The 2017 BBC Charter bestowed for the first time supervisory regulatory powers on Ofcom, which had previously been in charge of only the independent sector. Its first review of BBC news and current affairs performance shows that this has achieved nothing except to confirm that the broadcasting ‘establishment’ is deeply biased and complacent, and that there is an urgent need to cleanse the Augean stables.
The naive aim – based on recommendations by Sir David Clementi, who subsequently, of course, became BBC chairman – was to create independent scrutiny of complaints and impartiality.
In March 2016, when the Clementi proposals were first published by then culture secretary John Whittingdale, I wrote on TCW:
‘Disaster! The malaise of the BBC is principally that it is run by broadcasting establishment figures with no desire to think radically or independently – and Ofcom is no different. It is a quango, peopled by liberal left quangocrats cast from exactly the same mould as the BBC Trustees . . .
‘Even worse is Sir David’s suggestion that Ofcom becomes the final court of appeal. . . nearly every. . . member of the [content] board has cosy links to the BBC and has spent considerable parts of his or her career in the BBC orbit. Thus, the handling by Ofcom of BBC complaints will not make one iota of difference to the current regime.’
Sadly, the predictions have proved to be spot-on. Recent examples of folk appointed to the Ofcom advisory committee for England are:
· Paula Carter, whose career has been principally at Channel 4 and the BBC;
· Aaqil Ahmed, the former head of religion ethics at both the BBC and Channel 4, and famed, for example, for mounting a BBC Songs of Praise from the Calais migrants’ camp and claiming that inmates could be likened to Joseph, Mary and Jesus nhttp://isthebbcbiased.blogspot.com/2015/08/songs-of-displeasure.html;
· Matthew Littleford, who is a trustee for the theatre companies Frantic Assembly and Paines Plough. He was previously a joint managing director of the TV production company Betty, editorial director for digital at BBC Worldwide, controller of UKTV (joint-owned by the BBC), and controller of entertainment for ITV’s digital channels.
Despite the relentless tide of anti-Brexit bias, the Ofcom content board – eight of the 13 members are ex-BBC – has dismissed the vast majority of BBC complaints appeals referred to it with the same cavalier liberal-Left disdain as the BBC itself.
Most strikingly, a meticulously researched complaint about the anti-Brexit bias of BBC1’s Question Time was dismissed on the basis that a single contribution from Theresa May crony Damian Green proved that the ‘hard’ Brexit perspective had been adequately represented in 25 editions.
Ofcom has now completed at significant expense – it includes a glossy focus group report from PwC – a year-long review of the BBC’s performance in the news and current affairs domain. Is there any sign that its approach to its new responsibilities might be improving?
In a word, no. I will analyse in more detail the huge inconsistencies of the findings in a second blog, but for now, an outstanding feature of this so-called review is that while it was designed to examine impartiality, it has in reality done no such thing.
As well as the PwC report, Ofcom commissioned the School of Media, Journalism and Culture at Cardiff University to undertake content analysis of elements of BBC output.
That in itself was a biased decision, because Cardiff, as has been demonstrated by News-watch, is deeply biased towards the BBC. For example, its director of journalism is Richard Sambrook, the BBC’s former director of global news. Irrespective of the personnel, Ofcom unbelievably asked the academics to focus mainly on the depth and range of coverage rather than impartiality.
One of their areas of investigation was Brexit. But none of it was about potential bias and its only finding, from a minuscule sample size, was that in terms of range and depth there might not have have been enough speakers from the EU. Given that most of the Remainer Parliament was made up of those who spoke passionately about the need to stay within the EU, this defies belief.
So how did the wise people of Ofcom decide that output was impartial? A main plank was that they had considered 300 complaints about BBC bias in 2018-19 and upheld none of them. Well, that’s okay then. Or maybe – more likely – it confirms the need for an urgent external investigation of Ofcom itself into confirmation bias – the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that affirms one’s prior beliefs or hypotheses.
The second main plank of their approach was the PwC report mentioned above. A key element of this was based on 13 interviews and workshops around the country, each attended by a dozen consumers of BBC output. How precisely these were framed is not disclosed – it is assumed by Ofcom that PwC knew what they were doing. But a striking feature of the exercise, at a time when the news agenda was dominated by Brexit, was that those with strong views about the topic were deliberately excluded.
Finally, what were the recommendations of the Ofcom report? News and current affairs is largely tickety-boo – with one major caveat, the ‘D’ word. Wait for it: not enough diversity!
Cardiff University’s journalism department has strong links with the BBC other than Richard Sambrook. One is that Ian Hargreaves, who is Professor of the Digital Economy at the university, was Professor of journalism there from 1999-2010, and is now on the BBC board of management (the body which replaced the former Trustees), and according to the BBC is is ‘responsible for upholding and protecting the independence of the BBC by acting in the public interest and exercising independent judgement’
Further, the BBC is currently moving into a new £100m HQ building in Cardiff. Joining them there is the Cardiff University media department – and students there are offered placements by the BBC. In that context, it is hard to see how the Cardiff report for Ofcom can be considered even remotely ‘independent’.
Two rulings have been made in the past ten days by the BBC’s editorial complaints unit (ECU) against Corporation presenters. Both the offending broadcasts, one an attack on Donald Trump, the other the ‘sneering’ handling of an interview with Rod Liddle about Brexit, took place in July.
This is hold the front page territory. Usually, the unit dismisses everything thrown at it, on grounds which have turned stonewalling into a whole new art form. The nature and extent of this is detailed in this blog dealing with the rejection by the ECU of a complaint from News-watch about the pro-EU, anti-Brexit bias in the BBC Radio 4 Mark Mardell series Brexit: A Love Story?
So who are the two who have earned such exceptional opprobrium? Step forward Emily Maitlis, of BBC2 Newsnight, and Naga Munchetty, a regular BBC1 Breakfast Time presenter.
An immediate observation is that those in the ECU should now watch their backs. Under the Corporation’s separate but over-riding equal opportunities agenda, singling out in quick succession two women in this way could be deemed by internal and external thought police as both sexist and anti-feminist. Labour MP David Lammy has already called the ECU’s decision against Ms Munchetty ‘appalling’, and 150 black broadcasters are demanding that the BBC reverse the ruling on her.
The pair’s transgressions, according to the ECU? Ms Maitlis was ‘too personal’ when she quizzed Sunday Times columnist and former BBC Today editor Rod Liddle about his book on Brexit, The Great Betrayal, suggesting that his views in it were often racist and xenophobic. The full ten-minute interview is on YouTube, and you can read the transcript here.
In the sequence, Mr Liddle’s fellow guest was Tom Baldwin, the communications director of the People’s Vote campaign.
Ms Munchetty, for her part, had ‘gone beyond’ what editorial guidelines allowed by asserting that Donald Trump’s views were ‘embedded in racism’ when he tweeted that Democrat politicians Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib should ‘go back home’ to sort out problems there rather than criticising the US. A 40-second extract from the sequence was tweeted by the BBC itself on the day of transmission.
— BBC Breakfast (@BBCBreakfast) July 17, 2019
The ‘partly upheld’ ruling added: ‘She went on to comment critically on the possible motive for, and potential consequences of, the President’s words. Judgements of that kind are for the audience to make, and the exchange fell short of due impartiality in that respect.’
Excuse me, if that’s the case, where does virtually all of US correspondent John Sopel’s reporting of Donald Trump stand? His bias is evident in almost every utterance. And what of Roger Harrabin’s almost risible partisanship in the climate change arena?
Miracles sometimes do happen. This might be the start of a whole new chapter in BBC accountability and rigour in enforcing Charter impartiality requirements, a sign that the Corporation is beginning to take action against the blizzard of biased reporting that dominates its coverage of issues such as climate change and Brexit.
But don’t hold your breath. At this stage, the full ECU rulings against the two women are not available; there are only the briefest details on the BBC complaints website.
What’s the point of guilty findings if precise reasons are not given? The BBC is its own judge and jury in the vast majority of complaints, and for that reason, maximum transparency and explanation should be a matter of course so that licence fee-payers can be confident that their concerns are being scrupulously considered.
Further examination of the brief details of the ruling in the Maitlis case in the light of the transcript and video of the exchange with Mr Liddle raises huge concerns.
Point number one is that we are told that Ms Maitlis was said by the unnamed complainant to have been ‘sneering and bullying’ towards Mr Liddle. The ECU does not address this grave core charge at all.
It says simply: ‘The ECU did not agree that it was possible to deduce Emily Maitlis’s view on Brexit from the discussion. It also believed that it was valid to press Mr Liddle on his personal views and noted that he had the opportunity to vigorously defend himself.’ As an action point it adds: ‘The programme has been reminded of the need to ensure rigorous questioning of controversial views does not lead to a perceived lack of impartiality.’
Looking at the interview and checking against the transcript, it’s easy to see why the complainant thought Ms Maitlis was both sneering and bullying. She spoke over Mr Liddle, aggressively interrupted him, relentlessly suggested he was racist and xenophobic and focused the interview in that territory, refused to accept Mr Liddle’s point that some of his barbs in his columns were humorous, allowed fellow guest Mr Baldwin to join in to underline her claims of racism, and throughout reinforced her verbal onslaught with body language which expressed what looked like contempt and was arguably sneering in tone for much of the time.
Her approach was cumulative, but was best typified halfway through the exchange when she asserted in connection with her allegation that Liddle was racist: ‘It’s so consistent, it’s week after week, the bile that you spew up has to be who you are.’
To be fair, towards the end, Ms Maitlis put two adversarial questions to Tom Baldwin, based on the point that holding a second referendum was not democratic. But her tone towards him was strikingly less negative, and she did not follow through with the sort of treatment handed out to Mr Liddle. To be fair again, her questions opened the door for Mr Liddle to attack Mr Baldwin’s approach and to assert that if the second referendum did not back remain, his group would probably press for a third vote.
To sum up, the ECU’s ruling is both disingenuous and an affront to common sense. What it ruled was simply this: ‘It was insufficiently clear that this was not Ms Maitlis’s view of Mr Liddle but that of his critics, and the persistent and personal nature of the criticism risked leaving her open to the charge that she had failed to be even-handed between the two guests.’
Pardon? Her questions, observations, body language and overall handling of the interview can only be described as overtly hostile. This was an outright open attack on Mr Liddle.
The most disgraceful aspects of Ms Maitlis’s handling of the exchange, such as sneeringly calling Mr Liddle a xenophobe – which were the main substance of the complaint – have been glossed over in the outline finding or completely ignored.
Trust in the BBC will only return, if ever, when its complaints procedures become rigorously robust and independent and genuinely tackle the current rampant bias. There is no sea change here. Ms Munchetty and Ms Maitlis behaved in the way they did because the current editorial framework fosters such bias.
Kathy Gyngell clearly highlighted on The Conservative Woman blog yesterday the hypocrisy of John Humphrys revealed in his forthcoming memoirs, being serialised in the Daily Mail. Today she discusses further evidence of his double standards, this time over the Iraq Dossier affair.
How could he have continued to work on BBC Radio 4’s Today – drawing massive pay from the pockets of the public he professed to serve – with the concerns he says he had about the anti-Brexit bias of the BBC hierarchy and the Corporation’s general liberal left groupthink bias?
Some would call that fraud.
There is another glaring contradiction in his stance. Mr Humphrys declares that he still believes that the BBC is a wonderful institution, is a ‘tremendous and irreplaceable force for good’ and that the country is stronger because it exists.
How does he square such sycophantic hyperbole with his assertion that the flagship BBC programme Today and news output generally is infected with institutional bias? It’s a massive contradiction. Impartiality is a core BBC Charter obligation and his grave allegations are that the Corporation has been in breach of it at least since the EU referendum (as well as at other times, as outlined below).
Digging into the Humphrys archives unearths rafts of similar inconsistencies in his approach and conduct which suggest he has worked for at least the last 20 years in a bubble of what at best can be described as selective vision and hearing.
Much of what Mr Humphrys has put into his book is not new at all. In 2014 perhaps when he started drafting his memoirs? – there was no other obvious peg) and again in 2017 (h/t Is the BBC Biased?), he gave interviews to Radio Times which contained strikingly similar key points: that there was at the Corporation an all-pervading liberal outlook, and that the BBC’s reporting of the desire for EU withdrawal and concerns about high immigration levels had not properly reflected widespread public concern.
Then, as now, he was noticeably vague on detail. He seems to lay most of the blame on ‘bosses’ who were upset by the referendum result. Is his view that they have directly influenced programme content – and if so, who was it who followed their instructions? The Today editor? Presenters? Producers and behind-the-scenes staff?
In 2014, when the first Radio Times piece appeared, News-watch noted this point, and stated in a blog:
‘He doesn’t say in which interview, with which guests or how or when he arrived at the judgment . . . No, this “bias” happened at some undefined, mysterious time in the murky miasmic mists of the Blair era. It evidently made Humphrys queasy and uneasy, but back then, he and his chums above and below him in the BBC hierarchy did nothing at all about it. Now, though, says the great man, the bias is fixed – it’s a matter of regret, but move along there, folks, nothing to see: everything in the BBC garden is tickety-boo.’
News-watch has analysed over the years more than 1,200 EU-related interviews conducted by Mr Humphrys. Analysis in the News-watch reports highlight that his approach to Brexit was shot through with the bias he now seems to blame others for creating.
Two prime examples stand out. In 1999, when a thirty-something Nigel Farage was standing for the first time in the European Parliamentary elections as a Ukip candidate, most of the interview was taken up with suggesting that Ukip was, in effect, a maverick aberration. A News-watch blog observed:
‘Farage said he simply wanted his country back on an amicable basis, and free trade; Humphrys’s stance was that this was ‘literally unthinkable’. . . . (he) did everything he could to attack the credibility of Ukip and asked nothing about the thinking behind the need for withdrawal. His opening gambit was to observe that it was “funny” (peculiar) and “puzzling” that Ukip was contesting seats in the European Parliament when it wanted to withdraw from the EU.’
Spool forward to the closing days of the EU referendum, and Mr Humphrys filed a highly unusual (in terms of its length) 27-minute Today item on attitudes towards immigration based on visits he made to Keighley in West Yorkshire, Shirebrook in Derbyshire and Hackney, east London. The News-watch analysis concluded:
‘Humphrys’s approach was heavily biased. In his world those who oppose immigration do so . . . from a position of prejudice. He . . . missed out numbers and rate of expansion – the key bedrock of opposition to current levels of immigration. Contributions of those who expressed concerns about immigration came across as shallow and prejudiced, a picture that was made worse by Humphrys’s repeated putting of “racist” claims to them. They had to deny they were racists, and were given only minimal space to advance their fears about numbers.
‘On the other side of the coin, Humphrys heavily stressed the contributions of those who were, in various ways – in their own estimation – victims of prejudice . . . Immigrants he spoke to wanted a better world, and had been thwarted in that quest only by white prejudice.’
All this, coupled with other more detailed analysis in News-watch reports, boils down to the fact that Mr Humphrys is as responsible as everyone else at the Corporation for BBC bias. What he is alleging now will probably generate book sales, but do nothing to sort out the problems he identifies. Those inside the BBC bubble, Mr Humphrys included, are incapable of seeing outside it. And complacency of the type displayed by Mr Humphrys for at least 20 years (the period of News-watch analysis) has blocked any chance of a solution.
Will Mr Humphrys now be thrown to the wolves by the bosses he so clearly despises? No. The Corporation will carry on regardless. As it always does.
ACCORDING to weekend press reports, Boris Johnson’s director of communications Lee Cain has had a lightbulb moment. He has told Downing Street staff that appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme is a ‘waste of time’.
Well, golly gosh. An old saying about a pikestaff rushes to mind.
In reality, it is hard to believe that the Johnson administration wants to do anything serious to tackle the BBC because the new Culture Secretary is Nicky Morgan. Her reaction when 70 MPs wrote to BBC director-general Tony Hall complaining about BBC Brexit coverage?
— Nicky Morgan MP (@NickyMorgan01) March 21, 2017
Theresa May, of course, was not concerned about BBC bias at all. That’s because she and her communications chief Robbie Gibb – a former BBC news executive – knew that the Corporation would assist in every way possible to undermine a clean break departure from the EU. It is reasonable to infer that they were probably not disappointed in the support they received.
News-watch research, contained in six separate surveys, has shown consistently that since the EU referendum in 2016 the Today programme has massively under-reported and misrepresented the withdrawal perspective, and in parallel characterised ‘no deal’ and those who support it as extremists or ‘hardline’.
Perhaps the most egregious example was that in the six months after the vote, the programme’s business news section carried only ten interviews with supporters of Brexit out of a total of 192. The introduction to the survey stated: ‘Between them, the negative guests painted a relentlessly pessimistic picture of gloom, doom and uncertainty, of plunging economic prospects, of a collapse of consumer confidence, rising inflation, a drying up of investment, job freezes, of a drain of jobs from London to mainland Europe, skills shortages because of the ending of free movement, the introduction of tariffs, and endless, complex renegotiation.’
For three years, this has been the hallmark of the BBC’s mindset. Preliminary findings from the latest News-watch survey, covering Today’s coverage of the European elections in April and May, show that as the May administration collapsed there was a doubling down on the BBC’s projection of concentrated Brexit gloom.
There were 487 EU-related speakers, of whom only 76 (15.6 per cent) were from withdrawalists (drawn from the ERG, the Brexit Party, UKIP, or those who had voted Leave in 2016 and were opposed to Theresa May’s ‘deal’). Between them, they spoke 14,000 words, which is only 10.5 per cent of the total of 133,500 spoken by all the EU-related contributors.
Figures, of course, are only part of the story. Perhaps the most striking exchange, illustrating the overall editorial approach, in the survey period was an interview by Nick Robinson with Sir William Cash on April 23. The background was that Nicky Morgan had complained the day before on the programme that she had received death threats because people such as Sir William had written an unhelpful letter to the press about her stance containing words such as ‘capitulation’ and ‘betrayal’.
The transcript of the interview with Sir William has to be seen to be believed. (It follows below.) Nick Robinson adopted a tone reserved by BBC presenters for those whom it regards as especially unsavoury, such as former BNP leader Nick Griffin. In an aggressive barrage of questions, Robinson asserted:
‘. . . what’s at issue here is the language you used, Sir Bill. No, the issue here is the language you use and I want you to address the language you’ve used rather than the argument.’
‘Do you think we’re still at war with Germany, Sir Bill? You refer to “appeasement”, “collaboration”, “surrendering”, “being on our hands and knees to Germany”. Do you think the war is continuing? . . . Why do you use the language of wartime, “appeasement”, “collaboration”, “surrender”, Sir Bill?’
Sir William patiently and politely explained that he had chosen the words because they were appropriate in the context that the EU were being very intransigent and ‘doing everything possible to make it difficult to leave’ on reasonable terms. Robinson was having none of it. Nicky Morgan had been offended and penance was required.
In sharp contrast, the programme’s general approach to the numerous Remain guests who suggested that leaving the EU with ‘no deal’ would be damaging or ‘catastrophic’ was benign acceptance.
Finally, a comparison with BBC’s 2014 European election coverage yields a startling statistic. The percentage of Brexit supporters who appeared in the survey period before the EU referendum was more than in the 2019 equivalent!
In this context, it would be an exciting development if the Johnson government did decide to do something concrete about such overwhelming BBC bias. Can Lee Cain succeed where others have so clearly failed?
Footnote: The News-watch legal application for a judicial review of the BBC’s approach to impartiality has been formally lodged with the BBC and the legal team is awaiting their formal reaction.
Transcript of interview with Sir William Cash, Today programme, April 23, 2019
Nick Robinson: ‘A forced and humiliating surrender. Appeasement on bended knee, the Prime Minister is making us crawl on our hands and knees to Germany and France.’ Not my words, the words used by the veteran anti-EU campaigner, Sir Bill Cash, who was condemned on this programme yesterday by fellow Conservative MP Nicky Morgan who, like many MPs who back Remain, has received a series of death threats and blames, in part, the language used in this debate. Sir Bill Cash joins us on the line now, good morning to you.
Sir William Cash: Good morning.
NR: Will Nicky Morgan’s words make you reconsider the words you use?
WC: No, for a very simple reason that considering the anger in the grass roots against what’s been going on and the broken promises that have been made and the fact that I don’t think she’d read my article, in fact I’m pretty certain, because she referred to the article in the Daily Telegraph today, when it was the Sunday Telegraph and didn’t give me the impression that she’d actually read it. But there we are.
NR: (speaking over) But she’s not the only person who’s condemned it. A fellow Conservative MP Alistair Burt said, ‘Does it ever cross your mind what you’re contributing to?’ So does it?
WC: Well, no. And the answer to that is this: that this is actually about the question of our leaving the European Union. We are standing up and I’m certainly standing up and have been consistently for the vote that was cast in the election, in the, in the referendum vote and also democracy itself and the manner in which . . . and this is what my article is actually about, which is about the legality of the extension of time and the broken promises that were associated with that by the Prime Minister and in the . . . in the House of Commons. (words unclear due to speaking over)
NR: (speaking over) Indeed, but what’s at issue here is the language you used, Sir Bill. No, the issue here is the language you use and I want you to address the language you’ve used rather than the argument.
WC: (speaking under) Yeah, okay.
NR: Do you think we’re still at war with Germany, Sir Bill? You refer to ‘appeasement’, ‘collaboration’, ‘surrendering’, ‘being on our hands and knees to Germany.’ Do you think the war is continuing?
WC: No I don’t, I think . . .
NR: (speaking over) So why do you use that language?
WC: As . . . well as, as quite clearly you can gather from looking at the situation as I’ve described it, I’m talking about what is going on now. This is the problem. (fragment of word, or word unclear due to speaking over)
NR: (speaking over) Why do you use the language of wartime, ‘appeasement’, ‘collaboration’, ‘surrender’, Sir Bill?
WC: Words mean what you choose them to mean, Nick, and the reality is that . . .
NR: (interrupting) They’re your words and you chose them, and I’m asking you why you use the language of war to describe a political disagreement.
WC: Well it is actually about a (fragment of word, or word unclear) as the European Scrutiny Committee made clear last year, we are, have been, consistently in these negotiations supplicating the European Union and thereby France and Germany. That is the position as it is now. We made a report, we made it clear, (words unclear due to speaking over)
NR: (speaking over) Are they the enemy, Sir Bill?
NR: Are our nearest neighbours in Europe the enemy, in your view?
WC: They’re not the enemy, but what they are, are people who are being very intransigent and are doing everything possible to make it as difficult as possible for us to leave the European Union on the terms on which we have a right to leave. (words unclear due to speaking over)
NR: (speaking over) But what I notice, that you use very different language now you’re on the radio to the language that you write . . .
WC: (speaking over) No, I . . .
NR: . . . in the article. You used the words, I put it to you again . . .
WC: (speaking over) That’s your interpretation . . .
NR: . . . of war.
WC: . . . of it, Nick. (words unclear due to speaking over)
NR: (speaking over) It’s not my interpretation, it’s a fact. You use the language of war, ‘surrender’, ‘hands and knees’, ‘collaboration’, ‘appeasement’ – why do you use that language?
WC: I’m using the language because it is an accurate description of what is actually being done over the last two, two years in negotiations.
NR: So Theresa May is a traitor to her country, is she?
WC: No, I’ve never said that. What I’m saying is it’s a complete misjudgement. It’s the manner in which the negotiations have been conducted. It’s the manner in which the extension of time has been made. And when I said, in the House of Commons, it was an abject surrender, I meant what I said, because that’s what it was.
NR: So, brief last question if I may, if someone issues a death threat and echoes the language you use, is your view, ‘so be it’?
WC: They certainly, they certainly wouldn’t be justified in doing so. I’m absolutely and totally against all those sort of death threats and anything of the kind. What I do say is that actually we have to express our language in a manner which reflects what’s been going on, and that’s what I did.
Act now! A £30,000 crowd-funding appeal is being launched today in an effort to #stopBBCbias. All donations gratefully received! Details of how to contribute are below.
For 20 years – since the European elections of 1999 – News-watch has been monitoring the BBC reporting of EU affairs to analyse whether it is meeting its Charter and Public Purposes requirement to be impartial.
It hasn’t and it isn’t. One survey after another has reached the same damning conclusion.
The reports, which use accepted academic research methodology, have established that the case for withdrawal from the EU has, from the start, been seriously under-represented. One of them, a report published in 2017 detailing the BBC’s coverage of ‘leave’ sympathy on the Left, summarises the extent of the failure; the standout statistic is noted in a ‘results table’ here.
In 274 hours of monitored BBC EU coverage between 2002 and 2017, only 14 speakers (0.2 per cent of the total) were Left-wing advocates for leaving the EU. Yet a strong Eurosceptic movement existed within Labour and the trade unions throughout that period.
There has also been systematic bias by omission in explaining the workings and negativities of the EU.
The BBC has always regarded News-watch’s surveys as unwanted attention to the extent that it has refused to engage with the vast majority of the News-watch reports.
On the very rare occasions it has deigned to offer a formal response to News-watch, it has been a travesty, as this Civitas paper conclusively demonstrates.
After Lord Wilson’s 2005 report into BBC EU coverage, which attacked the Corporation for not conducting proper monitoring and assessment of its output, it did claim to start such internal scrutiny. But no findings were ever published. Then, in 2015, the Corporation abruptly announced that it had abandoned such an approach and now relied on internal editorial processes.
Since the EU referendum, things have got massively worse. From the moment a palpably shaken David Dimbleby announced the result on that June 2016 morning, the Corporation has seen its duty as vigorously pushing the case for Remain and the EU perspective, while under-representing and often undermining the case to Leave. Exemplifying this is the current projection by BBC staff that ‘no deal’ is a Doomsday option.
At the same time, the BBC complaints procedure remains a brick wall designed to reject complaints and defend its bias rather than to make the Corporation’s journalism properly subject to scrutiny. In parallel, Parliament, which should police such a fundamental failure of the BBC Charter requirements, is so dominated by those who support the EU that it, too, is ineffective.
Enough is enough. That is why a judicial review process is being launched today. The goal is to push the Corporation towards becoming much more robust, transparent and equitable in meeting its fundamental requirement to be impartial.
Such cases are complex because the law is itself hugely complicated. But the action is cleverly pitched by the barristers who have framed it. The focus is not on the thousands of individual cases of bias that News-watch has exposed – that would be a fool’s errand in the courts. They are, though, part of the supporting evidence. Rather, the attack is on the BBC’s internal processes for ensuring impartiality. Put bluntly, they are simply not fit for purpose.
As already stated, News-watch analyses Corporation output by deploying rigorous research techniques accepted worldwide as the benchmark of scrutiny. The BBC does not. Instead, it relies mainly on internal meetings and processes. That in itself is a major issue of concern, because a fundamental of any research is to ensure against contamination through what is called confirmation bias. Those inhabiting an environment which has a particular set of values are oblivious of their bias, and indeed, will defend it to the hilt. In other words, they create a self-reinforcing echo chamber.
The BBC’s failure to exercise proper policing of impartiality does not stop there. It has emerged during exchanges with the BBC over the past year in connection with the case that its second major approach is via opinion polling. Participants are given a list of news providers and asked which they deem the most accurate, trustworthy and impartial. Around 50 per cent opt for the BBC in the impartiality category, and this, says the Corporation, is a key factor in showing that it is impartial.
This is nonsense. Polls do not calibrate anything other than people’s opinions. They do not, and cannot, measure whether the BBC is impartial, only the degree to which people think it is impartial (by comparison with other manifestly partial news outlets).
It boils down to this: on matters of impartiality, the Corporation is its own judge and jury, and has no verification other than the impressions of a sample of its audience.
It is against this background that the judicial review is being launched. It is nothing short of a national scandal that a public corporation which has a protected income of £3.5billion a year from licence-fee payers relies on such flimsy processes to deliver and verify such a crucial element of its Charter requirements.
In order to challenge the BBC in this vital way, a crowd-funding appeal is being launched today to raise £30,000 to cover the legal costs, and to ensure the message is spread as widely as possible. This will lead to a judicial review application being filed at the end of July.
We do hope you will contribute – any donation large or small will be very gratefully received.
Q and A
What is a judicial review?
It is a legal process allowing the courts to intervene if a public body is not complying with its statutory duties. Our case is the BBC does not police its impartiality rigorously enough – and has no independent verification – and that, as a result, the Corporation has become very biased on many issues, especially its coverage of Brexit.
How much money is needed and why?
Bringing such a court case is expensive, and the BBC has deep pockets. To have the best chance of winning, we need the best legal opinion and representation. Crowdfunding has been chosen because we believe that members of the public are as concerned as we are about BBC bias. The £30,000 being sought now will cover the judicial review application – further funds will be sought towards hearings when they are arranged.
Why should I support this action?
The BBC is a public corporation funded by a compulsory licence fee and enjoys an income of £3.5billion a year. It is required by its Charter to be impartial, but there is abundant evidence that it is not. Further, it has emerged that its internal processes for ensuring impartiality are inadequate, and rely to a large extent on opinion polling, which is not a reliable or appropriate way of measuring bias. The review is thus necessary in the public interest to improve the Corporation’s performance in a very important area of operations.
What is the timetable?
The goal is to submit the application for the review to the Administrative Court by the end of July, before the current legal term ends. A judge will decide the next steps, including when and if a hearing is to be held. These are fast track proceedings, so the hope is that a hearing will be held in October.
Why is David Keighley the claimant?
This is because he is a licence fee-payer with extensive media experience, especially in the monitoring of BBC output. His organisation News-watch has prepared dozens of surveys in this field using rigorous academic analysis. The BBC have largely refused to engage with the findings, and this is one of the main reasons why the judicial review is now being undertaken. His background evidence will be a core component in demonstrating why the BBC’s internal procedures for preventing bias are not adequate.
How very predictable. The BBC have never treated Nigel Farage or his core message seriously. During the European elections of 1999, when he was spokesman for the fledgling UKIP, they virtually ignored the party’s plans for withdrawal and gave far more airtime to the pro-Euro Conservative party. In all the years in between, they ignored as much as they could of the Brexit perspective and bracketed it firmly with bigotry, xenophobia and extremism. For example, News-watch surveys show that of 4,275 guests talking about the EU on Radio 4’s Today programme in survey periods between 2005 and 2015, only 132 (3.2 per cent) were supporters of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
And so on Sunday night, as the European parliamentary results rolled in, what was the BBC’s focus? Undoubtedly, virtually from the off, it was to discredit pro-Brexit developments in any way possible. The programme rapidly became the Emily Thornberry/Alastair Campbell show, complete with unchallenged allegations from the latter that the Brexit Party was funded by roubles, and from Lady Nugee that those who had voted for Brexit first time would see the error of their ways at a second poll. Both worked flat out to discredit Nigel Farage and rubbish the strength of the pro-Brexit vote.
It quickly became apparent, too, that part of the strategy was that BBC presenters and reporters crudely lumped together the votes for Greens, Liberal Democrats and the nationalist parties, and claimed they were all Remain.
This was poppycock, and at odds with what election results can indicate. For example, pollster Katherine Peacock said on the Today programme on May 3 when discussing the rise in the Liberal Democrat vote in the local elections, which Vince Cable had claimed was a vote for Remain:
‘You know, Vince Cable said that a vote for them is a vote for Remain. But I think it’s much, much more complex than that. And Lib Dems have a tradition of being that protest vote and of running councils and of making gains in local elections and I think that’s what you’ve seen a return to. Whether this actually can be transferred across to the European Elections is quite challenging. I think the issue of identity with political parties is very interesting. You’ve got only 8 per cent of the public who say they very strongly support a political party. Forty per cent say that they very strongly hold their position on Brexit, either Leave or Remain.’
There is no doubt that many of those who voted Liberal Democrat last Thursday were voting for Remain. But political allegiances are not currently as simple or binary as that, and to lump all the votes for one party together in the way the BBC did was highly questionable.
Yesterday morning Nigel Farage appeared on the Today programme. His interviewer was Justin Webb, and it was obvious from the outset that his mission was, as per usual, to attack and seek to discredit the Brexit Party’s success in every way he could, to the point of belligerence. There is a full transcript of the interview at the end of this article.
Mr Webb’s very predictable first point, continuing the overnight BBC theme, was that with ‘a total of 40 per cent of the vote’ Remain had won. Nigel Farage countered that parties who had entered the election supporting Brexit had won 52 per cent of the votes. Undaunted, Mr Webb resumed the attack. He said: ‘What they don’t accept is a no deal Brexit, which they say would be immensely damaging and what a huge number of the British people fear is a no deal Brexit that would damage their jobs. And that is the point that they’re making.’
And there we had it. News-watch research shows that this is what the BBC has been saying in various ways since the referendum took place. Of course, Corporation journalists have a duty to be adversarial when appropriate. But the overall treatment of the Brexit Party went well beyond that, and the negativity was only one way. On the results programme, by contrast, when a Plaid Cymru spokesman claimed at length that the Welsh vote was without doubt a victory for Remain and reversed the referendum vote, no one challenged him.
To be fair, Mr Farage managed to make some telling points of his own, such as that the two-party system served nothing but itself. But the relentless dogs-of-war onslaught continued, with Mr Webb openly laughing and incredulous at the idea of the Brexit Party standing in the next general election with a full manifesto, and then claiming Nigel Farage’s past policies included ‘a liking for President Putin’ – and no doubt in BBC terms the biggest heresy of all – ‘you don’t want the health service’.
In this one interview, all the BBC’s editorial doubts about Brexit, which have been the focus of their EU coverage for the 20 years that News-watch has been monitoring it, came into play. The difference now is that the BBC is seemingly transforming into what looks increasingly like a campaigning organisation with an agenda of its own – and that, as became crystal clear overnight, is to work all-out to discredit the idea of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, no matter how much the people of Britain might want it.
Here is the full interview:
JUSTIN WEBB: Let us turn to Nigel Farage who’s here in the studio, morning to you.
NIGEL FARAGE: Good morning to you.
JW: Nobody won, did they?
NF: Well, I don’t think we did too badly. I mean, the party didn’t even exist six weeks ago. We set it up and, of course, we had no ground campaign, no branches and yet, with a big simple message which is ‘We’ve been badly let down by two parties who’ve broken their promises’, we’ve topped the poll in a fairly dramatic start.
JW: And with a big simple message on the other side, ‘We want to remain’. They actually did better than you, got 40 per cent of the vote you, you and UKIP got 35 between you.
NF: (speaking over) No, no, no, no . . .
JW: So actually, they . . .
NF: (speaking over) No, no, no, no . . .
JW: Let me just put it to you . . .
NF: Hang on a second . . .
JW: They can legitimately, on the other . . .
NF: (speaking over) No.
JW: . . . side of the argument, claim victory this morning.
NF: (speaking over) Of course they can’t, because the Conservative Party position is they support Brexit and us leaving, add the Conservative vote are up. If you go around the country . . . do you know what it is? It’s about 52/48. We’re pretty much where we were three years ago. Things haven’t changed, people haven’t changed their minds. Now, actually, you know, that referendum was won by a clear majority of 1.3million. In a democracy, it’s the majority that wins. The problem we’ve got is that for a democracy to really function properly, you need the loser’s consent. And it’s pretty clear, listening to those clips, that the Remain parties still don’t accept Brexit. So these battles will go on.
JW: What they don’t accept is a ‘no deal’ Brexit, which they say would be immensely damaging and what a huge number of the British people fear is a ‘no deal’ Brexit that would damage their jobs. And that is the point that they’re making.
NF: Yeah well, the point is . . .
JW: (speaking over) And that is the point that these European elections have made to you and your supporters.
NF: Well, we couldn’t have been clearer. You know, the next date is 31 October. That will become as big a day in people’s minds as March 29. And all I can say is this: if we don’t leave on March 31 [sic] then you could can expect to see the Brexit Party’s success last night continue into the next general election.
JW: If a Conservative leader, new Conservative leader, new prime minister, comes to power and says, ‘Okay, we are going to leave on October 31 without a deal.’ And some Conservatives, as seems very likely, say, ‘We can’t support that,’ so there is an election. Will you do a deal with that leader to make sure that that side wins the election?
NF: Well, the first thing I want to say is this: that we’ve got a two-month period now during which there’s going to be this Conservative contest. That’s two of the five months we’ve got left until the leaving date. And I absolutely insist that we do have a mandate to now be part of that team. I want the Brexit Party . . . we’ve got some businessmen and women of considerable experience, quite happy to help the government get ready for 31 October by becoming part of that team . . .
JW: (interrupting) You haven’t got any MPs?
NF: Well, we will actually be in Brussels. You know, that’s where, that’s where . . .
JW: (speaking over) Yeah, but you don’t have any standing in this country to be part of the negotiations, any more than the Lib Dems do.
NF: Well, I don’t know, we’ve just won a national election. I would have thought we do have quite considerable standing. And we’ve also got the right people and the right expertise. So that’s the first thing I would say. The second thing I would say is whatever any Conservative leader says, well why would I believe them? Because we’ve heard it all before, Theresa May telling us 108 times we were leaving on March 29 and we didn’t, so . . .
JW: (speaking over) So hang on a second, even if there’s a manifesto then, say for the sake of argument, Boris Johnson is in charge, there’s a manifesto, he’s, he’s brought down by his own party effectively . . .
NF: (words unclear, speaking under)
JW: . . . there is a general election . . . well no, all these things are . . .
NF: (speaking over) We’re a long way from . . .
JW: . . . entirely possibly.
NF: We’re a long way from that.
JW: And they came to you and said, ‘Let’s do a deal, let’s say “no deal” Brexit, but let’s get it across by doing a deal your party’ are you . . . you’re not ruling it out, are you?
NF: I do not believe that the Conservative Party is even capable of producing a leader through this contest with that kind of clear message. I just don’t think it’s going to happen.
JW: But if they do, if they do, and a lot of Conservatives not only think that it’s possible, but think that is likely, and want it to happen, a lot of Conservative members . . . members. What they want to know from you is what then is the electoral setup going into that . . .
NF: (interrupting) If I see a Conservative manifesto at the end of this year, with an autumn election that says absolutely, unequivocally and clearly, ‘We are leaving the European Union with or without a deal and we mean it’, I’d be delighted to see it, but, but again, would they (words unclear due to speaking over)
JW: (speaking over) And, and . . .
NF: But they, but they . . .
JW: (speaking over) No, but you, hang on a second . . .
NF: (words unclear)
JW: (speaking over) No, excuse me, because you were (words unclear due to speaking over)
NF: (speaking over) In 2017 . . .
JW: . . . almost getting there . . .
NF: (speaking over) In 2017 . . .
JW: . . . but then you didn’t tell us what you were going to (word unclear due to speaking over)
NF: (speaking over) In 2017, the Conservatives told us we would be leaving on March 29 with or without a deal, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t . . .
JW: (speaking over) And if they tell you now, at the end of October, what do you do?
NF: I wouldn’t believe them.
JW: What, you’d simply, you’d simply blank them and stand against them?
NF: Firstly, it isn’t going to happen. I don’t think you . . . I mean, we’re not going to get a Conservative leader with that degree of clarity. And secondly, I wouldn’t believe them. How could I, with the track record of the last couple of years?
JW: But, but what you’re doing then is (laughs) suggesting to the country that you are going to stand as a political party . . .
JW: . . . with a whole gamut of policies . . .
JW: . . . and recently, on The Andrew Marr Show, when you were reminded of what those previous policies were, that you’ve held, you didn’t much like it. You are going to have to turn yourself into a full-scale political party?
NF: It’s a heck of a job. You know we’ve done amazing things in six weeks. I’m not pretending that to set up the infrastructure to fight 650 seats, perhaps for an October election is easy, but that, that work . . .
JW: (speaking over) But you’re intending to do it?
NF: . . . that work starts (words unclear due to speaking over ‘this afternoon’?)
JW: (speaking over) With a full manifesto?
NF: Absolutely. (words unclear due to speaking over)
JW: (speaking over) And we’ll be reminded of your previous liking for President Putin . . .
NF: (words unclear, speaking under)
JW: . . . and you don’t want the health service and all the rest of it . . .
NF: (speaking over) Hang on, they were never policies. I mean, I know the job of media is to close down debate, but those things that were talked about on the Andrew Marr programme . . .
JW: (speaking over) No, I’m opening it up, they’re your policies.
NF: (speaking over) were never, ever policies. But we will, of course, talk about policies, to have a policy platform . . .
JW: (speaking over) Right . . .
NF: . . . no question about that.
JW: (speaking over) Right, you are, you are going to stand in the next election with a full set of . . .
NF: (speaking over) But I’ll tell you what’s also, I’ll tell you what’s also very interesting, all the focus this morning is on the impact we’ve had on the Conservative Party. Just look at what happened to the Labour vote in the north-east of England and in Wales, where for the first time in over 100 years the Labour Party have not won an election in Wales. We’re also taking huge numbers of votes from the Labour Party too.
JW: You are going to challenge those two parties, right across the board . . .
NF: (speaking over) Yes.
JW: . . . and you think you can supplant them or live with them . . .
NF: (speaking over) Well . . .
JW: . . . in, in an election?
NF: I think that the two-party system now serves nothing but itself. I think they’re an obstruction to the modernisation of politics in our country, an obstruction to us moving forwards and yes, we’re going to take them on and I accept it’s a hugely ambitious thing to do, but that is what we’re going to try.
JW: So you’re going to stay in politics, because you had said you’d gone. In fact, you had gone.
NF: Well, I was quite happy to have gone . . .
JW: (speaking over) But you’re not any more.
NF: . . . and had we left the European Union . . .
JW: You are sticking with this for the long term?
NF: Yes, absolutely.
JW: Final thought about Donald Trump who’s coming here soon, are you going to see him?
NF: Well it’s difficult because, you know, whilst I’m a friend of his and I saw him quite recently in America, you know, this is an official state visit. And we know that Number 10 are saying, ‘Please don’t meet that person’, so if I do, it’ll be in private.
On March 29 last year, one year before non-Brexit day, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a day-long series of programmes called Britain at the Crossroads which the Corporation’s PR hype said was designed to examine the steps towards Brexit.
At its heart was the first of a multi-part series presented by Mark Mardell called Brexit: A Love Story? which purported to give a history of the love-hate relationship between the UK and the EU.
Predictably, it proved very one-sided. There was a deluge of pro-EU/EEC comment, – from both the presenter and contributors – but much less from those who were anti-EEC/EU. The News-watch survey into the programme, and of Britain at the Crossroads series can be accessed here.
A complaint against the blatantly biased approach was duly submitted by News-watch. Richard Hutt, the Director of the BBC Complaints Unit, finally responded, appropriately, perhaps, on April 1.
Mr Hutt relied for his defence on overarching ‘due impartiality’. This allowed him at a stroke to rule out the main findings of the News-watch report. Under this rubbery concept, of course, the BBC is allowed huge flexibility. They argue that most topics are not ‘binary’ but discussed from multiple viewpoints, and it is thus up to BBC editors to decide the degree to which the various perspectives are included.
It’s an all-purpose ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card, allowing the BBC to decide what it likes.
On this basis, Mr Hutt declared in his letter that it was perfectly acceptable for Brexit: A Love Story? to contain a predominance of pre-EU views (in a ratio of 9:4) – indeed that it was ‘inevitable’ – because the programme team had decided that the relationship would be examined through the lens of successive governments. Well, of course.
It did not seem to occur to him at all that on day of programming about Brexit, such an approach was grossly partisan. As most people in Britain voted for Brexit, why was the chosen programme angle (as an example of an alternative) not instead about how Parliament had for 50 years flouted British public opinion against the EU/EEC and continued to do so?
Put another way, why were the main contributors legions of fawning civil servants, along with Tony Blair and Nick Clegg, rather than figures such as Nigel Farage – who spoke a mere 134 words, most of which were taken up by him explaining the correct spelling of his name – or veteran eurosceptic Sir Bill Cash (who did not appear at all)?
Mr Hutt also argued that the low number of eurosceptic contributions was defensible, because those who were included were of a high quality and their comments were edited in a way that skilfully and succinctly conveyed their core arguments. He claimed that this was an acceptable ‘editorial technique’; their contributions might have been small in volume, but they were punching above their weight and ‘fairly represented’.
This, too, is a highly dubious defence. The supposed expert selection of such contributions meant that the most prominent included Enoch Powell, Tony Benn, Jimmy Goldsmith and Kelvin Mackenzie. Of course, all these were ‘eurosceptic’ in their outlook. But were they typical of such opinion? Hardly. This was further evidence of the BBC ’bubble’ – those opposed to the EU were at every stage (and are) immoderate or extreme.
Mr Hutt, it also emerged, does not believe that academic techniques of content analysis of the type used by News-watch can be used to assess bias. It boils down to that, to him, that 9:4 imbalance was totally irrelevant because any attempt at ‘simple quantification’ of BBC content is not helpful. He argues that views about the EU/EEC are not generally ‘binary’ and that in any case, someone who might be classed as ‘pro-EU’ might actually have been making an impartial contribution.
This has now become a standard and fossilised BBC defence. Chief political advisor Ric Bailey made exactly the same stone-wall point on the BBC’s Newswatch programme which discussed the recent blatant imbalance against pro-Brexit panellists on BBC1 Question Time.
Lord Wilson of Dinton, the former cabinet secretary, conducted an inquiry into the BBC’s coverage of the EU in 2004/5 when a referendum about the proposed EU Constitution was being considered. He observed (p.5 of the report):
‘Senior managers appear insufficiently self-critical about standards of impartiality. . . This attitude appears to have filtered through to producers, reporters and presenters in the front line. There is no evidence of any systematic monitoring to ensure that all shades of significant opinion are fairly represented and there is a resistance to accepting external evidence. Leaving decisions to individual programme editors means that if there is bias in the coverage overall, no-one in the BBC would know about it.’
Almost 15 years on, Mr Hutt’s letter is clear evidence that nothing has changed.
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”.
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.
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.
BBC Director General Lord Hall of Birkenhead has declared that the Corporation is on a mission to counter fake news.
He publicly announced this back in the summer at the Prospect annual conference – the day before the white-collar trades union announced it would be campaigning for a Brexit ‘people’s vote’.
Others who addressed the conference included arch-Remainers Hilary Benn and Rain Newton-Smith, the chief economist of the CBI.
Perhaps it might be a little unfair to judge Lord Hall purely on the company he keeps, but latest research by News-watch shows that under his stewardship, the Corporation has in fact now morphed into a major purveyor of the commodity he allegedly so despises – and especially that which will thwart Brexit.
Strong documentary evidence in this vein came to light recently when Guido unearthed an internal circular from BBC economics editor Kamal Ahmed, who is shortly to assume the elevated role of Corporation Editorial Director (whatever that means). From his lofty perch, he told BBC journalists that whatever Brexiteers might think, predictions from economists proved that leaving the EU is ‘rubbish’.
But how systematic within the BBC is the approach decreed and endorsed by Ahmed? How much has the fake news virus entered into the Corporation’s DNA?
News-watch is currently analysing the BBC’s coverage of the steps towards Theresa May’s reviled so-called EU ‘deal’ during the autumn, and as always, the devil is in the detail.
On September 17, as the Salzburg EU ‘summit’ unfolded, BBC’s ubiquitous reality check correspondent Chris Morris was in action on the Radio 4 Today programme. His mission? To tell listeners of the dangers of ‘no deal’ and to ram home to the maximum extent the chaos and misery which would ensue if Mrs May did not accept the terms on offer from her EU masters.
In this vein, a Morris voice-piece was prominent in that morning’s bulletins. He declared that a report from ‘a political research group’ warned that in nine out of ten areas of economic and legislative activity, it would not be possible to avoid ‘major negative impacts’ because time was running out to avoid ‘no deal’, and also that another major problem was that a 21-month transition period was not enough to be able to secure any free-trade deals.
The source of all this gloom and doom and Brexit impossibility? Morris said the ‘political research group’ involved was a body called the Institute for Government. Sounds authoritative, even-handed and ‘expert’?
That was clearly what Morris wished to convey, because he did not include any further details about the Institute. But dig about on its website debate and instantly several red-letter points central to the Brexit debate leap out.
First, it is chaired by Labour peer and ex-minister Lord Sainsbury of Turville, who, according to the Daily Telegraph, spent a cool £8m trying to avert Brexit. The report claims he created four different aliases so he could spend so lavishly.
Second, also on the board of the Institute are two other former Labour ministers, Baroness Amos and Liam Byrne MP; Sir Andrew Khan, the UK’s former permanent representative to the EU, who, surprise, surprise, is another fervent supporter of the EU; and Sir Richard Lambert, formerly editor of the Financial Times. It is hard to imagine a more arch-Remain grouping.
But third, there is more: The Institute’s director (chief executive) is Bronwen Maddox, a former Times foreign editor, who then became editor of the Prospect current affairs magazine before taking up her current role. Her views on Brexit are also pretty clear – she is a declared full-scale fan of George Osborne’s Project Fear.
For most people, details such as these would have sent a clear signal that the Institute would not exactly be sympathetic or even-handed in its attitudes towards the Brexit cause, and that any report by them must be handled with caution. And a few minutes’ perusal of the report confirms that it is shot through with hyperbolic ‘no deal’ misery in the ‘Project Fear’ mould.
But to the BBC and Morris this was of no concern regarding impartiality, despite editorial guidelines which stipulate that sources with potential bias must be identified.
And not only that. Sharp-eared listeners would have also heard in the 7am bulletin a very brief mention that the Institute’s report was not merely being reported by the BBC – it had actually been commissioned by BBC News!
And that’s a smoking gun. On the one hand, Editorial Director Ahmed is circulating notes to BBC journalists telling them that they must believe in and shout from the rafters the predictions of the doomsters of the IMF and the Treasury; on the other the BBC’s self-declared ‘reality check’ unit is commissioning and integrating slyly into its news agenda authoritative-sounding reports commissioned by the BBC to exaggerate to the maximum extent the dangers of ‘no deal’.
Question to Lord Hall: Is this not the very definition of ‘Fake News’?
The BBC’s visceral negativity towards Brexit was displayed on Monday in an extraordinary attempted ambush by Today presenter John Humphrys and the BBC’s ‘reality check’ correspondent Chris Morris.
The intended victim of this double onslaught was Peter Lilley, now Lord Lilley, and the subject was a report he had written suggesting that life outside the EU could be prosperous and free.
In the BBC’s world that, of course, is a thought crime. So Lilley was subjected first to a Humphrys grilling of the type reserved for those in the Corporation’s rogues’ gallery. But for the editorial team that was not enough. Next came a spot of BBC-style reality checking from Morris who claimed, in essence, that the Lilley report was pie in the sky fantasy.
A lesser man than Lord Lilley would have been banjaxed by such a bare-knuckle assault. As it was, he gave at least as good as he got. But the BBC tactics show that their efforts to discredit the possibility of a clean exit from the EU have reached new heights. They now believe that the elevated expression of their own biased judgments are a totally legitimate part of their so-called journalism.
The BBC’s so-called ‘reality check’ unit is, of course, nothing of the sort. Why? Exhibit A is that back in February, Morris presented a five-part series called Brexit: a Guide for the Perplexed. His lens was so distorted that 18 out his 24 main interviewees were anti-Brexit and only seven per cent of the words spoken were from the withdrawal perspective. That report by News-watch is currently under investigation by Ofcom following a formal complaint, and the outcome of the appeal is expected imminently.
Meanwhile, Morris has ploughed on regardless with his opinionated perspective, to the extent that, judging by the frequency of his appearances, the Today programme now regards his input as an essential part of the editorial process.
The transcript of the Lilley-Humphrys-Morris sequence on Monday (it can be read in full here) reveals just how biased this approach has become. Recent analysis by News-watch (not yet published) has shown that appearances by the so-called ‘Brexiteers’ on BBC programmes, or analysis of their perspective, remain much less frequent than those by Europhiles.
But the Corporation is not happy with skewing the debate by numbers alone. Its editorial imperative is to rubbish as hard and as much as it can every element of the Brexit case while paying lip service to its existence, thus retaining (in its view) a fig-leaf nod to its concept of ‘due impartiality’.
Thus it was on Monday’s Today, as already noted, that Lord Lilley was first grilled by Humphrys. Fair enough, perhaps, though Remain advocates very, very rarely face such rigorous scrutiny. What was also very clear was that John Humphrys was out of his depth in terms of his knowledge of the terrain.
Next came Morris with his titular stamp of ‘reality check’ authority. Lord Lilley himself has written about this encounter in the Sun.
His article is excoriating. He observes: ‘. . . they then brought on a chap called Chris Morris, described as the BBC “reality checker”, who was invited to rebut my document. But all he did was oppose my facts with the opinions of people with whom he agreed.’
Lord Lilley added: ‘He systematically argued the Remain case and defended their Project Fear scare stories. The one thing he did not do was bring in any new facts. My central claim was that if we leave the EU Customs Union but have a free trade agreement with the European Union, our businesses have little to fear.
‘The main difference will be that traders will have to send in a customs declaration detailing the goods they are buying from or selling to Europe. That is a nuisance which we should try to simplify as much as possible.
‘But allegations that “this will be hugely costly, cause lengthy delays, disrupt supply chains and undermine economic growth” are imaginary or exaggerated.’ These allegations were presented by Morris as ‘facts’ but showed he was setting himself up as a fortune-teller on the lines of the Delphic Oracle. In pointing out that the current EU border regime is not frictionless (something apparently unknown to Morris) Lord Lilley further undermined both Morris’s ‘reality check’ credibility and his Brexit doom-mongering. It also seems that Morris is totally impervious to evidence like this.
Why does this matter? Because this was without question a new low in the BBC’s coverage of Brexit and in their journalism as a whole. For years they have seriously under-reported and distorted the case for leaving the EU. Their coverage has also been marked by massive bias by omission, a feature first noted by the Wilson report of 2005 in that they have never properly reported the case against the EU or the benefits of leaving.
To what extent has this biased reporting bedevilled the steps towards withdrawal? Not content with that deluge of negativity, Monday’s Today showed the Corporation have now formally adopted within the editorial process a mechanism that they say is ‘objective’ but in reality – in the hands of Morris – is the official adoption of a process designed to discredit Brexit.
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