How Should I Vote, the BBC’s first formal programme of the referendum campaign aimed at helping voters to make their minds up, was on BBC1 on Thursday night. It was hosted from Glasgow by Victoria Derbyshire, who presents a current affairs show on BBC2 and the BBC News Channel. The key parts of the audience – all of whom were under 30 years of age – were made up of groups of 40 ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ voters, on either side of 55 ‘undecided’ voters.
Was it fair? Well at the end of the programme, most of the ‘undecided’ voters indicated that they had been persuaded to join the ‘remain’ camp’. Was that down to the eloquence of ‘remain’ speakers Alex Salmond and Alan Johnson, and corresponding failures of the ‘leave’ panellists Diane James and Liam Fox? Of course, it is not possible to know for certain what led to the changes in views, especially as no clear indication of how the panel was chosen was given. Were they really all convinced ‘undecideds’ – and in any case, how could such a stance be defined with certainty?
What is certain is there are question marks about Derbyshire’s handling of the debate’s flow, and in particular, she appeared a more robust and negative approach to the ‘leave’ questions and panellists. Below is a series of transcripts of sequences where, arguably, she showed distinct favouritism.
Problems included interruptions of the ‘exit’ panellists, apparent comments in favour of pro-‘remain’ tweets, preventing one of the most penetrating ‘exit’ questions being put, making partisan points on immigration and the alleged freedom to travel generated by EU membership, a throwaway remark in favour of the ‘remain’ side’s views about the advantages of EU membership, and an over -zealous put-down of a point made by a ‘leave’ side audience member.
The difficulty of such analysis, is, of course, that it is impossible to be certain about what will sway an audience. This was a fast-moving programme, and there could have been no pre-planned or deliberate fixes. However, what emerges from this analysis and the transcripts is that Derbyshire seemed more keen to intervene against the ‘leave’ side.
8:17:50 Victoria Derbyshire interrupted Diane James when she attempted to link immigration to house prices, and didn’t interrupt or try to change the flow of argument of the Remain guests in this way:
VICTORIA DERBYSHIRE: Diane James?
DIANE JAMES: Well, isn’t it interesting, and I take the point about migration . . .
VD: Can we just stay with Michael’s question . . .
DJ: Okay . . .
VD: Which was the warning from the Chancellor about house prices falling.
DJ: (speaking over) I wanted to come back first, I wanted to come back first there, to make, to make . . .
VD: (speaking over) We will, we will come back to that . . .
DJ: . . . a link . . .
VD: I promise you.
DJ: . . . to make the link, Victoria . . .
VD: Let’s talk about h— . . .
DJ: On the basis that, your point is about can you afford a house, effectively, can you, if we remain a member of the European Union, is that going to be even a remote possibility.
8:18:46 After Diane James’s contribution finished, Victoria Derbyshire did the same to Liam Fox:
VICTORIA DERBYSHIRE: Okay, Liam Fox?
LIAM FOX: I’ve got no problem with migration, and controlled, and controlled . . .
VD: (speaking over) This is about house prices, the question was why . . . why the Chancellor’s warning about house prices falling is meant to be a bad thing, when it’s not.
LF: I’m coming to it. I’ve no problem with migration, and control migration can bring benefits, but if you have an uncontrolled number, the arithmetic tells you it will put pressure on public services, on the health service, on schools and on housing (continues)
8:27:01 Derbyshire read out Tweets from audiences watching at home. The syntax of the third Tweet was problematic – it was difficult to precisely discern where the commentary ended and the tweet itself began. Was it Derbyshire herself saying ‘a good and overlooked point, I think’, or was this contained within the text? Subsequently, Derbyshire was also sure to place the word ‘foreigners’ in verbalised quotation marks, eliciting laughter from the audience, and simultaneously drawing attention to, and distancing herself from, Diane James’s earlier use of the word:
VICTORIA DERBYSHIRE: A couple of tweets using the hashtag #BBCDebate, er, Stuart Young says ‘Will the economy be strong enough if we leave?’ Ghosthands on Twitter says, ‘People should look at the bigger picture, rather than their own personal gain, when it comes to the EU referendum.’ And Mellon . . . who . . . er, is going to vote to Remain says, a good and often overlooked point, I think, the Brits have free reign through Europe as well as – quote – ‘the foreigners.’ (laughter from some sections of audience)
8:32:45 Derbyshire cut off one of the most interesting questions of the night, which would have been difficult for the Remain side to answer:
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I just want to ask the Remain side, if David Cameron believes all this scaremongering that we’re going to have a World War III (some laughter from audience) that our economy’s going to be completely awful – why are we having a referendum? Surely (applause and cheers) somebody who cares about the country wouldn’t give us one if it was that dangerous?
VICTORIA DERBYSHIRE: We are where we are. Aren’t we, I mean you can (fragments of words, unclear) I just want to . . . (moves on to ask another audience member what they think of the Remain’s side of the campaign)
8:34:51 Victoria Derbyshire interrupted Diane James to make a partisan point on migration:
DIANE JAMES: The aspect that I brought up is if you can’t control the number of people, if you can’t control demand, because you can’t control supply, you’re forever in a spiral downwards . . .
VICTORIA DERBYSHIRE: (speaking over) But you can, you can . . .
DJ: (speaking over) I . . . I . . .
VD (speaking over) You can control net migration from outside the EU, and we had the latest figures today, which show . . .
DJ: (speaking over) 330,000 today, 184,000 from the EU . . .
VD: . . . that as many people are coming from outside the EU, which Britain can control as are coming from within the EU.
DJ: Yes, but what we do know is we want, for instance, more medics, nurses (continues)
8:38:50 Derbyshire frequenly interrupted Liam Fox with overtly political arguments, in a way she did not with pro-Remain guests. Despite Victoria Derbyshire’s contention – that no one was suggesting that ‘you’re not going to be able to have a holiday in Mallorca if you want’ – earlier in the debate Alex Salmond had said specifically, ‘You’ve got the ability to go and travel, to work, to . . . er, to visit, without a visa, you can go into Barcelona, watch some decent football, you’ve got the whole of that European community at, at your disposal’:
LIAM FOX: The idea that because we’re not in the European Union, you’re not going to be able to have a holiday in Mallorca is getting to, is getting too ridiculous . . .
VD: (speaking over) I don’t, well no, well no one is . . . no one is, to be fair, no one is suggesting that . . . we’re not going be able to have a holiday in Mallorca if you want. According to the Complete University Guide, as members of the EU, anyone here would usually be able to study in other EU nations as home students . . .
LF: That’s right.
VD: . . . Compared to the fees charged to international students, home fees are generally lower or non-existent.
LF: But it’s here’s the difference that young lady at the back, the point about the difference between Europe and the European Union, because programs like ERASMUS, which have got bigger student programmes are not just . . .
VD: (speaking over) That’s an exchange programme.
LF: (speaking over) Yes, the exchange programme is not just the European Union, it’s the European continent, so it’s countries like Turkey as well, Norway, Iceland does that . . . Europe is a great continent of individual nations, with their own history, the European Union’s political construct . . .
VD: But . . .
LF: Europe, Europe (applause) Europe and exchange and trade and travel existed before there was a European Union and they . . .
VD: (speaking over) But Stephanie’s fees might be higher . . .
LF: . . . will continue.
VD: . . . if Britain is outside the European Union, if she wants to go and study at university.
LF: Why would that be, because the programmes are decided because they’re in the mutual interest, it’s the same as trade, it’s in both our interests to do so . . .
VD: (speaking over) Why would that be, because we wouldn’t be members of the EU?
LF: And we had all these programmes before we were in the European Union, and we’ll have them where were not in the European Union, just as we have programmes (continues, but is interrupted by a speaker from audience)
8:43:32 Derbyshire made a throwaway aside, (which ultimately made little sense given that we’re presently in the EU and have no requirements for travel visas) – but it served to reinforce the idea that visas might be required for travel post-Brexit, despite this being contested by the Leave side during the debate:
ALAN JOHNSON: No other country has more of its citizens living and working in other developed countries than Great Britain. Now, if we’re not have visas, and Diane you said we wouldn’t, to go on holiday, or for people to come here, there are 2.5 million tourists who come to Scotland every year. How are you going to differentiate between the Polish plumber and the Polish tourist? It means, surely, a system of visas. And if you haven’t got a system of visas, then how are you going to deal with . . . you’re going to be telling people we’re going to stop free movement, but you’re not going to introduce visas so free movement will still be there. And you’re also, incidentally, unless you put a border and watchtowers across the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, going to have people coming in across there, because it would then be an EU country and a non-EU country.
VD: Well that, so, so that’s . . . dealing also with (name unclear’s) point about easy . . . I mean, you can just get up and go anywhere in Europe . . .
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I mean, I can leave right now if I wanted to, and just . . .
AM: You can come with me if you want, we can go together (laughter from audience)
VD: But do you I mean, do you . . . (applause and cheering from audience) I haven’t got a visa. (laughter from audience)
8:54:45 Victoria Derbyshire chastised an audience member and ‘shushed’ them when they tried to interject during an Alan Johnson contribution. Although Derbyshire obviously needed to keep a handle on the debate, including of-microphone interjections, she could have picked up the point raised by the audience member herself. Alan Johnson didn’t, as he promised to do, return to the issue of TTIP:
ALAN JOHNSON: I think of all the arguments that the Leave side are putting forward, I think the NHS is the most ludicrous. We’ve had the current chief executive of the NHS and his two predecessors saying, look, the NHS is a tax-based system it’s . . . it’s not a free system, it’s free at the point of use, but it’s paid by taxpayers. If our economy shrinks, the NHS is in trouble . . .
AUDIENCE MEMBER (attempts to interject, but away from mic so words inaudible, judging by Alan Johnson’s response, question was on TTIP)
AJ: And going back to what we were saying earlier . . .
VD (to audience member) Hang on a minute, wait, wait, wait, shhhh. Don’t just shout out. Hang on a minute.
AJ: I’ll tell you about TTIP in a second, but let me just deal with the first question . . .