By Professor Bob Usherwood
VLV members, including me, respect and appreciate the BBC and it was therefore concerning to see so much criticism aimed at the corporation at the VLV Autumn Conference. The subject of the criticism was its coverage of Brexit. The BBC’s Charter demands that such issues ‘are treated with due impartiality in…news and other output dealing with matters of public policy or political or industrial controversy.’ However, many experts believe that its interpretation of this requirement is causing the BBC to frustrate its viewers and listeners.
Alan Rusbridger, former Editor in Chief of The Guardian and Principal of Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford, believes that impartiality is ‘complicated by the way the apparent centre of gravity has been so effectively dragged rightwards by the relentlessly Europhobic newspapers’- a situation now magnified by the newspaper reviews that are integral to rolling news and some current affairs programmes. As a result we hear ‘less from…the rational centre or from the Michael Gove-despised ‘experts’. Entire programmes are so obsessed with the splits within one tribe that other voices…are pushed to the margins or remain unheard.’
For Robert Peston, impartial journalism is about ‘weighing the evidence and saying on the balance of probabilities…this is the truth.’ He argues that the BBC did not do this during the Brexit campaign, but ‘put people on with diametrically opposed views [without giving] viewers and listeners any help in assessing which one was the loony and which one was the genius’. ‘Balance’, as interpreted by the BBC, means that the loony minority are given equal billing with the evidence-based majority.
Professor Chris Grey illustrates how this affects public opinion. He told PMP Magazine: ‘I gave several public talks where audience members believed that the economic evidence was equally split, with as much to be said on one side as the other’. This was despite the vast majority of experts, including economists employed by the Government, predicting that Brexit will be economically damaging. Grey says that: ‘almost all of the factual arguments made by the Leave campaign were untrue…but ‘balance’ required the BBC…to treat them as being as valid as the opposing arguments.’ He argues the BBC should have reported the claim that Brexit would provide £350m a week for the NHS ‘in the same way as it would…report claims that the earth was flat are untrue.’
It is unhelpful to accuse the BBC of deliberate bias but Nick Robinson’s astonishing claim that the Brexit ‘war was over’, the disproportionate amount of airtime given to Nigel Farage, Fiona Bruce’s sloppy knowledge of opinion polls and other matters have led many to question its standpoint. So too has Andrew Neil, a regular host on BBC political programmes, who, echoing the Leave EU founder, Arron Banks, called the journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who helped expose the Cambridge Analytica scandal, a ‘mad cat woman’.
I tend to the view expressed by John Birt that the bias in television journalism is: ‘Not against any particular party or point of view – it is a bias against understanding.’
The BBC’s treatment of Brexit was described by a member at the VLV Conference, as ‘middle brow-semi depth which never allows for a deep investigation of anything’. This is not so much about impartiality as editorial decisions, which nowadays seem to be more concerned with ratings than dealing with issues that matter. Instead of facilitating endless confrontational interviews, the BBC should respect its audiences and not treat them as if they had limited intellectual aspirations.
It should also question audiences and their assumptions. I no longer watch Question Time, which has abandoned promoting serious debate, preferring bear-pit TV which encourages bigots of every persuasion to have their 15 seconds of fame. This probably attracts larger audiences, but it does not help viewers understand complicated issues. Fortunately, Anita Anand who presents Radio 4’s Any Answers, the programme that follows Question Time’s radio predecessor Any Questions, is prepared to courteously discourage factually-challenged contributors.
Competition for ratings also appears to influence the choice of panelists, with ‘colourful characters’ given preference. How else might we explain UKIP being represented, usually by Nigel Farage, ‘on Question Time in…24% of the programmes since 2010, compared with just 7% for the Green Party?’(Grey ibid). To quote from Jeremy Paxman’s MacTaggart Lecture in 2007, broadcasters ‘should spend less time measuring audiences and more time enlightening them’.
Disturbingly, many in the population have been ignored by the BBC’s Brexit coverage. In the referendum, 17,419,742mvoted to leave and 16,141,241 voted to remain. However, although there has been continuous coverage of ‘leavers’, little interest is shown in the nearly 13 million people who did not vote or their reasons for abstaining. This is something worth remembering when the mantra about ‘the will of the people’ is repeated. This is one of several issues that have not been properly examined but there are many others. Further examples can be found in Nick Cohen’s article “How the BBC Lost the Plot on Brexit”, (https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/07/12/how-the-bbc-lost-the-plot-on-brexit/).
When I was growing up, regular access to the BBC, which then radiated public service values, educated me and provided a foundation for citizenship. I still treasure the BBC, but its Brexit coverage indicates that the bad is driving out the good. It seems to have lost confidence in its core values and become confused about how to defend them. As a result viewers and listeners have been denied the opportunity to fully understand one of the most important issues of the day.
Bob Usherwood is a VLV Trustee and former Professor of Librarianship at the University of Sheffield.