This is an election like no other for the BBC. They have a mission.
Two weeks ago, as is laid out here, Today presenter Nick Robinson effectively declared war on Brexit with his statement that the Corporation would henceforward work flat out to find the problems with Brexit, and not bring balanced coverage of the Leave perspective. Of which, more later.
Since then, it has become painfully evident what he meant. The Corporation’s Article 50 coverage relentlessly highlighted the difficulties, with pride of place given to predictions by correspondents of decades-long wrangles, inflation of perceived problems over Gibraltar, the continuing need for the European Court of Justice and dire warnings that the British tourist and hospitality industry would collapse if the UK did not have continued access to EU labour.
In the same vein, after the general election was announced, Today’s business news – like a heat-seeking missile – sought out the views of the (ex BBC) DG of the CBI, Carolyn Fairbairn, on the need for continued free movement, reinforced an hour later by the ultra-Remain businessman Sir Martin Sorrell, who predicted that the real reason for the election was so that Mrs May could achieve a soft-Brexit in line with his own objectives.
To be fair, Andrew Lillico, a pro-Leave business figure also appeared, but there was no doubt which views were considered to be the most important.
So what will happen during the general election? This – despite what the Conservative Party machine might say – is effectively a second Brexit referendum, brought about because, as Theresa May has acknowledged, the Remain side are determined to thwart Brexit.
There are, of course, special rules for broadcasters during general elections. Broadly, they provide that much more attention must be paid to balance between the parties contesting the election.
But here, in this election, is an immediate problem. Those rules (as defined, for example by Ofcom in Section 6 of its programming code) are designed mainly to prevent imbalances between political parties.
That creates an immediate problem with an election so inevitably focused on a single issue: that the overwhelming majority of current MPs (most of whom will become candidates after May 3) were Remainers, and after the referendum vote want a strongly-limited and compromised form of EU exit.
Labour, for example, as exemplified by shadow chancellor John McDonnell on Today on Wednesday morning, says it now supports Brexit. But the form of Brexit it wants is continued membership of the single market, and qualified support for free movement. The Liberal Democrats and the SNP, of course, aggressively oppose Brexit – and make no bones about it.
The BBC, in this framework, has oodles of ‘wriggle-room’ to sidestep the election rules, and to continue to pursue vigorously its self-declared campaign to expose to the maximum the pitfalls of Brexit throughout the election period.
Of course, election coverage of the issues involved is also subject to the normal over-arching rules of public service impartiality. But it is precisely here that the BBC – as is clear in the Nick Robinson Radio Times piece – has interpreted the clauses relating to ‘due impartiality’ according to its own anti-Brexit ends. In the Corporation’s estimation, it is on a mission to spread ‘understanding’ about the exit process. In reality, that means something very different: the goal is to portray exit in the most negative light possible.
News-watch coverage of previous general elections has shown that, despite the supposedly strict general election impartiality rules, the BBC’s approach to EU coverage was seriously flawed. After the 2015 poll, it was noted:
…the analysis shows that the issue of possible withdrawal was not explored fairly or deeply enough…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.
Will this change in 2017? Fat chance. Subsequent News-watch reports have shown that this bias has continued, regardless of the June 23 vote.
The problem now is that – despite the new BBC Charter – the Corporation’s approach to impartiality in news coverage is mainly self-regulated through its own Complaints Unit. Ofcom only enters the frame if there is an appeal against the BBC’s own rulings, and that’s a procedure that takes months. News-watch’s complaint about the BBC’s fantasy race hate murder in Harlow took six months to grind through the BBC machine.
The Conservative Party under David Cameron fluffed the opportunity to achieve genuine reform of the BBC. Will that glaring failure now come back to haunt Theresa May?