This paper examines the BBC’s coverage, since 2002, of those on the left who wanted to leave the EU, including during the 2016 Referendum and the 2017 General Election. Data is from 30 individual News-watch surveys, analysing over 5,500 hours of BBC output, and 274 hours of EU-related content.
The BBC’s editorial values commit it to reflect ‘a breadth of diversity of opinion… so that no significant strand of thought is knowingly unreflected or under-represented.’ However, News-watch has found that left-wing arguments for Britain to leave the EU have been avoided on the BBC’s flagship news programmes, in spite of prominent MPs, trade unionists, journalists and commentators from the left supporting the policy, and polls suggesting that up to 3.5 million Labour voters in the 2015 General Election subsequently voted Leave in the 2016 referendum.
The paper shows that a total of 6,882 speakers contributed to this coverage, but that only 14 (0.2%) of the total – one in 500 – were left-wing advocates of Withdrawal; the majority of these appearances were too short to explore their views in any detail.
In total, those 14 guests contributed 1,680 words to the debate, but approximately one third of them came from a single 531-word Gisela Stuart appearance on Today, in which her actual contribution in favour of leaving the EU amounted to just 49 words. So only 1,198 words across the entire 30 surveys came from left-wing speakers making any sort of case for Withdrawal, an average of 86 words per contributor. In comparison, during the same period, strongly pro-EU Conservatives Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine made between them 28 appearances with contributions totalling 11,208 words – over nine times the amount of space allocated to all left-wing withdrawalists – with an average contribution length of 400 words. BBC audiences were thus made fully familiar with right-wing reasons for Remain. They were, by contrast, kept in the dark about left-wing/Labour support for leaving the EU.
Core left-wing arguments against the EU have been ignored, for example: the EU’s prohibition of state aid to protect jobs, the threat to the NHS from the TTIP agreement, the EU’s treatment of the Greek socialist government and people, unemployment in the eurozone, import tariffs for developing countries, and the belief that the EU has evolved into a ‘neoliberal marketplace’.
Between 2002 and 2014, there were only four left-wing contributors who supported Withdrawal in the Today Programme’s EU output, adding up to just 417 words. There were more than twice as many appearances on EU matters in this period by the British National Party (BNP).
In the 2015 General Election campaign, despite the proposed EU referendum being a central issue, there was only one interview with a left-leaning advocate of Withdrawal. During the referendum itself, there were only five contributions from Labour supporters of Brexit totalling 161 words (1 minute 31 seconds) on BBC1’s News at Ten, and none at all on BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat. In the Radio 4 collection of post–referendum programmes, The Brexit Collection, there were only two left-wing supporters of Brexit, and their contributions were minimal.
Even though Withdrawal had evident cross-party support in both Parliament and the country at large, the BBC saw it as a right-wing policy causing ‘splits’ within the Conservative Party, while ignoring ideological disagreements and debate elsewhere on the political spectrum.
The absence of voices offering alternative perspectives in the BBC’s coverage led to the creation of a false dichotomy: forward-thinking, progressive, open-minded, anti-racist pro-Europeans set against the bigoted, inward-looking, nationalist, anti-EU faction.
Despite having been alerted to this failure by News-watch over the last fifteen years, the BBC has continued to deny a voice to millions of the electorate. Had left-wing arguments for Brexit been properly aired, it is entirely feasible that a greater majority of the British people would have voted to Leave.