Jim Murphy: should the BBC be less rigidly neutral when it comes to the EU?

At its purest, impartiality witnesses a house fire and declares it a shame for the property owners but a joy for the fire.

 

I want to suggest something that at first glance many may find strange. At best it may sound counter-intuitive and at worst it might even appear anti-democratic.

I believe that one of the dangers in Britain today is that our broadcast media is often too impartial, especially during this EU referendum campaign. And in a referendum campaign, absolute neutrality lacks integrity and can cause inaccuracy.

Stay with me and I’ll explain why. In a multi-party general election we’ve all got used to broadcasters declaring which party has had the best of the campaign on any given day. It’s the moment on the national 10 O’Clock News when the country gets to find out what you already knew – that your side has had a bloody awful 12 hours.

In its absolute form, however, impartiality declares every event a draw. At its purest it witnesses a house fire and declares it a shame for the property owners but a joy for the fire. And therein lies the difference. It’s a sense of a critical mind that accepts that campaigners’ soundbites have to be reported but also that their assertions have to be interrogated. There are many great broadcast journalists who’ve mastered that art. But it can be difficult when much of the exceptional insight can’t make it on to the flagship news programmes and lives only on broadcasters’ websites.

British broadcasters behave more like many American newspapers while most UK newspapers currently act like American broadcasters. Given the choice, I’d rather have our system of partisan print than theirs of biased broadcasting. Despite that, some will claim that what I’m arguing for is a guaranteed “slippery slope” towards mid-Atlantic broadcasting. I am not. We should avoid at all costs the BBC or ITV mimicking the liberal partisanship of MSNBC, or Sky giving a home to Fox News-style shock-jockery. But in Britain, at present, broadcasters’ understandable desire to appear to favour neither side in a referendum means they risk stumbling into a vapid neutrality.

In a binary referendum, the path of least resistance is for broadcasters to declare most days as a draw. In referendum campaigns of high passions and even loftier claims there are of course days that genuinely end in a stalemate. But those are the minority. Between now and 23 June when we vote on our future in the EU an ethos of thoughtful impartiality would be more democratic than unrelenting neutrality. It’s also important that in an era where self-generated group-think online means that on any big issue there’s a band of “truthers” contentedly unconfronted by the facts. Instead, their instincts are reinforced by the Facebook validation of “everyone’s thinking what I’m thinking”.

In the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, BBC Scotland was the biggest proponent of “on the one hand and on the other” approach of every day is a draw journalism. Perhaps senior staff were guarding the institution of the BBC against the backlash from street nationalism. Whatever their mitigation, they ended up being hobbled by a paranoia about balance.

Shortly before the day of the vote on 14 September 2014, when the bosses of B&Q, Asda and Marks & Spencer joined other retailers to speak out against the costs of breaking up Britain’s single market, it should have been a big moment. Instead, it was reported as another dull draw. The combined views of retailers who have millions of Scottish customers and thousands of Scottish staff were given equivalence to Alex Salmond’s previously unknown and unheralded analysis on the future of retailing. Something similar happened when the SNP asserted that oil would remain at $113 a barrel or that an independent Scotland would be welcomed swiftly back into the EU. For broadcasters in general and BBC Scotland in particular their search for balance trumped their search for truth.

To quote from the BBC guidelines: “The term ‘due’ means that the impartiality must be adequate and appropriate to the output, taking account of the subject and nature of the content . . .”.

It continues: “Due impartiality is often more than a simple matter of ‘balance’ between opposing viewpoints. Equally, it does not require absolute neutrality on every issue or detachment from fundamental democratic principles.” And for the other broadcasters the Ofcom guidelines state “ ‘Due’ is an important qualification to the concept of impartiality.”

Put plainly, it is “balanced” to give airtime to the pro-Remain CBI and the small Brexit organisation called Business for Britain. But despite the complaints of the Brexiteers, it’s not “due impartiality” to imply equivalence. To allow both arguments to be presented with equal weight surrenders not just impartiality but also accuracy.

That “Leave” are relatively friend-free - lacking broad support among experts in business or science, for example - does in itself influence broadcast news. But the corollary is also true. The Remain campaign has quarantined the normal rules of politics by creating the unlikeliest of allies and that also has consequences for broadcasters. George Osborne’s claim that families would be £4,300 poorer outside the EU wasn’t disputed by the temporarily supportive opposition parties. In those circumstances, it’s understandable that broadcasters’ critical minds offer stronger scrutiny of the type that the opposition parties would traditionally offer.

In the name of due impartiality let’s have even more vigorous objectivity and forensic enquiry. It will mean the campaigners and broadcasters having to work harder and smarter. The Remain campaign should relish the challenge. We have both the facts and truth on our side.

Jim Murphy is the former Labour MP for East Renfrewshire and leader of Scottish Labour 2014-15.