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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