During the EU referendum, the BBC adopted special editorial guidelines which required strict even-handed treatment of the Leave and Remain cases.
News-watch has now completed a rigorous academic survey which shows conclusively that these guidelines were effectively ignored. There was heavy bias towards the Remain side in BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat, a flagship news programme which reaches millions of the under 30s.
A summary of the findings is below and the full report is here. The key points include that audiences were 1.5 times more likely to hear Remain opinions and speakers, alleged ‘fact checking’ by the programme which favoured the Remain side, and feature reports that were heavily skewed towards Remain arguments, especially with regard to immigration.
A disturbing implication of the survey is that – as the BBC refused to put in place rigorous bias checks – there is a high likelihood that other elements of the output were similarly skewed.
News-watch analysis found during the referendum build-up and campaign numerous examples of bias covering the flagship news and EU-related programmes on Radio 4, BBC1 and BBC2.
- Newsbeat devoted only 10.7% of its available airtime to the referendum, and 83% of this coverage was in the three weeks immediately before June 23. Many issues particularly affecting young voters were ignored. There was a narrow editorial focus on immigration and the economy. Important topics, such as national sovereignty, the workings of the EU, travel and residence in the EU, and the impact on universities were only very briefly mentioned. This was thus major ‘bias by omission’ and an over-simplification of the issues involved. The BBC news programme with the biggest audience of young people between the ages of 18 and 25 did not explore the referendum sufficiently to meet the BBC Public Purposes requirements.
- Newsbeat audiences were 1.5 times more likely to encounter a Remain supporter than a Leave supporter. 238 guest speakers contributed to the various discussions on the referendum. The analysis shows that 45% spoke in favour of Remain, 30% in favour of Leave, with a further 25% giving a neutral, undecided or factual perspective.
- In 38 Newsbeat reports with guest speakers, 19 (50%), showed a speaker weighting in favour of Remain. Only five similarly favoured ‘leave’. Fourteen had even numbers of speakers. This demonstrates a severe imbalance in favour of Remain.
- Politicians supporting Remain outnumbered those wanting Leave by 47 to 34. In terms of the number of words spoken by politicians, Remain supporters received 64% of the airtime, compared to 36% for Leave – a ratio of approximately 2:1.
- There was a much greater breadth of opinion in Remain contributions – they came from Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Green Party. Conversely, the Leave side featured only Conservatives and UKIP. There were no Leave contributions from the Labour party or wider Left. There was no input at all from the nationalist parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
- Just over half the contributors were ‘ordinary’ people – vox pop interviewees, members of the public or Newsbeat listeners. On occasions, the programme appeared proud of its ‘anti-politician’ stance, portraying the debate as ‘a playground argument’ and promising in one edition that there would be ‘no boring EU experts’. This trivialised the debate.
- Throughout, Newsbeat found ways editorially of enhancing or even amplifying the views supporting Remain, and they did not subject such views and alleged related facts to due rigour.
- Conversely, opinions and alleged facts in favour of Leave were robustly scrutinised, made to look ignorant or contradictory, xenophobic or unfounded (Section 2.4). The most striking example of this was that the Leave claim that EU membership cost the UK £350 million a week was categorically said to be untrue, whereas, George Osborne’s estimation that Brexit would cost each household £4,300 annually was subjected to far less scrutiny.
- In an immigration special from Wisbech, significantly more prominence was given to views favouring EU immigration, and the ‘fact checking’ sequence was similarly skewed about the economic contribution of EU incomers.
- A special report from Berlin promoted heavily the role of the EU, over-emphasised its role in creating ‘peace’, featured young expats who strongly agreed with free movement of people, and contained unqualified warnings that Brexit would result in damage to the UK car industry.
- Overall, Newsbeat presented ‘Fact check’ assessments that were tendentious and imbalanced. It was said without qualification that immigrants contribute more cash to the UK than they received in benefits, when this is disputed. In addition, the impact on the UK of current levels of immigration was minimised.
- Opponents of current levels of immigration were cast as xenophobic and inward-looking, whereas the comment from those who approved of immigration were made to appear outward-looking, open and broad-minded.
- Newsbeat attacked editorially the over-presence of ‘experts’ in the EU debate and suggested their contribution was ‘boring’. Their appearances were limited to a handful. That meant conversely that by a large margin, most contributions came from members of the public and politicians.
- Newsbeat sought strongly to encourage its young audience to register to vote. Was this in the light of the perceived wisdom that young people were more likely to vote Remain?
- There were several occasions when the Remain case was put by contributors in the strongest possible light, whereas equivalent Leave contributions were edited to be more qualified, less convincing and less robust.
- Also on this theme, alleged benefits of remaining in the EU were clearly identified in some items, for example, visa-free travel, or ‘very cheap travel’, but there was much more limited mention of the perceived advantages of Brexit. A Newsbeat presenter specifically said that one possible benefit – reduced immigration – might not be guaranteed by departure.