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Broadcasters were biased during the EU referendum campaign - but not in the way you think

Conservative voices got more airtime on both sides of the argument. 

Veteran BBC broadcaster John Simpson is the latest high profile journalist to question how the media reported the EU referendum campaign. A number of other senior journalists have suggested that broadcasters allowed both the Leave and Remain camps equal airtime without challenging their exaggerated claims or, as Simpson put it, outright lies. 

James Harding, Head of BBC News, recently rejected these charges. He argued its editorial rules about “due impartiality” and “broad balance” allowed journalists plenty of freedom to make judgements about the relative merits of campaign claims and, where appropriate, challenge their veracity.

It would be hard not to agree with Harding when considering BBC programmes such as Newsnight and The Daily Politics, or its fact checking service, Reality Check. Journalists such as Andrew Neil regularly questioned both sides. Experts like Antony Reuben unpicked the statistical claims of the Leave and Remain campaigners.

But these news formats attract relatively small audiences, and cater to the most politically engaged section of the electorate. On all channels, the flagship evening bulletins have far more reach and influence, attracting millions of viewers and representing the gold standard of news output.

We examined the main evening bulletins over ten weeks of the EU referendum campaign on Channel 5 (5pm), Channel 4 (7pm), the BBC, ITV and Sky News (10pm). Paradoxically, we found that coverage was both balanced and yet skewed, with a tendency to generate more heat than light when reporting the campaigns. So what does that mean in practice?

The main criticism levelled at broadcasters by journalists – and many others - was their handling of the claims and counter claims of the campaigns. The UK Statistics Authority criticised the Leave campaign for its repeated use of the misleading claim that the UK government sends £350m to the EU every week.

Following our analysis for a BBC Trust commissioned review of statistics in news reporting, we systematically examined every statistical claim made during the ten week campaign – 517 in total – and identified just over one in five were challenged either by a journalist, campaigner or other source. Most of this questioning – 65.2 per cent – was by rival politicians, with 17.6 per cent of statistical claims challenged by journalists. This left little space for more independent sources with expert knowledge to verify claims, or put statistics in context. 

In relying so heavily on campaigners without journalistic arbitration or seeking expert opinion, viewers were often left with little more than a statistical tit-for-tat between rival camps.

As a consequence, broadcasters found it hard to address the democratic deficit of British knowledge of the EU. It is notable that voters complained about the lack of hard information even at a late stage in the campaign. They largely focused instead on the activities of the campaigns, with close to half of the 571 news items we examined primarily about the process of campaigning, such as staged walkabouts, Remain and Leave strategies, or internal party political squabbles.

Our other headline finding is, in our view, equally significant. On the two main issues of the Remain and Leave campaign – the economy and immigration – bulletins were evenly balanced. Similarly, when we compared the appearances of campaigners from Remain and Leave, bulletins exhibited a remarkable degree of even-handiness, with both sides of the campaign given roughly equal billing.

But an imbalance emerges when we look at the party affiliation of campaigners, since 71.2 per cent of political sources were from the Conservative party compared to 18.4 per cent from Labour. This cannot be blamed on Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged reluctance to participate in the campaign. Alan Johnson – who led Labour’s Remain campaign – and many other senior Labour figures tirelessly toured the country. Yet they barely featured in the evening bulletins. Ukip made up 7.6 per cent of sources, leaving just 2.8 per cent for other parties, such as the SNP.

The decision to portray David Cameron and George Osborne as the principle flagbearers for the Remain side meant a focus on the issues closer to Conservative hearts - principally the importance of free trade to the British economy. In marginalising Labour and the SNP, pro-EU membership issues such as safeguarding employment rights fell down the agenda.

This interpretation of “due impartiality” was, in this sense, both even-handed and one-sided. The Leave and Remain camps received equal time, but we ended up with an argument that privileged Conservative arguments on both sides. This did not reflect the spirit of, for example, the BBC’s specific EU guidelines, which encouraged journalists to find a “‘broad balance’ of arguments and not necessarily between the designated Campaign Groups”).

This imbalance was particularly acute on the Remain side, since most parties on the centre – left – Labour, the SNP, Plaid and the Greens – were pro-Remain. Their comparative absence from the broadcast coverage was a significant handicap in Remain’s ability to appeal to traditional Labour areas.

It is easy to be critical in hindsight. Broadcasters, after all, made efforts to be impartial in a way much of the press coverage did not. But there are lessons to be learned here for the months of Brexit negotiations ahead: we need more analysis and less tit-for tat, and we need a fairer a more wide-ranging debate with right and left more evenly represented.

Dr. Stephen Cushion is the director of MA in Political Communication at Cardiff University. Professor Justin Lewis is dean of research for the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Cardiff University. 

 

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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