FEEDBACK BIAS: Radio 4’s Feedback, presented by Roger Bolton, ostensibly examined on Friday listeners’ concerns that BBC coverage was favouring the remain side in the EU referendum debate. Michael Yardley from Colchester said:
….I’m concerned about the way the referendum’s being reported by the BBC. It’s my impression that Remain gets better placement in BBC headlines. I also think there’s been a failure to emphasise that many fear-inducing statistical projections made by the Remain lobby are just estimates, guesswork.
Now Roger Bolton – who was editor of Panorama when members of his staff controversially kow-towed to the IRA at Carrickmore – has got form in terms of bias in the presentation of Feedback. In the week when the EU referendum was confirmed back in February, he noted that there had already been listeners’ complaints and observed:
We begin with the much-anticipated announcement of a referendum on whether the UK should remain part of the European Union. And some listeners are already lining up to shoot the messenger.
Before he had even explained what the complaints were, or given any of the complainants a chance to be heard, he was thus dismissing the idea of BBC bias – complainants were simply shooting the messenger.
Four months on, with the referendum now fast approaching, has he and his programme improved at all?
The first point to note is that Yardley’s main point, that ‘remain guests ‘get better placement in BBC headlines’, was not dealt with at all. BBC assistant political editor Norman Smith – who was asked by Bolton to respond to the various points raised by listeners and viewers, did not refer to it, and neither did Bolton.
In the absence of such a response, relevant here is a tally Craig Byers has been keeping on his Is the BBC Biased? website. He noted on 30/5 that in editions of BBC1’s News at Six programme containing headlines about the EU referendum, 21 had led with points from the remain side, whereas only seven were the other way round. That’s a ratio of 3:1.
The question that Smith did try to answer from Yardley was whether there was a ‘failure to emphasise that many fear-inducing statistical projections made by the Remain lobby are just estimates, guesswork.’ Bolton re-framed this and put it to Smith:
But I wonder if you’re also erm . . . finding it a little difficult to, er, how can I say? Take sides in the way perhaps BBC listeners would like you to take sides on matters of fact. Where one side makes a statement and another one, just, ‘Well that’s not true, it’s all rubbish’, whatever, but are you reluctant to go any further than simply say, ‘One side says this, the other side says the other.’
Smith’s response was extraordinary. He said first that the BBC so much leaned towards the need for impartiality, that they sometimes did not make judgment calls ‘that should be made’. He cited the example of the Leave side claiming that Turkey would join the EU, and asserted that this was ‘factually wrong’ but said that there had been a lot of debate inside the BBC about this, and that this was diluted within the journalistic commentary to ‘Remain has said this is wrong’.
in other words, we attributed the assessment to the Remain side, when we could, of our own, say ‘No, that is factually wrong.’ But, because as an organisation, more than any other organisation, there is a massive pressure and premium on fairness, on balance, on impartiality, I suspect we, we hold back from making those sort of calls, and I do think that, potentially, is a disservice to the listener and viewer.
Bolton then asked him about the BBC stating what the ‘facts’ were in the debate. Smith said there was so much controversy and complexity involved in what were ‘facts’ that it was ‘very difficult to present viewers and listeners with a whole string of unequivocal, clear as daylight facts about the EU.’
The implication being clearly that this was something that was not happening because of the difficulties involved. Bolton did not press him further on the point and listener Yardley’s point was thus left dangling, there, only partly answered. What Smith did say was entirely in the BBC’s favour – in effect, they were so motivated by journalistic integrity they erred on the side of caution.
Is this true? Well, over recent days, BBC reporters have frequently noted that the economic part of the referendum debate is not the Leave side’s strongest suite, and when leave figures have tried to argue economic points, those same correspondents have stressed how many economists disagree.
In the same vein, the Vote Leave claim that EU membership costs the UK £350m a week has been subject to extremely close scrutiny on all BBC outlets, to the extent when on Today an 18-year-old ‘exit’ supporter mentioned the figure in passing, veteran BBC correspondent James Naughtie snapped at him in headmasterly tones and told him that he was definitely wrong (because the Commons’ Treasury Select Committee said so).
Various BBC programmes, such as Breakfast, have also wheeled out graphics to show how wrong the figure is.
Overall, Feedback was strongly biased against the complaint from Yardley, as it was against the Brexit side. It was dismissed without considering the key points he made, and with undue focus on erroneous claims made by the Brexit side. Such cavalier dismissal of complaints is endemic within the BBC.
BBC Radio 4, ‘Feedback, 3rd June 2016, Norman Smith and EU Referendum Coverage, 4.30pm
ANNOUNCER: Now it’s time for Feedback with to Roger Bolton who talks to Norman Smith about listeners views of the BBC’s EU referendum reporting. He reveals which programmes listeners would like to hear much more of and asks is Radio 4 too posh?
ROGER BOLTON: Hello. Three weeks to go to the biggest political decision for decades and the air is full of personal abuse, internecine strife and questionable statistics. Have you made your mind up yet and is the BBC’s European referendum reporting helping you decide where to place your cross? And who controls the agenda?
NORMAN SMITH: We are there to report what the main combatants in this referendum say, do, argue and if they keep going on about the economy and immigration then I’m afraid the gravitational pull for us to do so, I think is pretty immense.
RB: In feedback this week, the BBC’s assistant political editor Norman Smith admits that the BBC could be bolder in its coverage and that sometimes a desire to be impartial gets in the way. The immigration question has dominated the last few days of the euro debate and Pakistani immigrant families were at the heart of the latest instalment of the Radio 4 series Born in Bradford the presenter is Winifred Robinson.
Extract from ‘Born in Bradford’ and a comment on ‘From Our Home Correspondent’.
RB: But first, to Westminster. I’m standing outside the Houses of Parliament where party politics are the order of the day and which is usually the centre of political coverage. Not for the next three weeks. The European referendum debate that split the parties, split the countries of the UK, and the vote that matters will not take place in parliament but all over the country on June 23rd. How well has the BBC has been covering this crucial debate which will decide our future for years, probably decades ahead? Here are some of your views.
MICHAEL YARDLEY: It’s Michael Yardley and I live near Colchester in Essex. I’m concerned about the way the referendum’s being reported by the BBC. It’s my impression that Remain gets better placement in BBC headlines. I also think there’s been a failure to emphasise that many fear-inducing statistical projections made by the Remain lobby are just estimates, guesswork.
LEON DEVINE (phonetic) Hi, this is Leon Devine from Worksop in North Nottinghamshire. The whole debate seems to more about the leadership issue in the Tory party rather than the issues behind the referendum. I think the coverage from the BBC has been more geared to generating controversy rather than illuminating some of the issues.
RB: One of the corporation’s key journalists covering the campaign is its assistant political editor Norman Smith and I’m going to the BBC newsroom in the Milbank building behind me, to put to him some of your concerns about the coverage. Norman Smith how long have you been covering this campaign, does it seem most of your life?
NORMAN SMITH: It has been, I suppose, the longest running story in British politics because it is the fundamental story of who are we? Are we’re part of Europe or are we something slightly different? It’s about identity, it’s about those fundamental questions of democracy and sovereignty so it is one of the defining political stories which has shaped our whole political narrative, certainly since I’ve been working as a political journalist.
RB: And yet, there has been criticism of the coverage of this campaign, some from our listeners, some from other figures, for example John Snow said that it erm . . . was an abusive and boring EU referendum campaign, he cannot remember a worse tempered one. Do you agree with him?
NS: I don’t actually, no. I know what he’s driving at, and that the level of invective, acrimony, even personal abuse, has been pretty ferocious, but I think also we have tapped into some of the big issues and big arguments. I mean, most obviously immigration is right up there in the headlights and we have delved into the arguments about levels of immigration, are they sustainable, what can we do about it and I think it’s also reflected in arguments about the economy. So I don’t accept that it has just been a sort of ‘he said, she said’ row, I think actually there has been quite a lot of grit to this debate.
RB: It has of course been a fight for the agenda, each side trying to choose the territory they feel is most favourable to them. You’ve got a dilemma, haven’t you? On the one hand, you’ve got to report the debates that . . . is happening, on the other hand, you have a wider responsibility to cover the issues that you may, and the BBC may believe are really important and should be taken into consideration?
RB: How do you deal with that?
NS: I think there are limits to how far you can book the news agenda and say, ‘enough immigration’, ‘enough economy’, we think we really ought to be talking about the impact on agriculture or universities. We are there to report what the main combatants in this referendum say, do, argue. I don’t think it’s up to us to, as it were, go AWOL and say, ‘Well, fine, but we’re actually going to talk about this, because we think that’s what voters are interested in.’ I think we are to some extent bound to reflect their arguments, and if they keep going on about the economy and immigration then I’m afraid the gravitational pull for us to do so, I think is pretty immense.
RB: You see, again, criticism from some of our listeners, but also, I think, contained into academic reports suggest a degree of bias and concerns about who is appearing. Leon Devine says, for example, who tweeted us to say, why Tory politicians dominating the airwaves, while others, especially from smaller parties are ignored.
NS: I guess because the Tory story plays to a bigger narrative about who governs the country after the referendum. So there is, editorially, a pull because of all the question marks about Cameron . . . leadership.
RB: But I wonder if you’re also erm . . . finding it a little difficult to, er, how can I say? Take sides in the way perhaps BBC listeners would like you to take sides on matters of fact. Where one side makes a statement and another one, just, ‘Well that’s not true, it’s all rubbish’, whatever, but are you reluctant to go any further than simply say, ‘One side says this, the other side says the other.’
NS: Well, I, I think that is a valid criticism. There is an instinctive bias in the BBC towards impartiality, to the exclusion, sometimes maybe of making judgement calls that we can and should make. We are very, very . . . cautious about saying something is factually wrong. As I think as an organisation we could be more muscular about it. I’ll give you an example, which is one that cropped up, and there was a lot of debate within the BBC about it, was when the Brexit campaign suggested that Turkey was poised to join the EU, and that there was nothing we could do about it. Now that is factually wrong, but when we initially covered the story, I think we said along the lines of ‘Remain had said that is wrong’ – in other words, we attributed the assessment to the Remain side, when we could, of our own, say ‘No, that is factually wrong.’ But, because as an organisation, more than any other organisation, there is a massive pressure and premium on fairness, on balance, on impartiality, I suspect we, we hold back from making those sort of calls, and I do think that, potentially, is a disservice to the listener and viewer.
RB: But perhaps there is a larger problem that you face – which is . . . we in the country in a very long campaign, a lot of us haven’t made up our minds, in a way want you to tell us how to vote, want you to give us facts. And there are some facts, but in most instances, this is a matter of judgement, er, about the future, but about a value system about what we hold most dear . . .
RB: . . . and you can’t tell us, the answer . . .
NS: (speaking over) No, I mean . . .
RB: . . . to those things, can you?
NS: I’ve done things for erm . . . telly and radio, along the lines of ‘EU Fact or Fiction’ and they are complete nightmares to do, because every fact is a matter of argument, there are, there are no sort of biblical tablets of stone which empirically prove one thing or the other, they are used as ammunition in both camps. And it is very difficult to present viewers and listeners with a whole string of unequivocal, clear as daylight facts about the EU. And I suspect that is the subject of huge frustration for listeners, as indeed it is, indeed, the journalists.
RB: Tell me, the answer to this honestly – are you enjoying this debate?
NS: It’s incredibly physically wearing, because it is honestly exactly like a general election, except it’s a general election which seems to have gone on even longer. But it is enjoyable, because it’s one of those moments in your journalistic life when you are on the cusp of history, because of the decisions we make are momentous, and they will affect not just me but my children and grandchildren, so you genuinely feel you are sort of there is history is being made, and that’s a huge privilege.
RB: My thanks to Norman Smith, the BBC’s assistant political editor. The referendum will continue to be a subject that listeners have strong views on, of course, in the meantime I’d be delighted to hear your thoughts on referendum coverage or anything you’ve heard on BBC radio lately, good or bad.