In its first major ruling on BBC impartiality, media and telecoms regulator Ofcom – which became BBC complaints watchdog under the new 2017 BBC Charter – has starkly rejected any suggestion of bias in the Corporation’s news and current affairs coverage of Brexit.
Ofcom claims that requirements of ‘due impartiality’ in the Brexit debate were met in the 50 hours of monitored BBC Radio 4 programmes – which included 24 editions of the Today programme as well as ‘Britain at the Crossroads’, a special day-long strand of Brexit-related material – simply through the inclusion of a range of voices and opinions.
Ofcom’s programme standards team – which took in total nine months to consider its response – also ruled that because the debate about Brexit in the survey period was no longer ‘binary’ (divided into Leave and Remain, as it had been during the 2016 referendum), there was no requirement to ensure that coverage reflected these viewpoints on an equal basis.
In reaching their conclusions, the Ofcom verdict astonishingly ignores completely the specific, detailed claims of bias against the Brexit case in the News-watch reports, and maintains that balance on Brexit matters can be achieved simply by including an unspecified range of voices and opinions, apparently without consideration of by whom those opinions were delivered.
The major problems highlighted by News-watch, and based on rigorous scrutiny of every programme transcript, are detailed in the executive summaries which follow, and include:
- In all the surveys, those who were pro-EU and Remain outnumbered figures who wanted a decisive Brexit by ratios of up to 5:1 and never less than 2:1.
- BBC presenters and correspondents were not neutral in reports and interviews, but exaggerated the problems of leaving the EU while ignoring the potential benefits of developing new trade policies and restoring national sovereignty.
Ofcom justified its ruling by stating baldly:
“The public debate had. . . developed from a discussion of a binary question – whether the UK should ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ in the EU – into a much more complex and nuanced discussion comprising many different viewpoints on the form that the UK’s exit from the EU should take, and the potential implications on a range of different areas. In Ofcom’s view, it was likely that the audience of the programmes assessed would have expected the discussion of Brexit-related issues to reflect a range of different viewpoints on the UK’s exit from the EU and its implications, and how the public debate on these issues shifted and developed over time”.
A spokesman for News-watch commented:
“This ruling raises very disturbing issues about Ofcom’s neutrality in handling BBC complaints. It has completely sidestepped the very voluminous and meticulous evidence of bias, and has given the BBC a clean bill of health despite the abundant evidence to the contrary conducted using internationally-recognised techniques of assessing media content.
“Ofcom’s assertion that ‘due impartiality’ can be achieved simply including a range of opinions in coverage creates ‘due impartiality’. This is an absurd stance at odds with broadcast research practice followed by, among many others, bodies such as the former BBC Trust.
“The BBC’s handling of the Brexit debate is of major national importance because of its vast resources and reach. But Ofcom, who assumed backstop regulatory responsibility for Corporation impartiality as part of the BBC’s new Charter in 2017, seem to have adopted an extreme laissez faire approach, which is also reflected in the length of time it has taken to reach its ruling”.
Report 1 (Today, October 9, 2017, November 4 2017)
The latest News-watch report assessed EU content in 24 editions of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme between October 9, 2017 and November 4, 2017. There was an unusually high level of such coverage hinged mainly on the Brexit negotiations. It amounted to 451 minutes, 93 per cent of which was devoted to Brexit.
The main finding is that there was an unjustified heavy bias towards exploring the difficulties and potential negativities 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 can negatively influence audiences. The point here is that with all the resources available to the BBC news-gathering process, the use 47 times of such a controversial word to describe Brexit was at best poor journalism; at worst a sign of deliberate intent to frame Brexit in a particular light.
There was also an almost complete absence in the coverage of ‘ordinary’ people who had voted Leave, and of UKIP, the only political grouping with substantial electoral backing which supported without reservation the need for a decisive Brexit. Only 76 words, 0.2 per cent of the total words spoken on the EU by guest contributors, were in this category.
Another main finding is that in the news bulletins, there were 13 items which projected major problems in the Brexit arena, against none which were positive. The problems highlighted in bulletin stories included plummeting registration of nurses from across the EU, a Brexit cost to every household of £500, the loss of thousands of jobs in the City of London, the government denying ‘panic’ in its attempts to deal with Brexit talks, along with claims from Hillary Clinton that the Brexit vote was based on a ‘big lie’.
Overall there were 199 speakers in Today’s EU coverage, of whom 102 (51.3 per cent) were broadly pro-EU or were negative about Brexit, against 54 speakers (27.1 per cent) who were positive, a ratio of 2:1 (the remainder were neutral). Thus, Today, despite the Leave vote in the EU referendum , inexplicably gave substantially greater prominence to anti-Brexit opinion.
The imbalance was worst among programme guests who were not allied to political parties in the House of Commons, where there were only 16 appearances by supporters of Brexit, or who were against the EU, against 52 from those opposed to Brexit or in favour of the EU. This was 4 a ratio worse than 3:1. In words counts there were 13,498 in the former category against 3,433, a ratio of 4:1.
These 52 non-allied speakers opposed to Brexit or ‘no deal’ predicted a litany of woe for the UK, including the intractable difficulties of reaching new free trade deals; collapsing farm incomes; exports hit by new red tape, tariffs, customs delays and rising prices; Brexit causing a ‘massive energy suck’ against the British economy; ‘panic’ in the government camp because Theresa May’s Florence speech had not worked; that the UK’s xenophobic approach to Brexit would lead to long-term decline; that the cost of dairy exports and imports could soar; and that Brexit was hitting car exports from the UK.
The picture of negativity against Brexit was worsened throughout the period by comments from BBC correspondents and presenters, who projected a picture of a government in panic, insuperable difficulties related to reaching agreement with the EU and in striking new trade deals, and collapsing business confidence. Of course the government’s progress towards negotiations was not smooth, but the BBC’s editorial focus was disproportionately and relentlessly negative.
Report 2 – Brexit a Guide for the Perplexed (February-March 2018)
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 socalled ‘transitional phase’ after March 2019.
The series 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 overall 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 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.
Thus, 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.
Report 3 – ‘Britain at the Crossroads’, March 29, 2018
On March 29, 2018 BBC Radio 4 broadcast a day of programmes about Brexit designed to reflect the issues involved one year before the EU departure date. Eight separate programmes were involved: special editions of Today, The Long View (a historical discussion programme), The World at One, Dead Ringers and the World Tonight, along with ad hoc commissions The Channel, The Brexit Lab and The EU after Brexit.
News-watch transcribed and analysed all the programmes. With the exception of The Brexit Lab, the word-counts and speaker totals established by the survey found a heavy bias against Brexit. Only 15 speakers out of 92 during the day were confirmed withdrawalists. 49 were in favour of remain, pro-EU or critical of the government’s approach to the negotiations with the EU 28 supported Brexit or were anti EU
The overall word-count was 15,554 from those who broadly favoured Remain (the 49 above) against 6,889 from those making contrary points. In Today – which accounted for one third of the day’s output – the bias was much worse, with only eight guest contributors pro-Brexit against 26 negative about it, or positive about the EU.
But, as noted in the introduction, the textual analysis shows that the bias was much worse than the figures.
Of most concern, was that BBC presenters and correspondents, especially in the Today programme, seemed on a mission to highlight every possible snag in the Brexit process, and played down or ignored the opportunities.
The sequences which explored the future of the EU contained heavily pro-EU comment from BBC correspondents, and guest speakers – though pointing out some structural problems – were at core in different ways all strongly in favour of the EU. Entirely missing were any commentators calling for drastic reform – or withdrawal – who were part of so-called ‘populist’ or ‘right-wing’ movements within the EU.
The Brexit Lab, though clearly – and possibly uniquely in BBC history – an attempt to examine post-Brexit opportunities, was announced by the BBC immediately before transmission to be a ‘strongly personal view’ from the freelance journalist Iain Martin. 5
Overall, despite the exploration in The Brexit Lab, ‘Britain at the Crossroads’ was deeply skewed against Brexit. This has been the case in all eight News-watch surveys completed since the EU referendum. It is a matter of major national concern that the BBC is breaching its Charter requirements towards impartiality in this way.