The week commencing 27th March 2017 sees a brace of starting pistols being fired; the UK gives notice to the European Union under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and Ofcom is scheduled to finalise how it will regulate the BBC’s impartiality and accuracy when responsibility passes to it from the BBC Trust – the first time an external body has had oversight of what the BBC Director-General,Tony Hall, calls the ‘cornerstone of BBC News’.
Simultaneously Conservative MPs and peers are ramping up their criticism of how the BBC has covered Brexit in the months since the referendum vote. The allegation is that the BBC has been pessimistic and skewed and ‘if politicians and the public don’t view it as an impartial broker, then the future of the BBC will be in doubt’ according to letter signed by more than 60 Tories in parliament. They offered no specific evidence and Tony Hall offered no detailed rebuttal other than to say the BBC will report the news diligently and impartially and ‘we will guard our independence’.
In 2004 the BBC Governors , who judged BBC impartiality in those days, asked an independent panel of outside experts to consider the BBC News coverage of the European Union. In 2005 they got back the most critical of the series of reports they commissioned into impartiality. As in all such reports the outsiders found ‘no deliberate bias’ but this time they did discover ‘a serious problem’ at the BBC;
‘We have found that there is a widespread perception that it suffers from certain forms of cultural and unintentional bias…the result of a combination of factors including an institutional mindset ..sometimes we have found a reluctance to question pro-EU assumptions’.
Listening to a programme on BBC Five Live at about that time I was struck that an interviewer seemed to find it very odd that anybody should argue for leaving the EU. The tone was similar to the one David Cameron struck in 2006 when as Tory Party leader he said ‘UKIP is sort of a bunch of..fruitcakes and loonies and closed racists, mostly’.
The BBC Governors chose not to reply to the report’s suggestion of an ‘institutional mindset’ but announced a series of action points by the management to improve the quality of the coverage. Over the next decade I think it is fair to say the BBC improved both its coverage and its self-awareness of any unintentional bias.
Which gets us to the coverage of the 2016 referendum. This was a deeply stressful experience for the BBC . During the campaign I remember being invited to comment on the coverage but first being asked before the programme which way I intended to vote -something I have never been asked before by a broadcaster. I assume this was for some kind of scoreboard that was being kept of pro and anti Brexit voices on the air. I refused to answer and the BBC backed down.
The view of the BBC coverage by many media observers, perhaps best articulated by Professor Ivor Gaber of Sussex University, was;
‘The problem was that virtually every BBC radio and television news bulletins that I heard or watched contained a format of ‘balanced’ news that was stupefyingly predictable. A claim by the Remain or Leave campaign was automatically contradicted by a rebuttal from the other side. First, it made for tedious listening and viewing, second, it probably left much of the audience confused and third left them vulnerable to simplistic slogans e.g. £350 million going to the EU instead of the NHS’.
From there being a perception that the BBC had an unintentional bias in favour of the EU, the BBC was now accused of inadvertently favouring the Brexiteers. The comparison was made with an ITV interview on the battle-bus which bore the £350m slogan in which Tom Bradby repeatedly challenged and finger-pointed at Boris Johnson, arguing ‘you are driving round the country with a dirty great lie on your bus’.
So what happens for the next two years?
The problem the BBC has, and indeed all the broadcasters signed up to ‘due impartiality’ have, is that as the negotiations with the EU develop their reporters will need to question all sides about the economic implications for the citizens of the UK. The honest answer should often be ‘We don’t really know yet’ but which politician of any persuasion is going to say that. The BBC will turn to its own correspondents who are allowed under BBC editorial guidelines- ‘provide professional judgements, rooted in evidence, but may not express personal views in BBC output, including online’.
Critics on either side will watch out for when they think these ‘professional judgements’ morph into ‘personal views’. David Keighley of news-watch.co.uk noticed Laura Kuenssberg’s BBC 2 documentary ‘Britain’s Biggest Deal’ claiming;
‘as the programme unfolded, there was what amounted to a a torrent of negative observations and questions: were we, she pondered, ‘hurtling along a collision course?’; there was ‘a lot more to worry about than herring or cod’; ‘divorce was messy, breaking up is hard to do’; ‘could the whole deal be derailed before it’s even begun?’
On Sky News on 28th March I debated with Peter Bone, veteran Tory Brexiteer MP, who claimed the BBC was ‘institutionally biased’ against Brexit. I referred back to the 2005 report and the lessons learned in the 2016 referendum and argued that the BBC and other broadcasters were now doing their best in difficult circumstances- asking the right questions to which we all knew there were no simple answers.
Over the next two years we can expect plenty of either ‘It will be fine’ or ‘It will be a disaster’ soundbites from politicians. In truth none will sound much like what the BBC would call ‘professional judgements, rooted in evidence’. That’s just the way it’s going to be.