Analysis by News-watch of the BBC’s EU-related general election coverage in selected flagship news programmes reveals massive bias by omission.
There was a failure to explain in any depth the EU-related policies of the main parties, despite the fact that the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the EU were a central part of election manifestos.
For example, questioning of David Cameron about the Conservative proposals to re-negotiate the terms of EU membership amounted to only four minutes over the entire election campaign.
And UKIP’s policy of withdrawal from the EU was the subject of only a handful of questions. Coverage of withdrawal itself was swamped by consideration of the potential shortcomings of the main party supporting it.
David Keighley, managing director of News-watch, said: “The BBC of course has a duty to report the skirmishing of election campaigns. But as the main public service broadcaster it also must ensure that audiences are properly informed of key election issues. It seems that the reverse was the case. Explanation of the EU policies was very limited indeed.”
Below in full is the executive summary of the preliminary findings of the report. You can read the full report here:
News-watch research indicates that across the four highest-profile BBC news and current affairs programmes, coverage of the EU during the 2015 General Election between March 30 and May 10 was extremely limited and did not sufficiently convey to audiences the issues involved.
Policies and attitudes towards the EU were a central point of difference between the political parties, with their respective approaches potentially having a huge impact on the UK, but this was not reflected in coverage.
Especially, the analysis shows that the issue of possible withdrawal was not explored fairly or deeply enough. The possibility of withdrawal was central in both Ukip and Conservative EU policy. Coverage was heavily distorted, for instance by the substantial business news comment on the Today programme that withdrawal would damage British trade and jobs.
The message of potential damage to the economy was supplemented by the provision of frequent platforms for Labour and Liberal Democrat figures to warn of the same dangers. The spokesmen from these parties were not properly challenged on their views.
On the other hand, the only advocates of withdrawal who made points on that subject – apart from one brief sequence involving the Socialist Labour party and a minor mention by the former leader of the BNP – were from Ukip. But the main editorial focus on the party was whether they were competent or potentially racist and this clouded the treatment of withdrawal as an issue in itself.
In response to the Wilson report , the BBC promised to ensure that coverage of the EU was treated as important, and would include detailed explanation which ensured that audiences were fully abreast of the complex issues involved. But analysis by News-watch, based on the monitoring throughout the campaign of BBC News at Ten, Radio 4’s Today, and World at One and BBC2’s Newsnight, shows that this was not the case.
A major point here is that across the four programmes, coverage of EU-related election material amounted to only to 3.1% of the available programme airtime, a cumulative total of around 4 hours out of 130 hours of total programme time.
The key findings of this preliminary survey are:
Overall, there was only minimal editorial effort to explain to the audience what the respective party policies meant. This is best illustrated by the fact that Labour leader Ed Miliband was not interviewed at all about his EU-related election policies. When Mishal Husain (Today) and Evan Davis (Newsnight) interviewed Nigel Farage, no direct question were put to him about EU withdrawal or policy. David Cameron was interviewed by John Humphrys – but there were only four brief questions about the EU, and this portion of the exchange lasted only four minutes. The only questions put to Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg were whether he agreed that holding a referendum in 2017 would be damaging to the British economy and whether he would join a coalition which supported the holding of a referendum.
The Conservative party’s core policy was renegotiation of the relationship with the EU, followed by an in/out referendum. These bare facts were conveyed to audiences, but there was little of substance beyond that. David Cameron and George Osborne were asked a few questions which included whether uncertainty about the EU would lead to a loss of trade, and whether their policies were actually an attempt to placate anti-EU backbenchers. But there was no attempt to ask them to explain their decision to a hold a referendum, or what the poll would mean for voters and the United Kingdom .
Labour policy on the EU was that there should be a more enthusiastic engagement, a referendum should be denied unless there was treaty change, and that the Conservative approach was a major risk to jobs and investment. Their basic stance to the EU was explored briefly, but there was no attempt to ask what such enthusiastic adherence to the EU actually entailed. More Labour figures than Conservatives appeared on EU themes, and a handful of adversarial questions – such as why the public should not be trusted to vote on EU membership and why Ed Miliband had not talked more about foreign policy – posed to them, but the interrogation was superficial and limited. Labour figures had frequent brief platforms from which to attack Conservative policies and were not challenged in their views.
The Liberal Democrats were asked only whether they agreed with holding a referendum in 2017, and later in the campaign, whether they would join a Conservative coalition which included a referendum promise. As with Labour, there were frequent soundbites from party spokesmen who attacked Conservative and Ukip policies towards the EU.
Most of the questioning of Ukip did not relate to the party’s core policy of withdrawal from the EU, but was about their competence or attitudes towards race and immigration. Party spokesmen had the opportunity to make a handful of key points about the EU – such as that the UK could leave the EU and subsequently have a trading relationship with it. But editorial effort was minimal, and on the day of the launch of the Ukip manifesto, more focus was on telling audiences that Mr Farage had called the 2010 manifesto ‘drivel’ than conveying what was in the 2015 version.
A further major issue was business coverage. Throughout the campaign, there was a focus on interviewing business and political figures who believed that leaving the EU would be damaging to business in the UK. For instance, the Today programme interviewed only four guests who spoke in favour of the Conservative referendum policy, or who more broadly supported EU reform, and 18 speakers who saw the proposed referendum as a threat or a worry to business. There was not a single contribution from any speaker who believed that withdrawal from the EU would benefit British business. This frequent one-sided reporting amplified the suggestion that there was strong opposition to both the referendum and withdrawal. Put bluntly, it was an extra and sustained strand of bias against the policies of both the Conservative and Ukip parties, and against withdrawal as an issue in its own right.