Why the BBC is getting its Brexit coverage wrong

Neutrality should not deny the proper function of journalism – to create an informed public.

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Suppose, just suppose, that Brexit turns out to be a foreign policy catastrophe as great as Suez or Iraq. In the inevitable post-mortems people are bound to ask about the media’s role in informing – or misinforming – the public. It will be a defining test case of the media’s duty to create an informed public capable of making choices in their own – and the national – interest.

We know about Fleet Street. We know that for years, even decades, several of the most influential and biggest-selling newspapers conditioned their readers to believe nothing good about Europe. There was no acknowledgement that – as is now apparent to all but the most fanatical – a decision to sever ties with the European Union would be unimaginably complex and risk-laden. To some editors, this was a matter of faith – and their readers had to be converted.

And then there is the BBC, which is supposed to be all the things that some Fleet Street tabloids are not – sober, serious, factual… and impartial. Yet what does “impartial” mean amid the blundering, fragmented, tortured attempts of the political classes to work out how on Earth to deliver on a referendum result whose meaning – two years later – even the cabinet cannot agree on? Does impartiality require BBC reporters merely to report neutrally on the daily ‘‘he said, she said’’ of a peculiarly odd Westminster debate – including, in effect, two Conservative parties, a not-very-oppositional opposition and a seven-times-not-elected, self-styled political outsider? 

A statement from the Corporation in April made it plain that, “The BBC is no longer reporting on the binary choice which faced the electorate in the referendum but is examining the Brexit negotiations and the impact of Brexit on the UK and the wider world.” On the face of it, that is a reasonable position. Many would argue that it’s not for the BBC to question the apparently settled will of the very people who also pay the licence fee. Imagine the fury if the organisation behaved differently. There would be calls for the BBC’s charter to be ripped up, for the director general to be sacked and for the entire funding basis of the organisation to be scrapped.

That’s exactly what happened during the Suez crisis in 1956, with relentless (and often successful) pressure from the Eden administration to cow the BBC into resentful submission. An analysis of the period found that even Panorama, presented by Richard Dimbleby, was “embarrassingly reduced to skirting round the fundamental issues involved…” Little wonder that Michael Peacock, the programme’s producer, later claimed that Panorama covered Suez “with a degree of neutrality which denied the proper function of journalism”.

In the run-up to the war in Iraq the BBC similarly struggled to find an appropriate balance between “impartiality” and questioning. A thoughtful 2012 book by the current Today presenter Nick Robinson – now sometimes among those in the firing line over Brexit – accepted, in retrospect, concerns that “‘balanced reporting’ can allow those in power too much control over the terms of debate, particularly when there is no division between the leaderships of the governing and opposition parties”.

Robinson went on to concede that “there was not enough… questioning of the underlying premise… The build-up to the invasion of Iraq is the point in my career when I have most regretted not pushing harder and not asking more questions.”

In Robinson’s view, the BBC doctrine of “due impartiality” should, when properly observed, enable his colleagues to “take account of how much support someone has and the evidence underlying his or her arguments before deciding how much coverage he is entitled to. We need to move beyond ‘he said, she said’ and ask ‘what is?’” Neutrality should not, indeed, deny the proper function of journalism.

Is the BBC in danger of making the same mistakes as during the Suez crisis? Is it not precisely failing to ask “what is?” – and, instead, falling back on the “he said, she said” that Nick Robinson so regretted?

Proper journalism would surely proceed from a more solid factual basis than is sometimes evident in the BBC’s output. Some point particular blame at the BBC website, which could be doing a much better job of establishing a reliable, factual counterpoint to the daily tick-tock of political manoeuvring and point-scoring. Old BBC hands point to a 2016 BBC Trust report, which highlighted an institutional weakness in handling statistics, and asked: “Why hasn’t the BBC got someone like [Oxford economist] Andrew Dilnot at its heart? There are not enough facts. They should have blown the £350m [the supposed weekly Brexit windfall for the NHS] out of the water.”

And then there is the question of who gets a voice. “Impartiality” is complicated by the way the apparent centre of gravity has been so effectively dragged rightwards by the relentlessly Europhobic newspapers. People who continue to believe that Brexit is likely to be an economic and foreign policy disaster for the UK are now presented as undemocratic extremists – to be allowed a voice only if repeatedly challenged, and balanced by fervent Brexit hardliners.

We tend to hear less from what we might term the rational centre or from the Michael Gove-despised “experts”. Entire programmes are so obsessed with the splits within one tribe that other voices – including our bewildered European friends – are pushed to the margins or remain unheard.

Where is the national interest in all this? Is the BBC’s leadership resilient enough to assert its duty to exercise the “proper function of journalism” in what it considers to be the national interest? And is the BBC even listening? 

Alan Rusbridger is a former editor-in-chief of the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit farce