Tons of coverage, few bust-ups and decent ratings: at first glance, the broadcasters have reason to be pleased with their coverage of the EU referendum. The BBC and ITV have discovered that having current affairs in their peak schedules can bring good audiences: more than four million people tuned in to watch ITV’s debate between David Cameron and Nigel Farage, beating all other channels. The masterly older interviewers, such as the BBC’s Andrew Neil, have been supplemented by the blossoming talent of Faisal Islam on Sky News. The longer-form programmes on all channels have been illuminating; online coverage has added depth; and radio is, as usual, the more intelligent medium.
For a close-run campaign, public rows between politicians and broadcasters have been scarce. There was a skirmish between ITV and Vote Leave about the prominence of Farage, and Alan Johnson wrote to news editors about the underplaying of Labour’s case. But the big issue – impartiality – doesn’t seem to have been contested with any vigour. London broadcasters have always been more comfortable with a Europhile sensibility but nobody has argued convincingly that there is any cultural bias in the coverage of this referendum. Indeed, the problem for some Remain zealots has been that the BBC has been too impartial, allowing Leave exponents equal airtime to make their case.
Yet we are left with a campaign that has been sour and tawdry and it would be wrong to exempt the broadcasters from some responsibility for that. Much of the blame rests with the politicians for failing to articulate the seriousness of the biggest national decision in 41 years but the practices of television news have confirmed, rather than challenged, that failure. Reporters have largely approached the EU debate as something that is inordinately complicated and confusing to voters because the two sides argue different cases. This is compounded by an assumption that it is now about lies on both sides. The BBC recently published a blog titled “Pants on fire!” by its political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, that begins: “For voters who are only just tuning in to the EU referendum debate they might take one look and tune out again.” She writes that what they might see is “one side accusing the other of being a bunch of liars who you wouldn’t trust to feed your cat, the other side claiming the others include bitter has-beens and a load of sneering patricians”.
Though some politicians have made long, well-argued speeches about the EU, correspondents on all channels are more interested in political tactics than policy. They love looking at the referendum debate through the prism of a future leadership contest. Robert Peston on ITV used the announcement of the teams for the first television debate to ruminate about the career prospects of Amber Rudd and Angela Eagle, and the BBC’s John Pienaar claimed, “The EU referendum campaign is looking more each day like a ‘blue-on-blue’ political knife fight.”
The point is that bulletin editors and reporters choose what they put in the flagship programmes that are watched by millions. The packaging of the TV debates illustrates some of the decisions they make. So far, the audiences have been relatively good-tempered but the interrogation is invariably described as “hostile”. A student who criticised the Prime Minister as “waffling” was elevated to the status of a national seer; segments that discuss policy are ditched in favour of having as many “zingers” as possible in the News at Ten.
A senior presenter is despairing about the daily agenda: “Balance has too often been taken to mean broadcasting televised press releases . . . Instead of standing back and assessing arguments, we have been broadcasting he says/she says campaign pieces, which rarely shed any light on anything.” The visit of John Major and Tony Blair to Northern Ireland was covered in this way, with the Brexiteer Northern Ireland First Minister shown attacking the former prime ministers for speaking at all, rather than for what they said. It was portrayed as a banal row. As a voter, if you wanted to know what role the EU had played in the Irish peace process, or what the analysis might be of the risks ahead, you were given no clues.
But there was time in the bulletins to hear from voters reacting to the arguments that we hadn’t been permitted to hear. This fetish for the vox pop too often squeezes out the space for analysis. When JPMorgan announced that it might move 4,000 jobs out of Britain, one peak-time TV package included a clip of the bank; a yah-boo response by Farage; and then interviews with people on Bournemouth Beach about whether they thought it might happen.
What we have are multiple vicious circles. It’s the personal attacks by politicians that are guaranteed to make the TV news, so they are encouraged to make more of them. Correspondents then tut and say that voters are being turned off the campaign. Members of the public are confused about some of the issues and yet the manner in which the stories are presented misses opportunities to enlighten them – and they are then rebroadcast to themselves, saying that it is too difficult to make a considered decision. Instead of broadcasters focusing on Britain’s role in the world, too much energy is spent on hypotheticals about Cameron’s or Corbyn’s leadership, thus showing that no lessons have been learned from the general election “hung parliament” fiasco.
Around the time of the last Europe referendum in 1975, John Birt published an article about the “bias against understanding” in TV news. Four decades on, the battle needs to be fought again. The sadness is that this is an event which, more than any other, needs persistent and incisive analysis – and it is now too late for that.
Roger Mosey is Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a former BBC executive
This article appears in the 14 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink