In BBC Radio 4’s Feedback on Friday, host Roger Bolton introduced a classic edition of Corporation Complaints Stonewalling.
The subject? Primarily coverage of Brexit. The message? As always, the BBC is getting it right.
The full transcript is below.
Element one, carefully orchestrated by Bolton, was to convey that the BBC was receiving complaints that its Brexit coverage was biased from both ‘sides’, those who supported Brexit and those who opposed it. Because of this, it was risibly suggested, complaints of editorial imbalance must be unfounded.
Element two was that two BBC bigwigs – Gavin Allen, controller of daily news programmes, and Ric Bailey, chief political adviser – confirmed why, in their view, the BBC’s coverage was completely impartial and met Charter requirements.
Element three was that Today presenter Nick Robinson – now seemingly firmly ensconced as the Corporation’s defender-in-chief – was wheeled out to defend the relentless tide of anti-Brexit negativity.
None of the three men produced a shred of credible, verifiable evidence to support their claims. Their approach boiled down to that they know what they are doing; anyone who disagrees is simply deluded.
In other words, with more than 20 tedious minutes devoted to Brexit, Feedback was yet another edition of the favourite BBC refrain in response to the tens of thousands of complaints it receives: ‘Move along there, nothing to see!’
Reading the programme transcript confirms that these BBC luminaries truly believe this, and have constructed elaborate, self-justifying arguments to support their stance. Allen, for example, argued that the BBC’s only fault in this domain is actually that it doesn’t explain enough its internal processes. If listeners and viewers only knew how hard he and Corporation editors think about bias, they wouldn’t complain.
Poppycock! What actually seems to be the case is rather that Bolton, Allen, Bailey and Robinson – and seemingly all of the BBC’s battalions of journalists – are locked in a bubble of their own making and can’t see the acres of bias they churn out each week. This is confirmation bias.
Exhibit A, based on the BBC output being broadcast as the four men were congratulating themselves on their journalistic brilliance and rectitude, is an analysis conducted last week by Craig Byers of the website Is the BBC Biased? Using a monitoring service called TV Eyes, Craig painstakingly tracked every mention on BBC programmes of the word ‘Brexit’ between Monday and Friday last week (April 16-20).
What he found was a deluge of Brexit negativity. Craig’s blog needs to be read in full to appreciate the sheer scale. It permeated every element of its news output and even percolated down to BBC1’s The One Show and EastEnders, which had a pointed reference to these ‘tough Brexit times’. In the BBC’s world, Brexit was a threat to EU immigrants (in the context of the Windrush developments), to farmers, to interest rates, to airlines, to personal privacy (via Cambridge Analytica), to house prices, to security in Northern Ireland, and more.
Among all these sustained mentions of the problems, the positive words about Brexit could be counted virtually on the fingers of one hand.
Exhibit B was mentioned by Ric Bailey on Feedback in an attempt to show that Brexit coverage was balanced. It did no such thing. He instanced that during a special day about Brexit on Radio 4 on March 29, the corporation had broadcast a half-hour programme called The Brexit Lab about the opportunities of Brexit. It suggested, for example, that environmental controls could be tougher and that British Rail could be re-nationalised once the UK was freed from the EU’s regulatory shackles.
What Bailey did not say, however, was that the remainder of this special programming – including an edition of Today, sequences on The World at One and The World Tonight, plus two much longer programmes, one about the historical relationship between Britain and ‘Europe’ (45 minutes), the other about reaction in EU countries to Brexit and their views about the future of the EU (60 minutes) – was heavily dominated by Remain themes and Remain speakers.
The suspicion must be that The Brexit Lab had been devised and broadcast as a figleaf. Within days, it was being used by one of the corporation’s most senior editorial figures as ‘proof’ that its Brexit output is balanced. The reality is vastly different. Craig’s analysis above, plus News-watch reports that can be seen here, provide voluminous evidence that since the EU Referendum, the BBC has been engaged in an all-out war to undermine Brexit.
And even concerning March 29, which the BBC trumpeted as evidence of its ‘balance’, senior executives seem totally and even comically unaware that the reverse is true. The Brexit Lab was totally swamped by other negative programming. Whatever the reason, the pro-EU, anti-Brexit propaganda spews forth regardless.
Transcript of BBC Radio 4, Feedback, 20 April 2018, 4.30pm
ROGER BOLTON: Hello is the BBC the (montage of voices) Brexit, Brexit, Brexit, Brexit (montage ends) Broadcasting Corporation? We’re devoting most of this last programme of the present run to your criticisms of the BBC’s Brexit coverage. And respond to them we have a veritable galaxy of the Corporation’s frontline journalists and executives.
NICK ROBINSON: I’m Nick Robinson presenter of the Today programme and formerly political editor of the BBC.
GAVIN ALLEN: I’m Gavin Allen, controller of daily news programmes.
RIC BAILEY: I’m Ric Bailey, the BBC’s chief political adviser.
RB: And arguably the most talked about BBC Radio programme of the year.
ACTOR PLAYING ENOCH POWELL?: It’s like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.
UNNAMED SPEAKER: When I read that actually they were going to play the whole speech, I was flabbergasted.
ROGER BOLTON: Rivers of Blood. We hear from the man who commissioned that controversial documentary about Enoch Powell’s infamous speech. But we begin with Brexit. Almost two years ago, just under 52% of those who voted in the referendum said they wanted to leave the European Union. 48.1% voted to remain. The Kingdom is still bitterly divided. Time was when the vast majority of complaints to Feedback of Corporation bias came from the Leave side; in recent months though, in part due to a concerted online campaign, we have been receiving many more from Remainers who routinely refer to the BBC as the Brexit Broadcasting Corporation, accusing it of tamely towing the government line. Here’s a sample of some of those comments from both sides of the Brexit divide.
SUE KING: I’m Sue King, and I’m from Herefordshire. I’m dissatisfied with and disillusioned by the BBC’s coverage of Brexit. In news and current affairs programmes I’m frequently aware of a pro-Brexit bias in subtle ways, particularly in the Today programme. Interviewers let misleading statements by Brexiteers go unchallenged.
ANDY FRANKLIN: My name is Andy Franklin and I live in Suffolk. The problem as I see it now is that the BBC can deny biased against Brexit until it’s blue in the face, but just about everyone I’ve ever met who voted Leave has come to that conclusion in droves. Even on the morning after the vote, the very first interview broadcast was some University Professor declaring that all the intelligentsia had voted Remain and all the thickos had voted Leave, a bias the BBC has been peddling ever since.
JONATHAN MILES: I’m Jonathan Miles, and I’m from Woking. Given just how important this issue, the BBC really has done little to educate the public on important aspects of how the EU works and hence what are the likely or possible consequences of leaving.
MARGARET O’CONNELL: Margaret O’Connell. In a democracy you accept the result and move on, it is over.
JULIAN GREEN: Julian Green: ‘Why does the BBC always refer to ‘when’ the UK leaves the EU, when properly, it should be ‘if’ – the BBC are promoting a falsehood.
ROGER BOLTON: Listening to those critical comments are Ric Bailey, the BBC’s chief political adviser, Gavin Allen, controller of BBC daily news programmes, and the Corporation’s former political editor, now Today presenter, Nick Robinson. Could I start with you, Ric Bailey, and that point Margaret O’Connell makes, she says ‘It’s over, move on,’ and yet you also heard Julian Green say, ‘You’re talking about when we leave, it should be ‘if’.’ Should it be ‘if’?
RIC BAILEY: I think you’ve got to look at the context of what you’re talking about. There’s been a referendum, one side has one, both major parties have gone into a general election saying that they will put that referendum result into effect. And, of course, it’s possible that all that may be reversed and the political reality may change, and so both ‘if’ and ‘when’, in different contexts might be entirely appropriate. It’s not for me to send out pieces of advice to individual journalists like Nick, telling them individual words they should and shouldn’t use.
ROGER BOLTON: Alright Nick, would you use ‘when’ or ‘if’.
NR: I’d use both. And I would use both. The truth is, a decision was taken in the referendum. The government is committed to the decision, the Labour Party is committed to that decision, there’s an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons who say that they voted for it, they voted for Article 50. But it is occasionally worth reminding people this could be overturned, if the public changes their mind, if there was a different vote in Parliament, but let’s not treat it as if . . . no one thinks that we’re going to leave in March 2019, that’s the overwhelming likelihood, but people who want something else to happen want is to try and say that.
ROGER BOLTON: And Gavin Allen, when people use the expression, ‘The country has decided’, don’t you feel like saying, ‘Well has it?’ I mean, Scotland has decided they’d like to remain, Northern Ireland say it would like remain, Wales, yes, and England decided that they would like to leave, but to what extent can you say ‘the country has decided’?
GA: I think you have to, you know, it was a UK-wide referendum, and it was 52-48 and we have to reflect that. So, I think that . . . that’s not to say that we won’t hear views in Scotland, he views in Northern Ireland, across the English regions and Wales that are very different to the outcome of that referendum, but it’s no good pretending that, well, hold on, Peterborough voted this way, so you should reflect that in . . . so it wasn’t the country after all.
ROGER BOLTON: Could I ask you Nick, do you think that there is a campaign against the BBC at the moment? Now, we’ve heard Lord Adonis talk about the Brexit Broadcasting Corporation, a number of people have used that phrase, we do seem to be receiving quite a number of emails that appear to be written for people, shall I put it in that way, is there a real active campaign going on to stop Britain getting out?
NR: I don’t think there’s a campaign, there is a campaign, it’s clear there is. The very use of the hashtag #BrexitBroadcastingCorporation on social media is evidence of a campaign. Now, people are entitled to campaign, we get campaigns all the time, only the . . . about a year ago, there was a campaign by Leavers to say that the BBC was biased, there was a complaint about my questioning. We get campaigns all the time, but let’s not be in any doubt that when people start using the same words and the same critique, they’re trying to put pressure on us. Now, it doesn’t mean that the things we heard in your introduction from listeners aren’t genuine, a lot of people feel really, really angry about this, they hope that the country will change its mind, and they’re entitled to do that, but we’re also entitled to . . . to say, as I have in number of recent articles, we know what’s going on here, there’s an attempt to try to shift us.
GA: But it’s important as well, it doesn’t mean that we dismiss – and I know Nick’s not saying this either – we don’t dismiss the campaign, so the fact that it is a campaign, the fact that we can recognise it as such, doesn’t mean there won’t be sometimes perfectly legitimate points they raise that make us stop and think, well, actually . . . we do need to tweak our coverage on that element, or do need to give a bit more to this, that we’ve underplayed.
ROGER BOLTON: Can I just finish this section, Nick, by asking you, if you’re optimistic, you see the opportunities that the Brexit gives us, if you’re pessimistic, you see all the problems that exist in trying to change our arrangements. Of course, it’s easier for journalists to look at the pessimistic side. When you’re trying to deal with the opportunities, that’s more difficult to construct a discussion about, do you think that’s a problem that you have?
NR: Well, it’s undoubtedly a challenge, I think that’s absolutely right, and the key therefore is to hear from people who can, as it were, see it optimistically. That’s why you will occasionally get a Dyson on, for example, James Dyson who’s in favour of leave, or the boss of Wetherspoon’s, we will have him on because he is able to say, ‘This is how I see it’, now the difficulty for listeners who are Remainers then they go, ‘Well why is he saying that, why isn’t he challenged?’ Well, we have them on in order precisely to say that there is another way of looking at this to the way that you do . . .
RIC BAILEY: But there was an entire programme . . .
NR: The problem with predictions, Roger, there is in truth, you can’t prove a fact . . .
ROGER BOLTON: It’s not factual, it’s not factual.
NR: . . . about someone’s vision of the future. You can’t do it. It’s not that the BBC isn’t robust enough to do it, you can’t.
ROGER BOLTON: Ric?
RIC BAILEY: And incidentally, there was an entire half-hour programme which Iain Martin did on Radio 4 a couple of weeks ago, precisely on that point about the opportunities Brexit, so they are there, and we are, you know, it’s an active part of our journalism.
ROGER BOLTON: Ric Bailey, Nick Robinson and Gavin Allen, thanks for the moment. A little later will be digging deep into the whole issue of balance and due impartiality.
Moves on to discuss Enoch Powell programme.
ROGER BOLTON: And now back to . . .
MONTAGE OF VOICES: Brexit, Brexit, Brexit, Brexit, Brexit.
ROGER BOLTON: Still with me in the studio is Ric Bailey, the BBC’s chief political adviser, Gavin Allen, controller of BBC daily news programs, and the Corporation’s former political editor, now Today presenter, Nick Robinson. Now, we’ve already touched on issues of impartiality with respect to the BBC’s coverage of Brexit. Although it might sound like a contradiction in terms, if Feedback listeners are anything to go by, balance and impartiality are in the eye of the beholder.
JOHN NEWSON: John Newson. I do hear BBC Radio 4 broadcasting as the voice of Remain, giving others a daily diet of scary stories about how Brexit will harm Britain. This doesn’t seem very factually based, because Brexit has not happened yet.
FERN HANSON: This is Fern Hanson from Woking. The audience would be much better informed of the facts around Brexit if the BBC moved away from a political balance towards facts balance. In pursuit of a fact balance it should be noted that there is a huge consensus amongst professional economists regarding the negative economic effect of Brexit. I have never witnessed the BBC demonstrate this disparity in analysis. Each side get equal prominence and time programmes.
ROGER BOLTON: Well, let me take up Fern Hanson’s point, with Ric Bailey. Should you move towards a facts balance, rather than a political balance? Is that possible?
RIC BAILEY: Well, facts are just there to be reported, you don’t balance facts, you have fax and you say what they are. One of the issues with Brexit is that a lot of this is looking forward, it’s about trying to work out what is going to happen, which, by definition is often speculative or it’s something where different people have different views, they are in the end judgements. So you’re not balancing facts as such. Balance is something which, during the referendum there was a binary choice, between Remain and Leave, and we were very careful to make sure that we heard from both sides, not necessarily equally, but we did represent facts in the sense of saying, ‘Look, the balance of opinion amongst big business is this – but there are other voices’, since then, that binary choice has gone away, because we now have impartiality in the sense of trying to make sure that all those different perspectives . . . is Theresa May now a Remainer or is a Leaver, of course, she is the person who is actually putting into effect that choice. So that idea that there is now a simple choice between Remain and Leave is no longer there.
ROGER BOLTON: But haven’t you put it too simply yourself, because the people voted to Leave, they didn’t vote on the destination, and there is an argument, which one keeps hearing, ‘Why wasn’t the BBC exploring the destinations,’ because people voted, if you like, to jump, but not know what we were going to jump to?
RIC BAILEY: I think it would be hard to say that we haven’t been doing that. We’ve been giving a huge amount of coverage to Brexit and to the negotiations and to all the different possibilities. I think we are doing that, Roger, actually.
GA: We’ve also talked, we’ve also talked about Canada+++ as an option, or Norway the model, or the Swiss model, I think we are looking at lots of different ranges of outcomes for this. And also just . . . I think one of the dangers as well, of balance of facts, as if, if only everyone had the core facts they would make the ‘correct’, in inverted commas, decision and we would all agree on it, it does ignore the fact that in the referendum, in any election, there is visceral emotion as well, there are things that are not to do with facts, or that you don’t even hear the facts that you disagree with, it’s a blend of these things.
ROGER BOLTON: Nick, can I bring up an article you wrote for the New Statesman recently, stressing the importance of impartiality, in part in response to an earlier article by the LBC and, at one time, occasional Newsnight presenter, James O’Brien, where he was arguing that media impartiality is a problem, when ignorance is given the same weight as expertise.
NR: The assertion made by your listener is that if only people knew the facts, we’d know, the assertion made by James O’Brien is that, you know, look, don’t put on someone who is ignorant. Who decides this? Who is this person who drops down from the skies and says, ‘This is true, and this is not’ . . .
ROGER BOLTON: Well . . .
NR: Now, in certain cases it can be, Roger . . .
ROGER BOLTON: Well it can be known about climate change . . .
RB: . . . and for example we see a case reported last week, where Ofcom said that one of your fellow presenters didn’t actually do what he should have done which is to say Nigel Lawson was factually wrong about something he claims. So, people also want to know are you prepared to do that and, actually, are you prepared to do that about Brexit?
NR: (speaking over) Goodness, yes. And, and . . . yeah.
RB: (speaking over) And are you sufficiently well informed, do you think?
NR: Not only, not only do we want to do that, but the BBC apologised for not doing that in that particular case. Here’s the point though, it won’t often apply to things that passionate Remainers and passionate Leavers see in their own minds as a fact, but in fact are a judgement or a prediction, or an instinct or an emotion. The BBC’s job is to hear from people who have unfashionable views, and where possible we should always challenge them and if we don’t get it right, and of course we won’t always get it right, you know, I’m here, I got up at 3:30 in the morning, I’ve done about 10 subjects already, occasionally you will make mistakes, then we explain why we didn’t get it right. But it’s not a conspiracy.
ROGER BOLTON: Well, I’ll just, if I may, wrap up this discussion by asking you to stand back a little bit and just reflect on what you’ve learned over the past 2 to 3 years. And one of the things that’s struck me very much is the amount of anger out there, and people irritated, fearing that you, all of us around this table are out of touch and have ignored them. Nick Robinson, does any of that, across to you?
NR: Oh yeah, you can’t help but listen to the views that we’ve heard on this programme and think, there are people deeply, deeply frustrated and anger . . . angry about it. And I . . . what I take away from this, why I wanted to appear, I could keep my head down and just do my normal interviews is, we think about this, we agonise about it, we debate much more than people often think, and why do I know this is true? Not because I’m virtuous about it, anybody who comes to the BBC from papers, anybody who comes from commercial telly, where I’ve worked, goes, ‘Boy, you spend a lot of time worrying about this’. I would urge listeners one thing though: we do it with the best of intentions. Not that we get it right, we don’t always get it right, we sometimes get it wrong but if you complain with some sense that there is a conspiracy, people will tend to put their fingers in their ears, and go, ‘You know what, we know there isn’t.’ If you say, ‘We just don’t think you’re getting this quite right, you’re not reflecting us’, you will be listened to.
ROGER BOLTON: Gavin Allen, have you changed anything as a result of the last 2 or 3 years, in the way you approach the programs and what you’ve told your producers and your reporters?
GA: Well actually, funnily enough, one thing, sort of picks up on what Nick’s just said, which is behind-the-scenes, we have all these discussions, endless debates, and one of the things I do think the BBC is probably quite bad at showing our workings. I think we can’t plead that we are really battling this every day, we’re having long debates, editorial policy discussions, really self-analysing everything we do, and then not come onto a program like this. I think there’s also, the other thing I’ve learnt I guess, it’s not that we don’t do this, there is a bit of a default in journalism, not just the BBC, in journalism of ‘where’s it gone wrong, who can we get?’ rather than actually people are desperate for an explanation of just what is happening, just explain it to us. And I do think that we could do more on that as well, as well as the politics of what’s going wrong, on both sides.
ROGER BOLTON: And Ric Bailey, final word from you? A BBC boss in the past once said, ‘When the country is divided, the BBC is on the rack’, are you actually enjoying being on the rack?
GA: (laughs) We’re enjoying Rick being on the rack.
RIC BAILEY: ‘Enjoy’ is probably not the word I’d pick out. Erm, but I think it’s true that when you have something as polarised as a referendum, that it does divide opinion in a way which is different from other sorts of elections, I think people understand what impartiality means when they’re talking about normal politics, and the Conservatives and Labour and government and opposition. I think what happens in a referendum when you are literally given the choice between X and Y, is that people find it really difficult not just to understand that other people have a different view, but they are entitled to put it, the BBC should be there to do it, and the BBC should scrutinise that very clearly. And I suppose the last point about that is, accepting completely what Gavin says about we should concede when we get it wrong, and Nick has said that as well, and we should be analysing this and making sure we’re getting it right. We also sometimes need to be really robust against that sort of political pressure, and by that I don’t just mean the parties or the government, but I mean campaigns who are trying to influence us because they know that on the whole, people trust BBC, that’s why they want us to change what we’re saying.
ROGER BOLTON: Well, I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got time for, my thanks to Rick Bailey, the BBC’s chief political adviser, Nick Robinson from the today programme who’s been up since 3.30, and Gavin Allen, controller of BBC daily news programmes.