News-watch has completed preliminary research on 40 editions of Newsnight between January 13 and March 11 based on the full transcription and analysis of the relevant parts of each programme.
Daily news and current affairs programmes such as Newsnight are not required to be balanced within each edition, but it would be expected that over a two-month period, the handling of the remain and leave sides of the Brexit case would be even-handed, especially as the period covered David Cameron’s Brussels negotiations and the formal suspension of cabinet collective responsibility on the topic.
A major concern is that the analysis of the guests who appeared on the programme speaking on referendum themes on a none-to-one basis showed a strong imbalance towards the remain side. There were 12 occasions (covering 14 guests, because one of the interviews featured three ‘remain’ figures) when guests clearly favouring staying in the European Union appeared in one-to-one interviews. There were only six featuring Brexit supporters.
The ‘remain’ figures involved were: Alan Johnson (13/1), former Swedish prime minister and Eurocrat Carl Bildt (27/1), David Liddington , (2/2), Rob Wainwright, from Europol (8/2), Jose Manuel Barosso (9/2), Ross McEwan , chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland (12/2) , Peter Mandelson (18/2), Kenneth Clarke (22/2), Sylvie Bermann,, the French ambassador to the UK (23/2), Damian Green (24/2), Anne Applebaum, Timothy Garton Ash and Tom Snyder (all commentators explaining why the EU was a vital bulwark against the likely excesses and failures of Donald Trump) (4/3), and Inga Beale, chief executive of Lloyds of London ) (7/3).
On the exit side, the guests who appeared in equivalent one-to-one exchanges were: the Conservative MP Maria Caulfield (2/2), Steve Baker MP (3/2), Kate HoeyMP (5/2); Nigel Farage MEP ) (18/2), Iain Duncan Smith (22/2), Richard Tice, one of the founders of the Leave.eu organisation (8/3),
Analysis of the transcripts of these exchanges shows that each guest was given a clear opportunity to state arguments from their respective perspectives. For example, Inga Beale spelled out in detail why she believed that Brexit would damage her company. There was thus a significant imbalance on one very important level between the two sides.
Looking at EU referendum items as a whole, including the interviews above plus those where ‘leave and ‘remain’ guests were interviewed simultaneously, there were a further 11 guests who were clearly in favour of staying in the EU, and a further eight who were supporters of Brexit. Thus the overall imbalance between the two sides was 25-14.
The additional remain figures were Lucy Thomas (twice) of the British Stronger in Europe group ( 29/1 and 16/2), the journalist Anne McElvoy (26/2). Charles Powell (8/2, ) Emma Reynolds MP (15/2); Lord Finkelstein) (18/2): Chuka Umunna (19/2) ; Ken Livingstone and Caroline Lucas MP (29/2); Heidi Alexander MP (8/3); associate professor Khuloud Al-Jamal (10/2) and Will Self (who was arguing against the ‘project fear’ allegedly generated by a Brexit supporter (11/3.)
The remaining Brexit camp figures were:
Daniel Hannan (29/1); Anunziata Rees-Mogg ( (8/2) Nigel /Mills, fromn the Vote Leave group (15/2); Simon Jenkins (18/2): Tom Pursglove (19/2) ; Toby Young (26/2); the cleric and socialist Giles Fraser (29/2); Gisela Stewart MP (8/3); Professor Angus Dalgleish)(10/2) Munira Mirza, member of the London Assembly (11/3).
Again, this was a very significant imbalance. Several of the packages that featured both sides provided impartial and absorbing interview sequences. News-watch’s investigation also found that although the BBC have been warned over many years that their coverage of EU affairs focuses too much on the Westminster bubble, there has been little attempt to go outside it. Only four Newsnight guests were not politicians, journalists, or attached to the political campaigns.
Three striking examples of bias include:
- On February 5, the Labour MP Kate Hoey appeared – a very rare appearance on the BBC of a Labour figure supporting EU exit. The main thrust of the interview by James O’Brien was not her reasons for wanting to leave, but rather the extent to which the exit movement was split, and what was happening next. Other interviews of exit supporters focused disproportionately on allegations of discord in the leave campaign.
- EU figures, the former president of the EU Commission, Jose Manuel Barosso, and the former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, have had the clear opportunity in main interviews to explain why leaving the EU would not be in the UK’s interest. There has been no balancing opinion from similarly weighty figures who support exit. In associated correspondent reports, other EU figures such as the former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, has also been able to express pro-EU and anti-Brexit views.
- In a feature linked to the continued success of Donald Trump, three commentators on EU affairs – journalist Anne Applebaum, the historian Tom Snyder and Oxford don Timothy Garton Ash – were given space to collectively explain why it was vital that the UK stayed in the EU, and for the EU to unify even further against the threat of Russia, China and if Donald Trump was elected, the United States.
Another issue with the coverage was that some supporting background packages intended to reflect a range of views, were pro-EU. For example, a feature about the passengers on the Polish bus between Cracow and London, contained only views from those who were coming to the UK to work, and supported the opportunity to do so. Reporter Katy Razzell visited Peterborough but the views in her package emphasised most heavily support for immigration and the EU.
Full analysis of this large sample will be completed as soon as possible.