The senior scribes of Remain are unhappy with the BBC’s coverage of Brexit. The corporation stands accused, variously, of too little curiosity about the smelly financial underpinnings of the Leave campaign, of ignoring Russian interference, of lazy interviews with the leaders of Tribe Brexit, of insularity (who cares what the bloody foreigners think?) and of too little interest in hard facts (see Alan Rusbridger’s column in these pages last week).
The BBC should be flattered. The Brexit stakes are getting higher and the shouting is getting louder. As politics and journalism become more rancid, the BBC matters more. We own it and we expect its coverage at the very least to provide the running water of the debate, leaving the politicians and the editorials and op-eds in the partisan press to throw in the high-grade stuff – “treachery”, “enemies of the people”, “betrayal” and such like.
The tone and tenor of the recent Remain fusillade against the BBC is characterised by an anxious sorrow – “it’s a great institution gone wrong” – rather than the more abrasive heckling of traditional BBC bashers, who see it as an establishment toady or, alternatively, as a bunch of metropolitan pinkos shorn of patriotism and lacking any empathy with “ordinary Britons”.
Some of the Remain pain dates back to the lead-up to the referendum. The BBC is thought by a great many, not least some around Messrs Cameron and Osborne, to have lost its nerve when faced with a barrage of untruths – the prize specimens being the £350m-a-week whopper and the prospective arrival of all those Turks.
Many Remainers were psychologically poorly equipped to deal with the sheer volume of pro-Brexit voices that erupted on the airwaves in 2016. I was in the room when the BBC Trust approved editorial guidelines for the campaign. The text blandly stated that there should be “broad balance between the arguments” and that “similar levels of coverage should normally be given to each group during the Referendum Period”. It was a yes/no choice, so a 50/50 split between Brexiteers and Remainers for panels and interviews was intuitively fair.
In the pre-referendum era, BBC journalism was largely shaped by the parliamentary maths. During the Major years of Euro-neurosis we knew there was a sizeable chunk of the UK that wanted out of the EU altogether. Yet other than a very small crowd around the Tory MP Bill Cash, nobody in parliament would say so, and not much – not enough – time was given to hearing, and then challenging fairly, what subsequently became “Brexit voices”.
Some see the BBC’s failings through the prism of climate change journalism. The argument runs like this: there are established facts about the climate (true) and so Nigel Lawson’s climate-sceptic crowd should be treated as wild outliers; similarly, those economists and politicians who assert a sunny future outside the single market and customs union are so palpably wrong that their input should be calibrated accordingly. But economics is not much like climate science and the analogy is of little use.
This is not to deny that there are problems. Even I, a BBC religionist, have a shopping list of irritations. The BBC (and many others) hugely underestimated the Irish border issue two years ago. And in December, after the Prime Minister had “pulled off” the first-phase Brexit deal, the fact that there was an agreement at all was viewed as such a gripper that its contents – above all on the backstop for Northern Ireland – were not assessed sufficiently.
We know far too little from the BBC about what is going on in Berlin, Paris, Warsaw, Madrid, Rome et al. It was ever thus. There have been attempts around the margins. I recall EuroFile, an unfortunately titled Radio 4 series, 20 years ago, but BBC bosses, me included, never had the stamina to push Continental European perspectives into big-audience programmes.
Most Brexiteers have from the outset asserted that BMW – and thus by lazy inference, Germany – would not stand for any outcome that made it harder to export to the UK (or, à la Boris, claimed that Prosecco producers in northern Italy would revolt if denied easy access to fizz-loving Britons). To test this, Today’s Nick Robinson has had an occasional Europe away day, but the BBC is largely uninterested in the perspectives of European nation states. Westminster does matter, a lot, and is genuinely more exciting and entertaining. No space left.
Some of the vox pop journalism is, even by the low standards of this sort of stuff, cringe-making. Going to Mansfield or Ongar to pick up Brexiteer voter rage in five-second chunks is hopeless. A (doubtless metropolitan) BBC reporter throws these together and you end up with unchallenged banality along the lines of “It’s simple” or “What’s the bloody problem?”. It would be impolite or elitist for the reporter to interject. The BBC should go to Mansfield, but it should speak to people for longer, and broadcast proper journalism even in news bulletins where compression is vital.
As for the stats, the problem was not that the £350m nonsense went unchallenged but that there was, and is, almost no attempt to compare the sum with public spending as a whole or even GDP. So politicians parrot that we are “taking back control of our money” as part of the elevator pitch for Brexit, when the question is: how much money? The answer, even before the rebate of around £80m a week is taken into account, is less than 2 per cent of public expenditure and much less than 1 per cent of GDP.
The BBC has people who are trying to get this stuff right, but there is work to be done. Over to the director general.
Mark Damazer is master of St Peter’s College, Oxford and a former controller of BBC Radio 4
This article appears in the 18 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump-Putin pact