Yes, the BBC let the public down with their spineless, uninquisitive EU referendum coverage. But this only benefited the Remain campaign, not the Brexiteers, and to suggest otherwise is absurd
Disappointed Remain activist Hugo Dixon takes to the pages of InFacts with with a sullen litany of the many ways in which the (ahem) notoriously eurosceptic television news media supposedly hindered the pro-EU camp’s chances and aided the fact-free Brexiteers at every turn.
The BBC has rightly been criticised for its weak referendum coverage. If the broadcaster had done a better job of challenging interviewees, informing the public and making room for a variety of viewpoints, voters would have had a better chance of sifting fact from fiction. The BBC, after all, dominates our news coverage: 77% of the public use it as a news source, according to Ofcom.
The most common criticism aired against the BBC is one of phoney balance – namely that it gave equal airtime to experts and their opponents’ unsubstantiated bluster. But this is probably not the most serious charge. After all, it would not have been fair to deny the two sides of the referendum equal airtime or to keep off the air campaigners who were telling fibs or spinning fantasy.
However, what the BBC could and should have done was grill its guests more vigorously – and make more space for coverage that didn’t fit into the tired Punch-and-Judy style battle between spokespeople put up by the two official campaigns.
There is a kernel of a sensible point in here. This blog has written numerous times that sensationalist or craven news coverage which merely allows two opposing talking heads to scream at each other without any effort to arbitrate or discern truth is a pox on our journalism – whether it is infecting the US presidential election or the EU referendum in Britain.
Dixon is also admirably on-point when he criticises the media’s reliance on the sanitised, focus-group approved media grids of the two opposing lead campaign groups, effectively suggesting to their viewers that these incompetents and nepotism beneficiaries represented the full spectrum of eurosceptic and pro-European thought:
This wasn’t the BBC’s only failing. It also allowed too much of its coverage to become a Punch-and-Judy style battle between the official campaigns. The broadcaster, of course, had to give a lot of airtime to Vote Leave and Stronger In. But it allowed its coverage to be virtually dictated by their agendas.
I know the Remain side of the story better. Stronger In had a “grid”, on which it set out what stories it wanted to push on particular days and which people it wanted to push those messages. It coordinated this grid closely with Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s director of communications. Indeed, Stronger In was effectively in Number 10’s pocket. It rarely put forward people who weren’t on message with its Project Fear strategy.
The BBC should not have allowed itself to be manipulated in this way, particularly since it was aware of the potential problem. Its guidelines said: “Where there is a range of views or perspectives, that should be reflected appropriately during the campaign.” They went on to say: “The designated Campaign Groups – whilst offering spokespeople to programme-makers and other content producers – cannot dictate who should or who should not appear on BBC output.”
But the broadcaster didn’t do enough to resist the pressure. As a result, Downing Street and its puppets dominated the Remain camp’s share of airtime, and people who wanted to make a positive case for Britain’s involvement were edged out. Even Gordon Brown – who was trying to argue that we should lead Europe, not leave Europe – found it hard to be heard.
While Hugo Dixon’s heart wells over with sympathy for Gordon Brown’s inability to claim his fair share of the limelight, this blog would point to the many independent and non-aligned voices on the Brexit side who struggled to get a hearing of any kind, despite (in some cases) holding media events in the heart of Westminster under the very nose of the establishment.
So on both of these complaints, Dixon is on solid ground. But to go on and suggest that intellectually lazy journalism which impacted the Leave side every bit as much as the Remain campaign somehow decisively swung the outcome of the referendum is to venture into the realm of fantasy.
For every such example, the BBC could presumably come up with a counter-example. But when its senior figures search their souls, do they really think they fulfilled their mission of informing and educating the public well during the referendum? And, if not, what are they going to do about it? How about an independent, public audit of how the BBC fared during the referendum backed up by recommendations on how to do better in future?
The world is not getting any simpler. Hard, honest thinking about how to cover often very complicated questions could stand the BBC in good stead. Audiences and license fee payers definitely deserve it.
The underlying assertion, carefully left unsaid, is that these various journalistic failures added up to a succession of “microbiases” which somehow cumulatively tipped the referendum result, and that if only BBC and other television news presenters had challenged guests and demanded more “facts” then the British people would have come to their senses and realised just how star-spangled awesome the European Union really is.
And maybe in an alternative universe that was the case – that there simply weren’t enough highly credentialed experts, both hysterical and sober, using abundant media platforms to lecture the British people that seeking freedom from the EU would be an unmitigated disaster.
Why oh why were these noble voices, these latter-day Cassandras so cruelly shut out of the national debate, swamped by a relentlessly pro-Brexit television media amplifying the Leave campaign’s monopoly on falsehoods and scaremongering?
But that’s not how I remember the EU referendum campaign.
Hugo Dixon inhabits an interesting parallel universe, and no doubt a comforting one for disappointed Remain campaigners so deeply invested in their failed euro-federalist dream. But it bears no resemblance to the real world, where the plucky, haphazard, incoherent and almost terminally disorganised Leave campaign triumphed against the arrayed forces of the establishment and a television news media which only amplified rather than diminished their influence in support of the status quo.
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There’s a touching piece of revisionism in the instance of specific terminology. ….’Stronger In had a “grid”, on which….’…
Without flippancy, the acronym of the official ‘Remain’ Campaign was most properly ‘BSE’. It was a grouping of letters founded by some of the cleverest people on the planet (so I have learned from resentful Remainers since June – from their assertions of just how thick ‘Leave’ voters really are). It wasn’t forced on them, or selected involuntarily by sealed envelope. They wilfully chose it, and then in an act equally crass, declined to acknowledge the stupidity at the start by changing that unfortunate name. Notionally, it’s also interesting that history has so quickly forgotten the ACTUAL official leader of the official Remain Campaign?)
Just as an extremely limited example I’ve posted previously, there’s this interview on Channel Four News in which Matt Frei at one point quite blatantly (and against the Journalistic code) plants words directly into the mouth of his interviewee – words which are specifically intended to represent a UK EU withdrawal as ‘disastrous’.
The Remain Campaigns* were better organised, already possessed momentum, had greater media exposure nationwide, were better funded, had the fullest support of the Government and establishment mechanisms and large numbers of well-known journalists and commentators and were further advantaged by the propaganda leaflet sent out at the behest of Cameron. Remain Campaigners had half a century of putative assistance from their predecessors, most of whom declined the opportunity to attempt to sell the EU as a positive at any stage. Labour has run in terror from a public debate over the EU for decades and anything they couldn’t ignore was hidden behind nebulous promises of Referendums – Referendums to this day there is no evidence they ever intended to hold. (Gordon Brown? The 2009 European Parliament elections was a Campaign held in Braille and by mime act – they made no public effort to push a positive EU case. That’s the same ‘Gordon Brown’ who didn’t have the courage to sign the Lisbon Treaty in the view of public daylight)
In an act of supreme very cleveryness, Remainers managed to sustain the assertions that anyone who didn’t agree with them was variously a racist, or a bigot or some form of social pariah – just as they had done the decades previously. Effectively declaring that significant tracts of the electorate were little more than sub-human. An act so self-evidently strategically competent and successful, they continue it to this day? Not forgetting the gem that – to paraphrase – ‘People aren’t capable of making a sensible judgement in a Referendum – let’s have another?’
Why would anyone cling to the notion that the electorate listened to the ‘Leave’ Campaign on television or anywhere else for that matter? The Remain Campaign always had access to considerably greater exposure? On the balance of it, it’s more likely the electorate used long-term observation of how the Remain camp was conducting itself; made judgement on the ludicrous official Remain Campaigns and the increasingly alarmist and shrill warnings from the Osborne axis and made their minds up accordingly?
‘Leave’ did not win the Campaign – ‘Remain’ lost it. Through incompetence, complacency, arrogance and cowardice. But above all, it exposed how the cleverest people on the world’s surface carry out an uncanny impersonation of those most stupid. Almost as if it comes naturally?
I would suggest it never even occurred to people such as Dixon that they might have lost the Campaign, and as per the Labour Party with regard to Tony Blair, are incapable of adopting responsibility for the original sin in their own willing complicity. Labour wanted Blair, Remainers wanted Project Apocalypse. They’re saddled with it. Forever.
* (There were several parallel ‘Remain’ Campaigns. Only one of which was the official one – there was also a separate independent Labour Remain Campaign.)
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A masterful summary, Douglas – I agree with every word. You are quite correct to point out that the EU referendum vote was far more squandered by the Remain side than won by the official Leave campaign.
By the official leader of the Remain campaign I assume you mean Will Straw, famous incompetent and nepotism beneficiary extraordinaire? Almost hard to believe that putting the future of the country in the hands of Jack Straw’s drooling idiot son didn’t work out better for the euro-loving mad cows.
An excellent article and a really good comment from Douglas Carter.
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Ta LL, and agreed – Douglas always has some excellent biting analysis at his fingertips.
I should drink heavily in the morning more often then.
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