reality check’ unit is, of course, nothing of the sort. Why? Exhibit A is that back in February, Morris presented a five-part series called Brexit: a Guide for the Perplexed. His lens was so distorted that 18 out his 24 main interviewees were anti-Brexit and only seven per cent of the words spoken were from the withdrawal perspective. That report by News-watch is currently under investigation by Ofcom following a formal complaint, and the outcome of the appeal is expected imminently.
Meanwhile, Morris has ploughed on regardless with his opinionated perspective, to the extent that, judging by the frequency of his appearances, the Today programme now regards his input as an essential part of the editorial process.
The transcript of the Lilley-Humphrys-Morris sequence on Monday (it can be read in full here) reveals just how biased this approach has become. Recent analysis by News-watch (not yet published) has shown that appearances by the so-called ‘Brexiteers’ on BBC programmes, or analysis of their perspective, remain much less frequent than those by Europhiles.
But the Corporation is not happy with skewing the debate by numbers alone. Its editorial imperative is to rubbish as hard and as much as it can every element of the Brexit case while paying lip service to its existence, thus retaining (in its view) a fig-leaf nod to its concept of ‘due impartiality’.
Thus it was on Monday’s Today, as already noted, that Lord Lilley was first grilled by Humphrys. Fair enough, perhaps, though Remain advocates very, very rarely face such rigorous scrutiny. What was also very clear was that John Humphrys was out of his depth in terms of his knowledge of the terrain.
Next came Morris with his titular stamp of ‘reality check’ authority. Lord Lilley himself has written about this encounter in the Sun.
His article is excoriating. He observes: ‘. . . they then brought on a chap called Chris Morris, described as the BBC “reality checker”, who was invited to rebut my document. But all he did was oppose my facts with the opinions of people with whom he agreed.’
Lord Lilley added: ‘He systematically argued the Remain case and defended their Project Fear scare stories. The one thing he did not do was bring in any new facts. My central claim was that if we leave the EU Customs Union but have a free trade agreement with the European Union, our businesses have little to fear.
‘The main difference will be that traders will have to send in a customs declaration detailing the goods they are buying from or selling to Europe. That is a nuisance which we should try to simplify as much as possible.
‘But allegations that “this will be hugely costly, cause lengthy delays, disrupt supply chains and undermine economic growth” are imaginary or exaggerated.’ These allegations were presented by Morris as ‘facts’ but showed he was setting himself up as a fortune-teller on the lines of the Delphic Oracle. In pointing out that the current EU border regime is not frictionless (something apparently unknown to Morris) Lord Lilley further undermined both Morris’s ‘reality check’ credibility and his Brexit doom-mongering. It also seems that Morris is totally impervious to evidence like this.
Why does this matter? Because this was without question a new low in the BBC’s coverage of Brexit and in their journalism as a whole. For years they have seriously under-reported and distorted the case for leaving the EU. Their coverage has also been marked by massive bias by omission, a feature first noted by the Wilson report of 2005 in that they have never properly reported the case against the EU or the benefits of leaving.
To what extent has this biased reporting bedevilled the steps towards withdrawal? Not content with that deluge of negativity, Monday’s Today showed the Corporation have now formally adopted within the editorial process a mechanism that they say is ‘objective’ but in reality – in the hands of Morris – is the official adoption of a process designed to discredit Brexit.
BBC bias seems to be sinking to new depths each week. It has become an advanced case of infestation by deathwatch beetle. The question is not any more, ‘is it biased?’ but rather, ‘what is not?’
Take Doctor Who on BBC1. Once it was an original, entertaining, and exciting sci-fi show brimful of intriguing ideas. Not now. Led by a female Doctor, it has fully transformed into an exercise in the Corporation’s box-ticking multiculturalism and the rewriting of history according to the creed of political correctness.
This week’s episode saw Gallifrey’s Time Lord and her motley multicultural crew witnessing Indian partition in 1947. The villains? Not, of course, the Muslim League. In the BBC’s alternative universe, it could never be that. No, it was us empire-obsessed Brits, aided and abetted by a rampant, murderous Hindu who demanded separation.
The latest News-watch report into BBC bias – an analysis of former Europe editor Mark Mardell’s 13-part series Brexit: A Love Story?, covering the UK’s relationship with the EU from joining to possible exit – shows equally serious distortion and partisanship. The full report is here.
It was claimed that the programme, which was broadcast fortnightly as a segment in Radio 4’s World at One between March and September, and was thus projected as ‘news’ with all that this entails in terms of adherence to standards, was a journalistic examination of the ebb and flow of the UK’s membership.
Not so. According to Mardell and the editorial team, there were villains and heroes in the tale. And just as in the now pantomimic Doctor Who, there was no doubt who the baddies were.
Step forward as the ringleaders – boo! hiss! – Margaret Thatcher, whose alleged love of conflict and dislike of Germans alienated Brits against the nice, well-meaning EU folk; the British press, which, dominated by barons such as Conrad Black and Rupert Murdoch, and dolts such as Kelvin Mackenzie and Boris Johnson, lied continuously about benevolent EU rules; the ‘odious’ arch-capitalist Jimmy Goldsmith, who used his ill-gained cash to panic or blackmail the hapless John Major into accepting the Pandora’s Box idea of an in-out referendum; Nigel Farage, who opportunistically used events outside the EU’s control to force David Cameron to actually hold that referendum; and of course those in the Conservative party who dared over the years to challenge the EU’s goal of ever-closer union.
In Mardell’s estimation, it was the factors above plus Tory ‘civil war’ – not dislike and distrust by the British public of the EU itself and a desire to re-assert national sovereignty – which was a primary propellant of the exit vote.
The deluge of pro-EU opinion in the series was overwhelming. Almost two thirds (64 per cent) of the 38,000 words spoken by contributors were from figures who supported the EU and only 28 per cent who could be described as Eurosceptic or in favour of leave. Farage and supporters of leave such as the late Peter Shore were reduced to bit parts in the saga; most time was devoted to Brussels-loving senior civil servants, diplomats and politicians. Of course bias, cannot be measured by such numbers alone, but in the context of the overall editorial framework in the series, are an important indicator.
Another measure is that only six speakers of the 121 contributors who appeared in the series as a whole made what could be called substantive points against the EU.
Perhaps the most serious skew in terms of the rewriting of history was found in the episode which examined the handling of the BSE crisis during the 1990s. In Mardell’s hands, this was projected simplistically as a battle between a stupid and reckless Conservative government – putting lives at risk in their headlong defence of British beef – – against those nice EU bureaucrats who were doing nothing but taking reasonable steps to protect the hapless British public.
According to Mardell, was immigration at all a contributory factor towards the Brexit vote? Even he could not ignore the opening of the EU free movement gates from 2004, and one of the episodes dealt with this. But his primary contributor on this theme was Tony Blair, buttressed by then home secretary David Blunkett and an ‘expert’ from the London School of Economics, who argued one-dimensionally between them that the EU influx was an economic benefit and not at all a mistake. Opposition to that view? Only in the form of very brief vox pops which were clearly edited to convey the BBC’s wearyingly predictable version of anti-immigration bigotry.
The report as a whole shows a level of bias which is of the deepest concern. The series – as the endgame of the Brexit negotiations approached in the autumn – was cast as an overview appraisal of the the UK-EU relationship and scheduled accordingly in one of the BBC’s flagship news programmes. It was nothing of the sort. Rather, Mardell and his team were bent on showing that leaving the EU was an act of national mutilation triggered by the prejudice cultivated by the carefully-assembled cast of pantomime villains.
The BBC Radio 4 Today programme is in dire trouble. It is haemorrhaging listeners and, according to latest reports, more than one million have deserted over the past year, bringing the weekly audience down to 6.7m.
This should, of course, be a matter of urgent and very significant concern. The reality is that in the UK, only the BBC – by dint of its guaranteed vast licence-fee income – can afford to put out such a heavily-resourced news and current affairs radio programme. If the Corporation can’t get it right with flagship programmes such as Today, it is failing in its core remit.
Those multi-million figures, by the way, are somewhat misleading. They are simply the total number listening at some point for a few minutes to the 17.5 hours each week of Today output. The peak audience (on which basis television audiences are measured) is normally no more than two million at 8am.
What is the reason for the sharp decline? Could it be the programme’s relentless alienating bias? And might it be that the format – devised more than 40 years ago – has ossified over the decades into a diet of engineered difficult-to-listen-to confrontation on lines dictated by the BBC’s Leftist, politically correct worldview?
Tim Montgomerie recently adroitly summed up this growing antipathy. Explaining why he had become an ‘ex-Today listener’, he said:
‘On reflection, it’s the lack of illumination on almost any topic (as much as the bias) that makes me glad to have finally broken free. The biases are to “the State must do something about X” rather than “how can X best be solved?”; to short-term gloom rather than to long-term context; to politics; to supra-nationalism; to liberalism over conservatism . . . and any bad news from Trump’s America over bad news from within Brussels’ empire (especially from Italy).’
The BBC, of course, is deeply disdainful and dismissive of such views. World affairs editor John Simpson summed up the Corporation’s stance when he declared in Radio Times: ‘I’m getting really fed up with the complaints and criticisms being directed at BBC News at the moment. Not so much from our usual critics, the hardliners on the Left and the Right, who habitually claim we’re biased because we’re not actually biased in their favour. No – it’s middle-of-the-roaders who are doing the complaining now.’
However the slump in Today listening is now so acute that the Corporation has been forced into remedial action. Enter stage left with much huffing and puffing James Purnell, the BBC’s director of radio, who, of course, was formerly a Blairite Labour minister. He emerged this week from the corporate shadows in Portland Place as the man with a plan for tackling the decline – even though before his appointment to his current role he had no direct broadcasting experience.
His wheeze? A daily 20-minute Today podcast, dubbed imaginatively Beyond Today. Which 1A 1AA committee thought of that?
To be fair, there is no doubt that media audiences of all kinds increasingly prefer to be in charge of their own agenda, and in line with that podcasts have grown in popularity, along with visual services such as Netflix. According to Ofcom, the number of weekly podcast listeners has increased from 3.2m five years ago to 5.9m in 2018.
What appears to have got Purnell particularly excited, though, is that 49 per cent of these podcast enthusiasts are adults aged under 35, and because Today’s existing audience is significantly older, his plan envisages that the lost million oldies will be replaced by youthful eager-beaver trendies.
In line with that, Purnell has appointed 37-year-old Tina Daheley – previously a stand-in presenter of a range of BBC news programmes including BBC1 Breakfast – and Today reporter Matthew Price as the presenters of the new podcasts. They will be assisted by a production team of ‘mainly women’.
Their agenda? Well, Ms Daheley – whose Twitter account shows clearly her preferences – has not been backward in coming forward. She told the Observer: ‘Anyone who has been paying attention knows podcasts are hugely popular with under-35s, and if you’re serious about reaching that audience, it’s the logical thing to do. For me, a big thing is class and social background. We’re supposed to be holding a mirror to society and be representing them, but when was the last time someone who didn’t go to public school or Oxbridge presented the Ten O’Clock News?
‘The BBC gets a lot out of me. I should be thinking: “This is brilliant, I’ve got this whole area locked off, I tick all of those boxes in terms of strategy – young women, brown people, so-called C2DE demographics” – but I wish there were more of me. I had to work twice as hard and be damn good at my job to develop my career. I was doing 19 jobs and working for months without a day off [to get noticed] but there should be more people who look like me.’
So there we have it. Mr Purnell’s strategy to win back the Today deserters is not to address issues of bias, or to make an atrophied programme format less BBC agitprop and more accessible. Rather, it’s to ram yet more opinionated ‘diversity’ – in all its multi-faceted Corporation splendour and zeal – down our gullets. Whether we like it or not.
The first edition of Beyond Today was published on Tuesday. What had it to offer? Exactly the same BBC diet, with Evan Davis and someone from the BBC’s favourite think tank, the Institute of Fiscal Studies, warning that more money needs to be spent on public services.
How idiotic has the advocacy of climate alarmism by the BBC become?
Last month, as was reported on TCW, BBC News Director Fran Unsworth issued a formal directive stating, in effect, that alarmism is proven and cannot be challenged on the BBC airwaves.
One of her key minions, James Stephenson, the BBC’s overall editor of News and Current Affairs, has now appeared on the latest edition of BBC Radio 4’s Feedback to ram home the message.
Full reading of the transcript is recommended to to appreciate the jaw-dropping scale of the bias involved, but in essence, he declared that, despite viewer concerns the Corporation was adopting a partisan approach, ‘the science’ is beyond doubt and the IPCC’s word on the subject must be considered gospel.
His stance amounts to a total junking by the Corporation of basic scientific empiricism, which – since Roger Bacon’s Opus Majus in 1267 – has been based on the premise that one new set of verifiable data can sweep away any theory.
In that context, the alleged existence of ‘consensus’ between climate scientists on which Stephenson relies for justifying his propaganda position, matters not one jot.
In fact – despite all the IPCC’s posturing, politicking and blustering – the study of workings of the globe’s climate is in its infancy, not least because measurement of variables is so unreliable and incomplete.
Leading anti-alarmist scientist (and true empiricist), the Australian Jo Nova, excoriatingly reports that the world’s major climate ‘record’ – on which are anchored many of the IPCC’s alarmist predictions – is riddled with massive errors, gaps and assumptions.
So extreme was Stephenson’s partisanship in favour of the climate alarmist stance on Feedback that he bloody-mindedly defended a major mistake in the Corporation’s IPCC-related coverage.
Presenters John Humphrys and Sarah Montague both wrongly said the IPCC report was warning about a 1.5 per cent rise in global temperatures when the reality was that it referred to 1.5 degrees. Whoops, but in the BBC’s manual of climate change reporting, who cares? Stephenson accepted this was inaccurate, but claimed it did not matter because ‘audiences would have recognised it was a slip’.
Eh? In other words, in the BBC’s climate change universe, never let the facts get in the way of a good scare story.
Ironically, perhaps, the BBC position on alarmism can also be compared to that of the Catholic Church as imagined in Bertolt Brecht’s 1938 play The Life of Galileo. This in the 1960s was a ‘must see’ drama for all those on the left. They wanted to ridicule the play’s projection of the unreason and unbending conservatism of Catholicism, then one of the biggest targets of every left-winger. Ultra Marxist Brecht represented Galileo as the voice of ‘reason’ against the Church’s defence of bigoted religious orthodoxy. The BBC, of course, would love to see themselves as Galileo in the climate change debate.
In reality, though, they are not. The BBC, the IPCC and other bodies such as the EU, politicians and governments who have swallowed the IPCC agenda, the multi-national companies benefitting from ‘green’ energy, and academia are now all the vested interests defending the ‘warmist’ status quo at any and every cost – including the rejection of reason itself.
Every man (and woman) jack of them, like the Catholic Church in Brecht’s projection, is pitched against true scientific inquiry. Those who question alarmism are not ‘deniers’ as the BBC now so insultingly calls them. Rather, it is they, the ‘deniers’, the anti-alarmists, who are heroes and heroines fighting to smash the corrupt billions-of-dollars alarmist scam, which, on some estimates, is costing trillions of dollars.
John Simpson, the BBC’s veteran and rather pompous world affairs editor – who can forget his claims of liberating Kabul in 2001? – has been sounding off in Radio Times.
The full article can be read here. His scatter-gun target? Well, it seems just about everyone, and certainly the majority of those who contribute to the licence fee income which pays his wages. He defines the object of his ire as ‘middle-of-the-roaders’ who dare to complain about BBC bias.
Simpson already has form in venting his spleen in this domain. For example, he also reveals in the Radio Times article that he has been in ’hot water’ with his bosses for claims he made about Brexit at a conference held recently. Not, of course, in favour of the democratic will being carried out.
No, he told the delegates that the British people got the referendum vote wrong. If only they had known the facts and thought in a ‘more balanced’ sort of way, they would have decided to stay in the EU.
Another target of Simpson’s complaining was the recently-elected ‘far-Right’ (in BBC parlance) Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini. Here, Simpson’s scatter-gun turned into an exploding, ineptly-fired blunderbuss.
He leapt with glee on the chance to compare Signor Salvini to the Nazis by claiming he had said he was planning ‘mass purification’ of Italy in his steps towards controlling immigration. In reality, Salvini did not use the word ‘purification’ at all – it was a mis-translation. He wanted the streets of Italy to be rigorously checked to understand fully the extent of the immigrant problem. But in Simpson’s world, perhaps, the facts never get in the way of a good chance to attack those he disagrees with.
And so back to Radio Times. This is Simpson at his loftiest. He declares:
‘I’m getting really fed up with the complaints and criticisms being directed at BBC News at the moment. Not so much from our usual critics, the hardliners on the left and the right, who habitually claim we’re biased because we’re not actually biased in their favour. No – it’s middle-of-the-roaders who are doing the complaining now.’
He explains that these turncoats have dared to start writing to newspapers to say that the BBC is no longer even-handed. He is clearly flabbergasted by their actions. He responds:
‘Well, I promise you, with the perspective that 52 years of working for it gives me, it’s not the BBC that’s changed, it’s them. Maybe it’s because they’re so used to social media, and hearing only the kind of views they like, that they’re enraged by having to listen to arguments they hate. At present it’s Brexit. Before that it was Scottish independence. People have allowed themselves to be persuaded that there’s something wrong with being given open and unbiased information from BBC journalists. Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t think any subject is too important to keep our minds closed about it.’
And how does Simpson know that the BBC is not biased? Does he produce any evidence to back his assertions? In a word, no. His first line of defence – in the quote above – is his 52 years of experience at the BBC. In his estimation, that clearly means he must be always and infallibly right on these matters, and hapless licence fee ‘middle-of-the-roaders’ equally deluded and wrong.
Second is another firecracker from his arsenal. It’s that ‘those who work at the BBC’ are still basically followers of John Reith (the BBC’s first director-general). And what does that mean? He opines:
‘We think it’s our job to tell people honestly, to the best of our ability, what’s happening . . . This has been the nastiest period in our national life since 1945. It’s the broadcasters’ job to give people the range of opinions they won’t necessarily get in the newspapers . . . [reporters and presenters are not biased] they are only telling you something you don’t want to hear.’
Eh? This survey by News-watch, based on Brexit: A Guide for the Perplexed, a series of programmes on Radio 4 presented by Chris Morris of the BBC ‘Reality Check’ unit, found that 75 per cent of the main speakers were against Brexit, and those in favour had just seven per cent of the programme time.
Simpson’s claim that the BBC is giving viewers and listeners a ‘range of opinions’ on topic after topic – from climate alarmism, to President Trump and Brexit and dozens more – is thus moonshine. His awareness of the reality of BBC output, from his Portland Place eyrie, is also clearly extremely tenuous. And the level of his arrogance towards licence fee payers? Perhaps that’s best left to readers to decide.
This is a guest post by Kathy Gyngell, from The Conservative Woman
We have chronicled the saga of the BBC’s gross and inept intrusion into Sir Cliff Richard’s privacy from day one on TCW. In July Mr Justice Mann vindicated Sir Cliff and held the BBC to account over their coverage of the raid on his home. Since then the corporation has kept its head firmly in the sand. No one has been sacked and the apologies have been half-hearted.
For a while the BBC managed to psych up the MSM that there was a grave issue of press freedom at stake. Ever used to being their own judge and jury, the corporation sought to appeal against the ruling. But Mr Justice Mann was having none of this imaginary quagmire.
We published his reasons for dismissing the BBC’s argument here. It was, David Keighley wrote, a clear case of ‘game, set and match’ to the judge.
You’d be forgiven for believing that would be the end of that. Not so.
David Jordan, the BBC’s director of editorial policy and standards, has now appeared on one of the BBC’s own programmes to say Mr Justice Mann did not read his own judgment! We must thank the Is the BBC biased? website for being so quick to pick up on this interview which we reprint below.
The person, of course, who has not read the judgment is not its author but this senior BBC apologist. David Jordan’s interview on Newswatch confirms what we already know – that BBC arrogance knows no bounds.
This transcript is from Is the BBC biased and is published here by kind permission.
SAMIRA AHMED: No one from the BBC was available to speak to us about this before. I am pleased to say we are now joined by David Jordan, the corporation’s director of editorial policy and standards. Thank you for coming on Newswatch. Do you accept, as many viewers say, that the BBC has fallen below the standard expected of it?
DAVID JORDAN: We are very clear we regret some aspects of the way in which we covered the Cliff Richard story at the beginning. We made clear that we think that the use of a helicopter was inappropriate in the circumstances and that there were some other things about the way in which we covered it, the proportionality of it and so on, which we, with the benefit of hindsight, now regret. So yes, there are certain things about the way in which we did the story which we regret. But we have never conceded the principle, and that’s why we got involved in the court case when Sir Cliff took a case against us. We have never conceded the principle, nor wish to concede the principle, that we should not have reported the matter at all.
AHMED: The editorial misjudgment is the one we want to talk about. You mentioned the helicopter going up, which was defended at the time. Leading bulletins with it and going live, those were areas, too?
JORDAN: Well, those were all the areas which the judge criticised in his judgment . . .
AHMED: (interrupting) And do you agree?
JORDAN: . . . and which the BBC has conceded that, with the benefit of hindsight, we might have done differently, if we did the story today . . .
AHMED: (interrupting) Entering it for an award, despite all the criticism?
JORDAN: Yes, well, the BBC has said that was a misjudgment.
AHMED: Sir Cliff offered to settle this without going to court and the police, of course, did settle. It has cost the licence fee-payer £2million so far. Would you like to say sorry?
JORDAN: Well, it’s not true that Sir Cliff offered to settle it. We offered to settle with Sir Cliff on a number of occasions, but what Sir Cliff’s lawyers wanted was not a settlement but a surrender. They wanted us to concede the principle, as well as to acknowledge that the way in which we had done things was not appropriate. So it isn’t true to say that Sir Cliff offered to settle. I’m afraid he didn’t, otherwise we could have prevented us having to go through all of the ensuing case.
AHMED: Well, can you talk about this point of principle then? Because if it’s a big point of principle that your journalistic freedom is threatened, why are you not appealing?
JORDAN: Well, we’ve made it clear we considered appealing very carefully. The problem is that legal advice that we were given is that the prospects of success in a legal case were very small. So the judgment we had to make was whether it was worth going forward with a small likelihood of being successful, or not to go ahead at all. Given the costs of litigation in this country, which are very considerable, and given the extra pain that would have been caused to Sir Cliff and all for the unlikely to result in the outcome that we wanted, which was to contest the principle involved in this case, we decided it would be better not to do so.
AHMED: You see, given that he was not arrested at the time and wasn’t subsequently charged and no one had ever covered a case like this, sending up a helicopter before, people are asking why did the BBC claim there was a public interest defence to this?
JORDAN: Well, this took place in 2014 in the context of a number of sexual abuse cases involving high-profile people in the entertainment industry, and it was the case that in some of those cases where people were named it resulted in other allegations coming forward and other victims presenting themselves and thereby making the case against them considerably stronger. And we have had something similar happen in the United States recently with the naming of Harvey Weinstein, the accusation he is a sexual abuser, bringing forward a lot of other cases of a similar sort. So that is where a considerable part of the public interest lies. There also is a public interest in the public knowing about police investigations and the media’s ability to scrutinise those public investigations and scrutinise the work of the police. And there is a public interest and the public’s right to know things that are going on in our society and that is always the presumption from which we start.
AHMED: You’re the head of BBC editorial policy and standards. You heard the court evidence, BBC journalists joking in emails about Jailhouse Rock, ‘congratulations and jubilations’. Is that acceptable by BBC editorial standards?
JORDAN: Well, we’ve made it clear that, it is not an editorial standards matter as such, but we made it clear that was not appropriate. However, you know, let’s be clear, who of us have not issued at some point in our lives an email which, if read out in a courtroom, or plastered all over the national press, would not look slightly awry?
AHMED: (interrupting) Hmm. This is BBC editors about a serious allegation.
JORDAN: It was people who are covering a story and they were celebrating the fact that they had covered the story – and they did it in an inappropriate way, in a wrong way, but, you know, he who casts the first stone, etc.
AHMED: Jonathan Munro [BBC head of newsgathering] came on Newswatch after the story ran and defended it and defended the helicopter and, you know, it’s very interesting to see with the benefit of hindsight, but the BBC is supposed to have editorial standards and judgment and what viewers are really concerned about is the BBC didn’t seem to have them at the time of the Cliff Richard case.
JORDAN: No, I think some misjudgments were made. They were made in good faith at the time. They were made within the context of the law that applied at the time and nobody was trying to do something wrong. It was at that time completely standard practice to name a person who was the subject of a police investigation. This case has altered case law on this question. In a way . . .
AHMED: (interrupting) Well, Mr Justice Mann denies that.
JORDAN: Well, I’m afraid that means he hasn’t read his own judgment. I’m afraid his judgment . . .
AHMED: (interrupting) You’re telling me he was wrong?
JORDAN: I’m afraid his judgment says this, and it introduces a huge chasm of uncertainty into whether or not you can name a suspect in these circumstances. He does say if the police name them you can do so, but he introduces . . . and he does say if it is manifestly in the public interest you can do so, but then he says that it wasn’t in the public interest in this case, which involved a sexual abuse case . . .
AHMED: (interrupting) So you take it case by case. You have made that clear, that is a legal issue about whether the balance between the public interest and the right to privacy, and that’s a case-by-case basis, says the judge. Can you tell me why no one at the BBC has resigned over this Cliff Richard case?
JORDAN: Well, it’s not always the right thing to do, to sack people or make people resign, when something goes wrong. Obviously, it’s very important that we learn the lessons – and we have done and are doing – and we will do things differently in the future. But. as I said, the people who made the decisions about how this story was going to be covered did so in good faith, they did so within the context of the law as it existed at that time, and it’s not always appropriate to sack people and get people to resign for doing their job in the way that they thought was proper at the time.
AHMED: David Jordan, thank you.
JORDAN: Thank you.
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.
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