COX BIAS: The lead posting on News-watch about Nigel Farage demonstrates that since the murder of Jo Cox, much BBC coverage has emphasised that those who are opposed to the EU because of related immigration pressures are fired by ‘hatred’. It has become a ‘dog-whistle’ word. In the BBC1 debate from Wembley last night, London Mayor Sadiq Khan amplified this message in his careful mirroring use of the ‘hate’ word in his remarks about ‘leave’s’ immigration policy. In turn, BBC1 News at Ten continued the ‘hatred’ emphasis by choosing Khan’s soundbite to lead the bulletin headlines.
Clause 5.1 of the BBC’s referendum guidelines (printed in full below) sets out that during the referendum campaign, major news stories not directly on the referendum patch must be treated with great care so that they do not contain bias on referendum issues. The BBC’s editorial handling of the fall-out from the death of Jo Cox – and its related maligning of Nigel Farage over his ‘inflammatory’ anti-immigration poster and related remarks – is thus a clear breach against the ‘exit’ side.
This breach was exaggerated hugely on BBC1’s News at 10 last night (June 21) by the inclusion of an interview with Jo Cox’s widower, Brendan Cox. Laura Kuenssberg, the Corporation’s Political Editor, deliberately steered him towards explaining what ‘hatred’ meant in the context of the EU referendum. This was the relevant extract:
LAURA KUENSSBERG: Was she worried about our current political culture, do you think?
BRENDAN COX: Yeah, very worried, erm . . . er, and from left and right. I, I think she was very worried that the . . . the language was coarsening, that people were being driven to . . . er, take more extreme, erm, positions. I think she worried that we were entering an age that . . . erm, we hadn’t seen maybe since the 1930s of . . . erm . . . people . . . people feeling insecure, for lots of different reasons, for economic reasons or . . . security reasons and then . . . populist politicians, whether that’s Trump in the US or whoever else, exploiting that and, and driving communities to hate each other.
LK: And this, of course, has happened at a time when Britain is engaged in a big national conversation about our place in the world and our place in Europe. We know that she was clearly for staying in the European Union, but what did she make of how the conversation’s been conducted?
BC: I think, as everybody knows, that Jo was a passionate pro-European and she definitely worried about the tone of the debate around this. Not that it’s not a legitimate debate to have and that there aren’t completely legitimate views on both sides of the debate, but more about the tone of . . . erm, of whipping up fears and whipping up, erm, er hatred.
LK: Do you worry now about people using her in the political debate?
BC: She was a politician and she had very strong political views and erm . . . I believe she was killed, erm . . . because of those views. I think she died because of them. And she would want to stand up for those in death as much as she did in life.
Mr Cox pointed out that there were legitimate aspects of the EU-related debate, but the audience could be left in no doubt that ‘populist’ politicians (a word frequently used in BBC reports to define groups who oppose immigration) were ‘whipping up hatred’. He did not name Nigel Farage but there could be little or no doubt whom he meant.
This sequence and those words in a bulletin which led with a soundbite about hatred from Sadiq Khan was thus deeply biased against the ‘exit’ side. It should not have been included without balancing comment. The breach of 5.1 was made worse by that Kuenssberg deliberately elicited his comments in a way that linked them directly to the referendum.
There is a further dear danger here. Today (June 22), has been designated by powerful PR companies Portland Communications and Freud’s. as Jo Cox day, with her central message about ‘hate’ at its core. It is likely that the Brendan Cox interview with Kuenssberg – billed as his first ‘media’ interview – was a curtain-raiser to the day. The suspicion is that the BBC are already therefore closely involved – and that their coverage of the ‘hatred’ word will continue with huge emphasis into evening bulletins.
This is the on the eve of the poll and without question, the ‘hate’ message is so loaded and so emotive that it could sway voters. If the BBC is not careful, and does not change tack so that it follows its own referendum guidelines, it will be arguably guilty of vote-rigging.
EU Referendum Guidlines: 5.1 Political issues
The cut and thrust of other political stories, which may relate either in part or be separate from the issues of the referendum, will continue during the campaign period. These should be covered in the normal way, with content producers having regard for the general requirement of due accuracy and impartiality, but also aware of any possible influence of other political coverage on the referendum campaign.
In particular, content producers should take care in considering whether, in covering issues such as the economy, migration, environmental issues etc, they may have direct relevance to the referendum debate, or be perceived as relating to the question of the referendum.
If the Referendum Period overlaps with an election period, content producers must also take account of the Election Guidelines and ensure due impartiality is achieved with regard to both votes.
Where prominent campaigners have other roles – political or non-political – care should be taken to ensure that they do not gain an unfair advantage in the referendum campaign. Where, for instance, an interviewee (such as a Minister or shadow Minister at Westminster) is discussing a separate political issue and makes a significant reference to the referendum campaign, content producers may need to take steps to ensure there is appropriate balance. It may be necessary for producers – especially in live output – to remind contributors, when they have been invited to take part in items which are not connected to the referendum, to limit their comments to those issues.